Fuzz & Pluck: Splitsville, Ted Stearn. Fantagraphics Books. 280pp, $24.99.
In a roundup of new graphic novels published last year, critic Elif Batuman offered an interesting insight about an eminent round-headed kid and his dog:
[T]he hero-in-two-persons arrangement is vestigially present in many cyclically narrated comics. Probably the best-loved example is the duality of Snoopy and Charlie Brown. Snoopy, the romantic “hero,” is variously an attorney, a pulp novelist, an Olympic figure-skater, a Beagle Scout, Flashbeagle, the Lone Beagle, the Flying Ace, a World-Famous Golfer, a World-Famous Surgeon; while Charlie Brown is inescapably ‘the Charlie Browniest’ of all Charlie Browns. Charlie Brown is all talk and worry; Snoopy is all image and imagination.1
In addition to being foils for each other, these characters prompt specific reactions from readers: Snoopy is who we yearn to be, while Charlie Brown is who we are.
The iconic arrangement of this particular pair brings to mind another: the cycle of Fuzz the bear and Pluck the chicken, in which artist Ted Stearn has produced a rich and open-ended narrative driven by the quirks of a much less likable duo.
Fuzz & Pluck: Splitsville is a continuation of the adventures of Stearn’s eponymous heroes, which were first published as a collection in 1999. Their new adventures are framed by the musings of the characters’ guardian angels, who helpfully announce the failings of their earthly counterparts at the very beginning of the book. “If only myself weren’t such a gullible thickhead,” says angel-Fuzz. “Yea,” angel-Pluck continues, “myself suffers from the malady of being a stubborn know-it-all.” From there, we flash to brief origin stories—Fuzz’s as an unwanted teddy bear, Pluck’s as a defeathered egg-farm rooster—and from there to the pair’s current plebian jobs as busboys at Lardy’s (“Home of the Lard Sandwich”). Their picaresque launches from some misadventures in food service, both soon escaping the restaurant entirely.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, Fuzz and Pluck are separated from each other for most of the story, the better to showcase each one’s flaws without the moderating influence of the other. After getting lost delivering a sandwich, Fuzz drifts into the employ of a deranged ferry operator attempting to compete with a bridge. Pluck, meantime, attracts the interest of the Gladiator Entertainment Association (“featuring a variety of creatures in thrilling and desperate games of combat”) after beating up a Lardy’s customer.
Pluck’s violent impulses prove an asset in his new career, and his rise in the world of combat entertainment gives Stearn the opportunity to introduce a number of new friends and enemies (mostly enemies) for the hot-blooded chicken: surrogate thickhead Val the badger, arrogant MVP Punch the rabbit, and rival team managers Glibbia Honey and Sourpuss (the latter a giant mutant lemon). Val and Punch, respectively Pluck’s losingest and winningest teammates, define the poles he must move between, and the challenge is neatly literalized by their positions at the front and back of the little train of platforms Glibbia wheels into the arena before each contest.
Stearn admits an obsession with “dualities, dichotomies, polarities, and double entendres,” and the book is studded with dramatizations of such. For a “funny animal” comic book, the states of happiness and sadness are surprisingly closely tied to the economic poles of wealth and poverty, and the not unrelated category of job performance. Pluck agrees to become a gladiator primarily because of the money involved—the job’s good fit for his aggressive nature is secondary. His less aggressive teammates face firing, poverty, and starvation if they underperform in the arena.
Fuzz, on the other hand, is innocent of economics and seeks the approval of his superiors—Mr. Lardass at Lardy’s and Mr. Victor the ferry operator—before anything else. While this quality makes him a very loyal employee, it also makes him ripe for exploitation in quixotic projects like Mr. Victor’s. “I can’t promise you much in the way of earnings,” the latter warns, “at least not in financial terms.” The pathos of his and Fuzz’s position is made clearest in a very funny scene where the two are reduced to using sheets of toilet paper for ferry tickets.
Images of the disfiguring effects of obsession are also everywhere in the book. Mr. Victor, with his vendetta against the bridge (“that treacherous pile of tar and metal, ready to collapse with the next earthquake or flood fate will throw its way”) is just one example. There’s also the rageaholism of Sourpuss, “a real slavedriver” who has worked his way up from gladiator to team manager. The mutant lemon’s “high acidic content,” Val notes, “made him especially resilient.”
Stearn’s day job is in animation, and his highly kinetic compositions show the influence of that medium. Scenes of physical action frequently break up the panel grid, and the lovingly arranged frenzy of Pluck’s fight scenes recalls the work of cracked animation masters like Bob Clampett and John Kricfalusi. But Stearn is also well rooted in the traditions of print cartooning. His scratchy line and heavy cross-hatching put flesh on the drawn environment’s characters (humans, animals, toys, and science experiments), and anchor them in a world that’s realistic without being very faithfully representational.
Toward the end of the book, Pluck credits fate for reuniting him with Fuzz. “Um . . . who is ‘fate?’” Fuzz asks. “An old friend of mine—” Pluck replies, “who just won’t leave me alone.” Or anyone else really, although no one is innocent either. Just a few pages earlier, the chicken’s guardian angel descends to hector him about the costs of selfish ambition, and the hideously banal truth is that our heroes are propelled by both fate and character. Much of the genius of Splitsville lurks in its ability to present this truth with such artfulness, and with such joy, that its banality is obliterated. I await the next episode.
Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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