The cashier at the video store gave me a funny look. She stared at me vacantly, snapping her gum and sizing me up. She cocked an eyebrow, looked down at the DVD I'd just slapped down on the counter and asked, "Underdog?"
I nodded, smiling like a crazy old prospector who'd just hit the mother load. "Yep, it's a cartoon series."
She stared at me, blinking slowly, like cows often do when the things that are happening outside their own limited head spaces are overriding their thought processes. "Uh huh," she responded, cocking her head at an angle and sizing me up again skeptically.
I smiled tightly at her, trying not to think about how the Guernseys out in the field next to our apartment complex stare with rapt attention at the nearby roadway. "Yes," I said quietly. "It was one of my favorites when I was a kid."
A sudden light of understanding crossed her face and she chewed her gum a few times while processing this new bit of information. "Oh, I get it. It's a nostalgia thing."
"Right," I replied. "It's a nostalgia thing." I gathered my receipt and bag, and quickly left.
I gripe about the current nostalgia boom all the time. I hate that the toy market is currently flooded with crappy mass-produced toys, poorly rendered from long-lost images of my favorite cartoon characters. It drives me absolutely insane 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 junk. I hate all of this, but the sad, simple fact is that I understand it.
I understand why utter garbage that I'm actually embarrassed to call comics, 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 messed 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 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 my comics store gave me a funny look. "But you love Micronauts. You're always on about them, about how cool the toys were and how much you miss buying them off the shelf. I've even heard you wishing you'd been a Japanese kid so that you could have bought those…" He fumbled for the word so I filled in the blank for him. "Microman." "Yeah, " He thumped his index finger on the cash wrap a few times for emphasis. "You love all that stuff. 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 badly. I was ready to come over the counter at him and wrap my hands around his swill-merchant's neck. Fortunately, my girlfriend, who'd been pawing through the Indy graphic novels in the hope of finding something she'd missed by Ted Naifeh, and praying to the God of slightly psycho boyfriends that I wouldn't make another scene, chimed in, "What about this one? It's kind of cool, and it looks like Saturday morning cartoons."
My girlfriend, (who is much smarter than I) stepped between me and the cash wrap, and put the book in my hands. At first glance it wasn't all that impressive. The artwork was decent, clean lines but fairly cartoony. The cover was the most obnoxious shade of orange. It didn't look like much, but I have always trusted her judgment. So I bought Where's It At Sugar Kat? The Thin Of The Land and that evening I forgot all about my day spent dealing with the retail elite. 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 100 pages of story. 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 when we were kids and between seven in the morning and one in the afternoon, once every week, we were all transported to other lands. It reminds me of simpler days when all we needed was a television, a good sugar buzz and some milk.
The story succeeds on many levels, just like any good cartoon that we enjoyed when we were kids. On the surface, Carney's plot is classically simple. He introduces us to the Kat sisters. Sugar is a multinational supermodel, 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 overexposure 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 spend a little more time with it 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 has a simple story at its core, and perhaps even a silly one, it's told extremely well and doesn't ever insult your intelligence. 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.
Where's It At, Sugar Kat? The Thin Of The Land Is available on Amazon, and if you like it, you should also try the appropriately named Sugar Buzz. Carney and Phoenix first started their tale of the Kat sisters in this anthology comic, and their other short stories here are similar in style and theme. Sugar Buzz: Live At Budokan and its companion volume, Sugar Buzz: Your Ticket To Happiness both showcase the multi-layered storytelling abilities of these two phenomenal artists. You can get your nostalgia fix without all the requisite baggage, and if you order them from Amazon, you won't even have to think about cows or pushy retail clerks.