Nip and Tuck and Tales of the Questor; The Tale of the Swamp Rat; and Lionboy

reviewed by Fred Patten
©2005 Fred Patten

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Nip & Tuck / Questor The Tale of the Swamp Rat Lionboy

Author: Ralph E. Hayes, Jr.
Publisher: RHJunior Productions (South Charleston, WV)

Title: Nip and Tuck, Book 1: The Bare Essentials (Apr 2005)
Trade paperback, 143 pages, USD $15.00

Title Tales of the Questor, Volume One (Apr 2005)
Trade paperback, 223 pages, USD $42.00

Title Tales of the Questor, Volume One B&W (Sep 2005)
Trade paperback, 223 pages, USD $14.99

   Ever since Bill Holbrook started his online-only Kevin & Kell on the Internet in September 1995, hundreds of comic strips of varying quality have been posted by creators on their own websites. Some last for only weeks or months as they prove to be more work than their creators can handle, while others have been appearing regularly for years.
   One major disadvantage of online comics as compared to newspaper strips is the lack of easy-to-read book compilations which can be handily shelved in bookcases and carried around to be read anywhere. All the popular newspaper strips seem to have annual book collections, while up until recently there has only been one serious publisher of ‘dead tree’ collections of Internet comic strips (Plan Nine Publishing in High Point, NC), and it has only been able to collect a relatively few titles. Some cartoonists have been making their own CD collections, which are better than nothing but still require a computer to read the strips, one click at a time. Fortunately, recent electronic print-on-demand technology has resulted in new companies, notably CaféPress and, which now enable online cartoonists to print their own book collections of their strips.
   Ralph Hayes, a prolific cartoonist of three of the best Internet strips (and the publisher of an annual CD collection of all three), has just published his own first book collections of two of these: Nip and Tuck and Tales of the Questor. Anyone who enjoys good comic strips but for whatever reason finds computers inconvenient should get these! Not only are both excellent, they are fine examples of the opposite extremes of comic-strip literature. Nip and Tuck is (usually) a black-&-white three- or four-panel humor strip a la traditional daily newspaper comics, while Tales of the Questor is a full-color, full-page ‘weekly’ adventure strip.
   To digress, advertises itself as not a publisher but a ‘technology company’. It boasts that it enables each creator to publish his/her own book exactly as he/she wants it. In Hayes’ case, this means books without title pages or publication dates, and in the case of the Tales of the Questor color volume, even without any author’s name except in the tiny copyright statements on some pages. This may not bother Hayes’ fans, but it could mystify anyone who discovers these books on their own and wants to know more about when they were published and where they came from.
   Nip and Tuck, Book 1 contains that strip from the first (October 2, 2000) to #382 (January 13, 2005). I have not compared the book and the website strip by strip, but it looks like they are all here except possibly for some of the minor Redneck Rebuttal fillers. This is Hayes’ oldest strip, and the one that shows the most evolution. His art has gone from fussy penmanship full of fine-line shading to an easily flowing, sparse line with computer shading. The only thing missing is the color that a very few strips have on the Internet; but they show up quite well in black-&-white. Most of the book is in a four-daily-strips-per-page format. Hayes’ infrequent full-page strips are enlarged to fill a page by themselves. Book 1 is a mixture of both standalone gag strips and numerous sitcom story sequences.
   The world of Nip and Tuck has evolved through the growth of its cast and their personality developments. It began as Hayes’ attempt to draw an ‘honest’ Hillbilly-community strip. The result is more like a funny-animal modern Dukes of Hazzard than an old-fashioned Li’l Abner or Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. The inhabitants of Malarkey County—the fox boys Nip and Tuck Todd, neighbor Thelma Possum, beaver schoolboy Tagger, obnoxious redneck boar trucker Gus Gunthrie, old dog gasoline station/auto repair shop owner ‘Pop’ and his sexy all-girl employees Sasha (squirrel), Beebee (rabbit), and Janine (mouse)—do begin as caricatures, but over several story sequences they develop realistic individual personalities. Nip is extroverted and loves explosions and attention, while Tuck is more restrained. The strip begins with Tuck as Nip’s straight man; as it grows, Nip leaves home to become a movie stunt man while Tuck stays home to help parents Roy & Lucy with the family farm. What begins as a stereotypical hillbilly exaggerated farce between man-chasing Thelly Possum and girl-shy Tuck Todd gradually turns into a serious romance with the two as very sympathetic lovers. Other characters like Arab convenience-store owner Schlepp (camel), woman’s libber Hortense Lizard and shy Zelda Porcupine, gradually enter the cast.
   The only character who does not develop any is Gilly Gopher, Hayes’ satire of a Bleeding Heart Liberal Democrat who is mindlessly in favor of every exaggerated stereotyped leftist opinion (eliminate crime by outlawing guns, sympathize with the misguided Middle Eastern terrorists, etc). Hayes has fleshed out his other straw-man targets. Hortense Lizard, introduced spouting women’s-lib slogans, has become a feminist who can argue her opinions intelligently, and who has other interests. The Press (newspapers and TV) is originally shown as unanimously condescending Big City intellectuals only interested in Hillbillies to ridicule them; Hayes later brings objective reporters like Miss Minerva (skunk), who is willing to actually investigate and write accurate stories about the Malarkeyites. Only Gilly remains a ‘typical Liberal’ caricature who never notices the disparity between his empty-headed slogans and the reality around him. Gilly can be amusing, but a little of him goes a long way.
   For the record, this is actually the second edition of Nip and Tuck, Book 1. The first edition was published by CaféPress in February 2005, and it was on sale for less than a month before Hayes learned that could print a better version and sell it for less. The edition is re-laid out, larger and much easier to read (‘workbook’ size; 8.5" x 11"), and adds a foreword and some additional art. The CaféPress version may be a rare collectible now, but this edition is definitely the one to get.

   Tales of the Questor is an old-fashioned boys’ adventure fantasy novel set in a land of anthropomorphized raccoons. When it first appeared on the Internet, I would have bet that it would be impossible to collect it in book form because its beautiful computer coloring (many panels have colors that glow as though they were backlit) would have required an Art Book costing at least $75.’s price of $42 may look steep, but when you see the book you will wonder, “How could they publish this for only $42?” For those who cannot afford that much, there is also a black & white edition for only $14.99. But you can believe that the brilliant, delicately shaded coloring is worth the $42.
   This standard book-size (6" x 9") volume contains strips (each a full page) #1 (November 18, 2001) to #223 (April 4, 2005, less than a month before the book’s publication), ending neatly at the conclusion of an adventure. Unlike Nip and Tuck, Tales of the Questor shows little evolution because the art and story are assured and almost perfect from its first page.
   Quentyn is a 14-year-old youth in the raccoons’ village of Freeman Downs, who dreams of becoming a dragon-slaying, evil-avenging questor like in the heroic legends. But there have not been any questors for several hundred years. The post still technically exists but it is considered a bureaucratic anachronism. However, the magic of the annual Choosing Day ceremony will not allow any youths to pledge themselves to a life’s ambition that is not true to their heart’s desire, so Quentyn becomes the first questor in centuries—also Freeman Downs’ first official questor ever.
   To most of the Rac Conans this is a joke, proof of Quentyn’s childish immaturity. But Quentyn is a quiet but stubborn hero in the style of Robert Heinlein’s and Horatio Alger’s Young Adult protagonists—or, to quote Davy Crockett, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead” whether people laugh at you or not. When hostile gator-taur swamp natives kidnap a young girl and their shaman blocks the raccoon magicians’ spells from finding her, Quentyn ‘gets lucky’—actually, he combines a refusal to give up with common sense and a willingness to try imaginative new searching methods.
   Volume One smoothly mixes humor and drama. Low-keyed sequences of Quentyn learning through trial and error how to use his mysteriously unique magic sword, alternate with gripping life-or-death adventures in which it looks like Quentyn, despite his intelligent caution, has gotten into more danger than anyone could possibly survive. Both humor and drama are well-plotted to seem natural and believable, rather than hokey like a bad horror movie. Quentyn is the star but he has a lot of charismatic supporting characters: his supportive farmer father Quinn, his best friends Kestrel and Fennel, his wizard mentor Master Rillcreek, the swampland kitling Nessie with her precocious magic talents, Headmaster Irons of the College of Artifactors, the enthusiastic soothscribe (cub reporter) Emmet, the little shapeshifter bogeyman Squidge, and others.
   Almost more impressive than Quentyn’s adventures is the world of the Rac Cona Daimh which is revealed in small pieces as they fit into the stories. (Hayes has been publishing an extensive ‘Rac Cona Notes’ separately on his annual Super CD collections, proof that he had worked out the background in considerable detail before he started the strip.) How and why the Rac Conans live in a land hidden from humans, surrounded by a magically-maintained protective (but dangerous) swampland; how their magic ‘lux’ works (and why it is not really magic—see Meanwhile, Part I in the middle of the book); the relationship between their seven towns (Freeman Downs is the newest and smallest; Sanctuary City, the capital, is the oldest, largest and most sophisticated); their Sojourner Church; and other details are fascinating in their own right. This works as impressively visually as textually; see Hayes’ panoramic cityscapes of Sanctuary, the intricate interior design of the Rac Conans’ tree-hollowlike rooms, the oppressively humid swamplands, the technical design of the Luftship dirigibles that connect the Seven Villages, the plausible wizardly ‘scientific experiments’ to find out how Quentyn’s ‘impossible’ magic sword works, and plenty more.
   The art is particularly exquisite in full color. As I said above, splurge $42 on the full-color edition if you can possibly afford it; it is worth it. Both Tales of the Questor and Nip and Tuck are labeled as ‘Volume One’, but it took four or five years to accumulate enough strips to fill them; so do not expect their ‘Volume Two’ collections for several more years. Get these now to support the strips as well as to give yourself a treat.

Nip & Tuck / Questor The Tale of the Swamp Rat Lionboy

Cover of the latest edition of SWAMP RAT
Title: The Tale of the Swamp Rat
Author: Carter Crocker
Illustrator: The author
Publisher: Philomel Books/Penguin Young Readers Group (NYC), Sep 2003
ISBN: 0-399-23964-2
Hardcover, 232 pages, USD $16.99

   Crocker’s writing is so beautiful that I am tempted to quote far more than is permissible in quotes for reviews. The setting and dialect are similar to Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but the characterizations and the word-portraits of this swamp-world are closer to Kenneth Grahame’s lyrical descriptions of the English river countryside in The Wind in the Willows.
   Ossie is a swamp rat, orphaned almost as soon as he is born when Mr. Took, a huge rattlesnake, smashes into their nest and eats his parents and siblings. Ossie escapes but he is left alone, wounded and traumatized:

   When he woke again, it was day and a log watched him from the water, through two dark eyes like logs don’t have. Quiet, still, unblinking eyes. Then there was a long flat snout and slowly the rest. It lifted from the swamp, more of it and still more. It was tremendous.
    Ossie had never seen Uncle Will, but it had to be him. This was a thing of legends. As the great alligator moved, the world paused and looked in awe. Insects stopped buzzing and watched. Birds held to their places in the sky and saw it happen. Even clouds did not move. Or that is how it seemed.
    The gator went to a spot not far from Ossie. Big as he was, and he was big as a fallen tree, he moved as simply as a lizard. He stopped now and settled to the ground, with a loud outrush of breath. Ossie felt the earth shake under him.
    The little rat knew that gators eat little rats, but he was too sick to do anything. He smiled. There wasn’t much from the gator, only a grunt, a grumble, and, “How you doin, boy?”
    Ossie looked at him and said nothing.
    “I’m not goin to eat you, if that’s the issue. I’ve had things stuck between my teeth, bigger than you.”
    The little swamp rat took a step back, scared, and the gator saw and he said, “Didn’t mean to spook you, boy.”
    Ossie said nothing.
    “Guess you’re not much for talkin.”
    Ossie looked.
    The gator said, “I got no problem with that.” Then he asked, “You can move, can’t you?”
    Once more, there was no reply.
    “Well, come on then. Follow me.”
    The gator started off down a path and Ossie did not follow. A little farther on, the gator stopped. He settled to the ground and said, “I’m in no hurry. I can wait, patient as a buzzard.” And he waited, patient as a buzzard.
(pgs. 27-28)

   ‘Patient as a buzzard’ is a good simile for the mood and pacing of The Tale of the Swamp Rat. It is not full of action. It is as quiet and leisurely as the current of the water flowing through the swamp:

   The cypress grew tall and thick here. Tangling vines hung everywhere, shining with yellow flowers. The ground was cool and mist flowers bloomed all around. Above, it closed in until the sun was blocked. Only small speckling light found its way to the swamp floor, a red-brown mulch of tree and plant pulp. After a while, they came to what seemed the center of it. Here the treetops held back. The sky was open and pure and the air was cool. A perfect round pond lay under the cypress. Its water was coppery and deep, not like the moody mud Ossie had known. (pgs. 28-29)

   Its drama is a slow drama. Ossie gradually comes out of his trauma and begins making friends with other young animals to whom Uncle Will the gator introduces him—Gib the owl, Clavis the possum, Philomena and Lodemia the quail sisters, a mouse-child known only as the mouse, and others including a girl-rat, Emma. But an orphaned youngster has a hard time of it. A drought develops, a bad one; the swamp drying up, soft mud becoming hard clay, edible plants turning to brittle stalks. Panic begins to form in the swamp community. Some animals including Uncle Will and the Preacher, a kindly old blue heron, try to keep everyone calm and reasonable. But an Ironhead Stork, the self-appointed Prophet Bubba, starts laying blame right and left:

   Bubba went on, “There’d be water ever’where weren’t it not for the gopher turtle!”
   He explained. “The gophers have dug too many burrows. The water is drainin into their holes. The whole blasted swamp is drainin into their holes! Y’all shoulda seen this by now! I oughtn’t to have to tell y’all this!” (pg. 103)

   Bubba persuades most of the animals that the way to refill the swamp is to kick all the gopher turtles out of their homes and fill them up. When that doesn’t work; well, the animals must’ve just overlooked some of the turtle holes. It’s not Bubba’s fault if the animals are too incompetent to find all the turtle holes! But one scapegoat isn’t enough, especially after all the turtles are driven out but the drought still keeps getting worse. And when Ossie begins proposing an alternative to Bubba’s wild orders, demonstrating that he is not caught up in Bubba’s self-important “Listen to me!” oratory, he promotes himself to the top of Bubba’s list for his next scapegoat…
   So there is a story, but it’s like the story is broken into chunks and dropped into the descriptions of the swamp. And the descriptions of the swamp are so spellcasting that you almost wish there wasn’t a story to interrupt them.

   Every sunset has its sound. Folk stop to watch sunsets, that’s true, but they almost never listen. And that’s too bad. In the swamp, a setting sun is a glorious noise.
   They’re different, each one. They begin as the sun sinks to deep orange, yellow, red. That’s when most of the big birds head for the roosts and there’s a sound worth hearing. The night-birds take their place and it’s a whole other sound.
   Then it’s First Dark, when the sun is gone and the moon is there, but it isn’t day and it isn’t night. Some of the bugs shut down, others get started. At True Dark, frogs begin their Evening Song.
   These are some things you’ll hear. If you listen hard, you’ll hear the water hurry faster in the cool dark. You might hear night orchids open. You might hear a lot of things. It’s like that, our sun, setting.
(pgs. 31-32)

   The Tale of the Swamp Rat is published as a Young Readers book. So is The Wind in the Willows for young readers. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is too young for you. It is not too young for anybody.

Nip & Tuck / Questor The Tale of the Swamp Rat Lionboy

Cover of the UK hardcover edition of LIONBOY
Penguin UK hardcover edition
Title: Lionboy
Author: Zizou Corder (aka Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young)
Illustrator: Fred van Deelen (illus. & maps)
Publisher: Puffin Books (London), Oct 2003
ISBN: 0-14-138024-1
Hardcover, [v] + 336 pages, UK £12.99

Publisher: Dial Books/Penguin Group (USA) Inc. (NYC), Jan 2004
ISBN: 0-8037-2982-0
Hardcover, 184 pages, USD $21.95

   Some novels excel at action and drama. Others are noted for outstanding characterization. To me, Lionboy (the first of three volumes) is most fascinating for its exotic setting and its writing style. The drama and characterization are certainly fine, but the world into which the reader is plunged is unique.
   At first it seems to be the present. Charlie Ashanti is the young son of a British mother and a Ghanian father, both scientists doing disease research at London University. Charlie watches The Simpsons on TV, plays football with the local kids—but oddities soon make it clear that it is some years in the future and there have been considerable changes, not all pleasant. The currency is dirhams, not pounds. “Ever since the great asthma epidemic of fifteen years before, when so many children fell to wheezing and creaking and coughing all at once that the schools had to close, and the government finally realized it had to act about car pollution, cars had been banned from the housing areas. […] So now most people used electros—little scooters and vans that ran on the electricity from the sun or the windfarms. There was very little oil left (planes couldn’t fly at all, because there was no fuel for them) and very few people had cars with petrol engines.” (British ed., pgs. 23-24) There is a clear distinction between the government and the Empire, not explained in this volume but the Empire does not seem to be today’s British Empire. Electric power is more efficient and everyone seems to have computers and cel phones; but resources are running out, sea levels are rising, and a general collapse of health (serious allergies and susceptibility to diseases) is reaching plague levels. There is much more, gradually revealed in little bits until a Europe emerges that is sometimes appalling, sometimes appealing; a mixture of futuristic and retro-rococo—but lively and always vibrantly described.
   For reasons difficult to summarize without revealing too much, Charlie’s parents have been kidnapped and are being taken across Europe to an unknown destination. The kidnappers are looking for Charlie to use as a hostage to force his parents to work for them. Charlie (whose age is not given but who seems to be between 9 and 12) is trying to follow the kidnappers and his parents across Europe, while simultaneously avoiding capture by either the criminals or by adults who are sure he is too young to be on his own. He is, but he has the advantage of a ‘secret power’: he can speak Cat—he can talk with felines of all species.
   (Ordinarily I am prejudiced against novels that mix science fiction and fantasy as though there is no distinction between them, but Lionboy is so well-written that I greatly enjoyed it despite this. The depiction of a futuristic Europe is plausible SF. Charlie’s ability to ‘speak cat language’ as the result of genetic modification is fantasy since it requires cats to have a language to understand—and they do turn out to be as intelligent in their conversations as any humans.)
   The reader must also accept an extremely Convenient Coincidence. The kidnappers first take Charlie’s parents from London to Paris. Charlie, at a loss as to how to follow them, happens upon a spectacular showboat—Thibaudet’s Royal Floating Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy—on the Thames. “For a start, she was huge: a great tall wide old-fashioned steamer. And not only was she huge, she was crimson. Not a soppy dolly pink, but red like the sun going down on a burning African night, like blood oranges and pomegranate seeds. Where she wasn’t crimson she was gold: the hair of her gorgeous carved figurehead, for example, with its green eyes and sidelong inviting smile, and the carved rims of her many portholes, and the curled leaves and vines carved all over her magnificent stern. She had three masts, a bowsprit, cannons and lifeboats along the decks, and two fine funnels amidships, from which sprang puffs of black exhaust. […] She was heading out to sea under power, catching the ebb tide, but her sails were not yet up. Charlie suddenly wanted, more than anything, to see this amazing craft under canvas, bowling along on the high seas.” (pgs. 44-45) And the circus will be playing in Paris in a few weeks.
   Charlie hopes to persuade the circus’ lions to help him win a job as the lion trainer’s assistant, so he can join the circus as far as Paris. The lions will do so only if he promises to help them escape after they reach Paris. Charlie agrees, although he feels that he will be betraying them; there is a big difference between unlocking a lion cage, and the lions being able to get from Paris back to Africa on their own. But it turns out that the kidnappers have already left Paris travelling south, so Charlie’s journey must coincide with the lions’ at least for a while longer—although if it is hard for a lone boy to travel unnoticed through Europe, it is a hundred times worse with six lions accompanying him.
   A dust-jacket biography and photograph identifies ‘Zazou Corder’ as the pseudonym of Louisa Young (a mature White woman) and Isabel Adomakoh Young (a young Black schoolgirl). Charlie is described numerous times as racially mixed, the child of a loving White woman and a Black man. If the authors have an agenda, it is smoothly integrated into a rousing good story. Another sign of the authors’ storytelling skill is that they make Charlie’s adventure seem suspensefully difficult but plausibly not impossible. He is young and inexperienced, but intelligent and has been trained by his scientist parents to observe and think. “[His mother] always said she couldn’t care less about being a good boy in the ‘doing what you’re told’ sense: she said people often told you to do daft or harmful things, so it was much better to get in the habit of working out for yourself what you should do.” (pg. 18) So it feels believable that such a young boy can go as far as Charlie does by keeping a low profile and using his wits. Even better, the adult lions’ emotional maturity and survival instincts complement Charlie’s juvenile insecurity and naïveté, so each helps the other to succeed where either alone would fail. Lionboy is not a very anthropomorphic novel (humans are certainly the main characters), but the few talking cats and lions stand out as felines with intelligence, rather than acting like ‘humans with animal heads’. They are essential to the plot rather than being colorful but throwaway companions.
   The writing style is snappy and rollicking, such as this description of a minor villain: “Skinny snivelly Sid stopped snickering to think. It was quite hard work for him, thinking. You could tell by the look on his face, as if he badly needed to go to the loo.” (pg. 28) “Skinny snivelly Sid stopped snickering…”—such alliteration reads so naturally that it seems accidental, except that the book is full of such unassuming yet marvelous wordplay.
   There are numerous minor differences between the British and U.S. editions. The British uses “petrol” and “loo” while the U.S. uses “gasoline” and “bathroom”. In the description of the circus ship cited above, the U.S. edition begins “For a start, the ship was huge:…”; it refers to the porthole rims as “sculpted” rather than “carved”, and to “two fine smokestacks amidship” rather than “funnels amidships”. The changes are not great, but considering the number of American readers who have complained about the ‘Americanizing’ of the first couple of Harry Potter novels, those who care may wish to get the British edition of Lionboy.
   Also be warned that Lionboy ends on a cliffhanger. You might suspect this means Lionboy is part of a trilogy, but you would be wrong; like The Lord of the Rings before it, Lionboy is a novel in three volumes. Its companion volumes are Lionboy: The Chase and Lionboy: The Truth, and if these volumes live up to the standard set by the first, they should be worthy additions to any library.

Nip & Tuck / Questor The Tale of the Swamp Rat Lionboy

Anthropomorphic books for review should be sent to Fred Patten, at:
Golden State Colonial Convalescent Hospital, 10830 Oxnard Street, North Hollywood, CA, 91606

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