This hot new dance should become all the rage with comix dorks. "Soapin' Up the Hawg," as it will become known, is just one of the exciting, fun-tastic, utterly absurd delights to be found in the new book, "Shrimpy and Paul and Friends," (Highwater Books; 176pp.; $16.95) by Marc Bell.
Shrimpy, a character who looks like a pig-in-blanket cocktail snack performs "Soapin' Up the Hawg" at the beginning of the short story, "The Mighty Kingdom of Shrimpy-Ub." His motivation for doing so, on a rug in the middle of his living room, remains unspoken, as do the origins of the ritual. His roommate Paul, who has a similar wiener-like shape, but taller and with a nose, lips and pronounced nipples, cocks his eyebrow in bafflement. The dance seems connected to the little Ib-Ubs, tiny four-legged creatures who begin erecting small towers on the floor using the bricks that shoot out of their snout. Thus ensconced in his living-room kingdom, King Shrimpy-Ub demands a Mt. Fuji on his head (with gift shop) and it is done. Forced from his home, Paul must take up arms against King Shrimpy-Ub, who morphs into a Mennonite and declares a "new age of relaxation." All parties then get into the tub of gravy and "chill."
Can you tell that "Shrimpy and Paul" may not be for the Tom Clancy reader in your life? Well, it ought to be. "Shrimpy and Paul" works like a delightful palate refresher of nonsense that sharpens up taste buds long since dulled by greasy, unhealthy fare. Though it makes no conventional sense, "Shrimpy and Paul" is easy to read thanks to Marc Bell's sure hand at story structure. Each of the three main stories (along with the other one-page strips and ephemera that make up this collection) follow a narrative as solid as an Abbott and Costello picture. Shrimpy, the beatific upsetter causes trouble that the straight-man Paul must correct. Thanks to Bell's clarity of storytelling, you never feel lost in the nonsense even when Shrimpy suddenly floats in the air and announces he shall give birth from his knees to twelve tiny Shrimpys, one with a Black Sabbath T-shirt.
"Soapin' Up the Hawg" with Shrimpy and Paul
Only Jim Woodring's world of "Frank" (see TIME.comix review) compares with the holistic comix universe of "Shrimpy and Paul." (A deluxe hardcover, "The Book of Frank," that collects all the disparate Frank stories, is being published this month by Fantagraphics Books.) Both systems operate under their own rules that always remain true to themselves. Woodring's Frank universe has a much darker set of rules. Danger lurks everywhere, with bizarre, often disguised creatures seeking to devour each other. It's a world mostly about karma. Marc Bell's creation has a much lighter tone, but no less intelligence. Enlightenment, prophesy and divinity are all themes played with by Bell, giving the Shrimpy-verse a greater depth than mere random nonsense.
But the central charm of "Shrimpy and Paul" is the humor. Marc Bell fills his world with silly characters like Brosse the Greedy Goose, Mushroom Hed, Shrimpy's brother Blimpy, Taco, a floating, derby-hatted octopus deity who toots out musical notes and many, many more. Bell then crams as many of these characters as he can into these stories, making them teem with life. Little critters run around in the corners of panels just doing their own thing. Kinetic and cute, Bell's art looks like no other, combining silly excess with a clarity of design and arrangement. Occasionally he will even surprise you with a visually daring cutaway-style panel that, for example, shows both the exterior and interior of Paul's nipple, where his brother Saul lives.
Immersing oneself in such a universes as Marc Bell's "Shrimpy and Paul and Friends" is one of narrative art's greatest pleasures. The success of Marvel and DC's superhero franchises owe much to this transcendental escape. But because "Shrimpy and Paul" comes from the mind of a singular artist, it has a more singular vision. Goofy and delightfully baffling, you finish the book like you would come out of a supreme funhouse: dizzy, transcended and collapsed with laughter.
"Shrimpy and Paul and Friends" can be found at superior comic stores and ultra-smart bookstores.