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Dini & Bone's comic tale of talking armadillos and mushroom bouffants.

Mutant, Texas

The inhabitants of Mutant (formerly: Mystic), Texas are a colorful bunch. Transformed when a roving meteor collided with a satellite and the town’s new nuclear power plant, they comprise a heady mixture of talking cartoon animals and transmogrified humans. Isolated from the rest of the world, their town has remained socially and culturally unchanged since the 1950’s – when cowboy/girl westerns were still a thriving genre and Bob Wills still alive. So it’s no surprise that when 17-year-old Ida Red learns she has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal Texans, she creates the kind of cowgirl outfit that would drive a Tex Avery wolf into eye-popping seizures.
Paul Dini & J. Bone’s Mutant Texas: Tales of Sheriff Ida Red (Oni Press) collects the first four issues of Ida’s comic. An enjoyably cartoony concoction from a writer who has worked on both Animaniacs and Batman Adventures, the series is a throwback to the kind of kid-friendly entertainment that the American comic book industry used to produce in mass quantity but today has been largely abandoned. I see elements of the great early kids comics in this book – Gottfredson’s western Mickey Mouses, Kelly’s Pogo Dell Comics, Stanley’s Little Lulu and, inevitably Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge – but Dini & Bone also put their own personal spin on things.
This first trade collection tells our heroine’s origin. Orphaned at an early age (her parents are killed by a giant snake who, of course, will reappear later) and raised by a wisewoman bear named Tia Oso (“Every epic has one,” we’re told before the story begins), Ida doesn’t come into her own until her friend, the armadillo ant farmer Rollalong Diller, is imperiled by a gang of villainous coyotes. Turns out our teen-aged cowgirl has been gifted with matter manipulation, energy control and the ability to fly short distances. “Looks like I won first prize in the radiation rodeo,” she says once she realizes she’s no longer one of the rare “normal” denizens of this unique desert town. And since the book we’re reading is subtitled “Tales of Sheriff Ida Red,” we know she’ll be using those powers on the side of goodness.
Dini has fun with his wildly transformed population: former tall-drink-of-water Big Beau Lansdale, who’s changed into a big-headed shorty with an unnerving resemblance to Ross Perot; Lansdale’s matronly wife Marjeanne, who has teleportation abilities and a bee-hive hairdo shaped like a mushroom cloud; cactus cowboy Clint Saguaro, a perennial pain to his grousing horse, and Mezcal, a 120-proof beauty with a Kelly-esque pet worm that she leads around on a leash, and more. Yet for all the wild-and-wooly goings on, there’s a tinge of melancholy to the story, too. The town, we learn, has more than its share of abandoned children – normal parents leaving their mutant offspring to be raised by the town – as well as the orphaned Ida. Not everyone is tolerant in this isolated Texas town.
Chief among the not-so-open-minded is Wade Brunt, town sheriff when the story opens. When Rolly the armadillo is kidnapped and sold to a traveling freak show (within the audience: a cartoon Harry Knowles, who authoritatively pronounces the talking armadillo an obvious fake), Brunt seems utterly indifferent to the crime. “Let’s not forget we real people look out for ourselves,” he confides to Ida, just before her powers fully manifest themselves. And when tiny mayor Lansdale complains that his mutant cattle are being stolen, Sheriff Brunt downplays the seriousness of the crime. Even if we didn’t know that Ida’ll be taking his job, we’d quickly suss that Brunt was one of the bad guys.
But if the main plot is one most adult readers – and quite a few kids – will figure out long before the too-trusting townsfolk do, it’s Dini’s tall-tale detail and comic characterization that keep this tale a-hummin’. These aren’t the angst-ridden mutants of Marvel Comics, thankfully; the two characters who regret their transformed state turn out to be the bad guys. The only time we catch our heroine feeling sorry for herself is when she believes she’s not a mutant. You want adolescent self-pity, then wait for the next X-flick.
While Bone’s animation-indebted black-&-white art may not be as consistently full-bodied as the material demands (occasionally, the figures look a bit flattened), he handles his colorful cast and setting with plenty of vim; he makes the mesas and surrounding desert as much a character as the yee-hawing townspeople. This is the kind of story that was born to be told in comics form. And thankfully, there still are publishers out there willing to take a chance on a good ol’ rip-snortin’, cheerfully imaginative funnybook.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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