It's A Nostalgia Thing?
The cashier at the video store gave me a funny look. She stared at me, sizing me up. She cocked an eyebrow, looked down at the DVD I'd just slapped on the counter and asked, "Underdog?"
I nodded, "It's a cartoon series."
She stared at me, blinking slowly like cows often do when events happening around them are overriding their thought processes. "Uh huh," she responded, sizing me up again skeptically.
I smiled tightly at her, trying not to think about the Guernseys standing out in the field next to our apartment complex staring with rapt attention at the nearby roadway. "Yes." I said quietly. "It was one of my favorites when I was a kid."
A light of understanding crossed her face. "Oh, I get it. It's a nostalgia thing."
"Right." I replied. I gathered my receipt and bag, and quickly left.
I rail about the current nostalgia boom all the time. I hate that the toy market is currently flooded with shitty mass produced toys, rendered poorly from long lost images of my favorite cartoon characters. It drives me absolutely batshit that comics companies are throwing together poorly written, badly drawn, half-assed attempts to separate me from my money, in the lame hope that I'll fork it over for this drivel. I hate all of this, but the simple fact is that I understand it.
I understand why shit like G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Battle of the Planets, and Masters of the Universe sells and sells well. We all miss certain pieces of our youth and sometimes the driving need to recapture a part of it, any of it, is overpowering. I even understand the retailers' reactions to all this. The comics market has been soft for several years and comics companies will try anything to get people reading again. If it means selling off their souls and every last shred of integrity to the gigantic nostalgia demon, so be it. It's fucked up that it should be this way, and it's depressing. But, just when you think all hope is lost and that everybody grabbing for a slice of the big nostalgia pie is a banking on P.T. Barnum's famous mantra, "A fool and his money are soon parted" being accurate, somebody gets it right.
Flash forward to later in the day. The cashier at the comic store gave me a funny look. "But you love Micronauts. You're always on about them, about how cool they were and how much you miss buying them off the shelf. Why wouldn't you want the new comic book too?"
I stared back at him, blinking slowly and doing a passable impression of the video store clerk earlier that morning. "Look," I said resolutely. "I just can't... okay. I can't support this comic. If it were any good at all I would but... Look, I read your preview copy and it was just... just bad."
He shrugged, "Whatever man. I don't know what's up your ass, but this baby is gonna sell like hotcakes."
My hands were balled into fists, and I was shaking, ready to come over the counter at him. But my girlfriend, who'd been pawing through the Indy graphic novels in the hope of finding something she'd missed by Ted Naifeh, chimed in, "What about this one? This looks like Saturday morning cartoons."
So I bought Where's it at Sugar Kat? and that evening I forgot all about my day spent dealing with retail jackasses. I was transported away, back to a time where the entire world was laid out in front of me for a six-hour stretch every Saturday morning.
Ian Carney and Woodrow Phoenix get it. With Where's it at Sugar Kat? they have distilled the physical essence of Saturday morning cartoons and bottled it up in a 100 page graphic novel. This is nostalgia the way it should be, homage, not hype. They have given us a complete, multi-layered cartoon in the form of a black and white graphic novel. Where's it at Sugar Kat? hearkens back to the days of our youth when between seven in the morning and one in the afternoon, once every week, we were all transported to other lands. It reminds of simpler days when all we needed was a television, a good sugar buzz and some milk. But like any good cartoon we enjoyed when we were kids, the story succeeds on many levels.
On the surface, Carney's plot is classically simple. He introduces us to the Kat sisters. Sugar is a multinational super model, adored by all. Rebecca is her largely ignored twin sister. Sugar is a vapid self involved Barbie Doll who, of course, gets her every wish. Rebecca is a super intelligent private eye who takes on cases that prove too weird for normal investigators. Together they take on an image obsessed town that has been overrun by one of the more disgusting bands of super villains to ever ooze all over the pages of a comic book.
When you read a little deeper though, the story takes on a few new levels of meaning. Sugar is spoiled and not self aware, but very bright in her own way. We are treated to several scenes of Sugar dealing with her agent and proving to us why she is her own cottage industry. Rebecca has a huge chip on her shoulder about Sugar, which prevents her from making friends. It's an intentional over exaggeration of sibling rivalry that makes its point quite clearly. All of this comes to light when Rebecca and Sugar are hired to solve a brewing mystery by Rebecca's pen pal Mimi. The residents of Mimi's hometown are obsessively weight conscious thanks in no small part to Sugar's constant over exposure in the media. This leads the townspeople to strike a bargain with devils for which they pay a terrible price.
Of course all of this gets wrapped up with an ending reminiscent of, "And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you meddling kids."
Woodrow Phoenix's artwork compliments the story perfectly. On the surface it's simple, clear and cartoony. Once you dig a little deeper, though, his fine line rendered black and white drawings are chock full of subtleties. The fact that Sugar is obviously of African-American decent doesn't hit home until you really look at the pictures. The fact that Rebecca is actually quite beautiful when she lets her hair down doesn't really register at first glance. Phoenix puts in all sorts of visual cues, like the little twinkles that surround Sugar whenever she's on camera, or the fact that Rebecca is always lighted from the floor up when she's being intense, and it works.
Ian Carney and Woodrow Phoenix have written a love letter to the late, lamented cultural playground of Saturday morning cartoons. While it is a simple story at its core, and perhaps even a silly one, it is told extremely well and doesn't ever try to be more than it is. Many of the current "nostalgia" titles could take a lesson from the care and craft Carney and Phoenix have put into telling this story, because the result makes something far better than simply reliving childhood memories. Sugar Kat is suitable for children and adults. The action is intense and occasionally kind of gross, but this is the sort of tolerable terror that made cartoons like Scooby Doo or Bullwinkle and Rocky really special.