Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cardboard Review

 Book talk:  When Mike brings home a cardboard box for his son's birthday the neighborhood kids tease him, but once they find out what the cardboard can make they'll do anything to get their hands on some.  This isn't just any cardboard--things made out of it come to life and can talk, think, and move on their own.  Which is great, until they start thinking that maybe they don't need the humans who made them...

Rocks my socks:  I love the idea for this comic: that a father who can't afford to buy a present for his son's birthday ends up getting him a cardboard box that they use to make a man who comes to life.  Like most golem stories, things get out of hand and soon there's an impending cardboardpocalypse. The story reminds me of Calvin and his cardboard creations and perhaps this modern comic about the fun to be had from an empty cardboard box will spark some creativity in the children reading it.  I also appreciate that they brush on the issue of free will and whether it's all right to make beings to do your bidding without giving them any choice in the matter.  The original cardboard man, Bill, decides that instead of doing chores he wants to get an education (which he achieves, much to my delight, by reading Plato and Star Trek novels.) The artwork is great as well and I enjoyed looking at the depictions of the fantastic things that were created with the cardboard.

Rocks in my socks:  Unfortunately the flesh-and-bone characters might as well be cardboard for all the depth that they have.  The protagonists, Cam and his father Mike, are hardworking but down on their luck and nice to the point of being pushovers.  The antagonist, Marcus, is rich and spoiled with long black hair and fingernails.  He even has an idiotic yes-man sidekick with a physical deformity to match his twisted mind.  Perhaps most worrying is when Marcus justifies his actions by saying "The doctor says I'm bipolar.  It's a genetic problem so my outbursts aren't really my fault" to get Cam's forgiveness, then uses Cam's pity to take advantage of him.  It's never mentioned again so it's not clear if he really is bipolar or if he was lying to get into Cam's house, but either way it's not a sympathetic portrayal of those with the disorder.  It isn't something that should be thrown about carelessly. If you're going to mention it in a story, you should follow up with it more.

Marcus eventually sees the error of his ways when attacked by his own creations and makes a completely unrealistic hairpin turn in personality.  The portrayal of this new Marcus is just as troubling to me as the old Marcus.  I suppose because comics are so visual they are particularly prone to perpetuating stereotypes, but that doesn't means comic creators shouldn't work to avoid it.  The moment Marcus changes his personality he also trims his hair, takes off the nail polish, and his skin magically gains a healthy tan, even though he was regularly depicted as being outside when he was sickly pale and evil so it's not like he was never exposed to the sun before the change of heart. And as everyone knows, boys with long hair and nail polish are not to be trusted so he had to give that up if he was going to be good.

As long as I'm on my soapbox let me talk about the female presence in this comic, or should I say the lack thereof.  First we have Tina, the neighbor who is inexplicably in love with Mike despite his treating her like a jerk.  She bakes cookies when Mike looks down and is ready to drop everything to watch Cam when Mike has to leave.  Once at their house she says "you men live like complete animals" as she notices the gunk on their burners and is quick to clean and cook for them while she's over because the menfolk clearly can't handle that (at least Bill learns how to bake despite being cardboard)  She then uses her feminine wiles and flowery perfume to try and seduce Mike when he gets back, and yells at him because he's not over his dead wife yet.

That brings us to the second female character: the dead mother who is re-created in cardboard and whose only purpose seems to be to tell Mike to move on and date the lovely Tina because "Cam needs a father--and a mother!"  While I appreciate her message of 'move on with your life' I resent the implication that single fathers are incapable of raising a child properly.  After she nags her husband and yells at him to keep fighting to save their son she literally runs away instead of actually, you know trying to save her son herself.  Bill has proven that cardboard characters are more than capable of saving the day and affecting human lives, after all.  But clearly the only thing dead mothers are good for is nagging their husbands and spouting propaganda for 50's-style nuclear families.

Which brings us to the last female character, the one with the smallest role: Marcus's living mother.  Her purpose is to nag Marcus.  She only has a few lines and she speaks almost exclusively in cliches: "Marcus!  How many times have I asked you not to slam your door?!" and "That's no way to talk to your mother!" and "Look at the dark circles under your eyes! Were you up all night again?" and my personal favorite, as her husband helps pull their son out of their collapsing house,  thereby saving his life, she stands back from the action and cries "My beautiful house!"

I don't know what mothers TenNapel has been hanging around but I can tell you that if some monster was trying to eat me even a cardboard simulacrum of my mom wouldn't run away and leave me to its mercy and if I saw a child, even one with no relation to me, pulled from a collapsing building my first concern would not be property damage.   I doubt TenNapel set out with the intention of writing weak female characters or that he has a low opinion of mothers' strength and love of their children, he probably just didn't think about his portrayal of women at all.   Which is why they ended up so sloppy and unrealistic.  But perhaps if reviewers comment on this type of thing instead of just accepting it authors will start to pay more attention and we'll have better female role models for girls who read comics.  I really did enjoy the idea behind this story and I'll look out for TenNapel's next comic, I just hope next time he puts as much careful attention into his characterization as he puts into his beautiful artwork.

Every book its readers:  I think the idea of cardboard creatures coming to life will appeal to a lot of kids and the pacing and imaginative, action-filled artwork is sure to keep them engaged.  Its characterization isn't as strong as its plot, however.  I'd give it to kids grades 4 and up looking for a quick, action-packed comic.


The author has his own website.

The publisher has a page for the book as well.

Source: school library

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel: Buy it or check it out today!

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