Meet eleven year-old Timmy Failure, a scarf-wearing detective and CEO of Total Failure, Inc., the best detective agency in town, probably the state. Perhaps the nation. When not being held captive at school, Timmy spends his free time jet setting across town on the Failuremobile (his mom’s pilfered Segway) with his partner and idiotic best friend, Total the polar bear, taking new cases while trying to make his way in a crazy world that simply doesn’t understand or appreciate him.
Along the way we’ll see our anti-hero meet and interact with the usual cast of familiar friends and foes alike, including the unwilling (and rotund) accessory, the incessant paramour, the shortened female (and potential rival) who-shall-not-be named, the single mother (and her unibrowed new boyfriend), and several others who occassionally pop in long enough to add their two-cents or flavor their specific scenes accordingly.
If you were reading this review of Stephan Pastis’ first book aimed directly at younger readers, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, this is the part where you’d find me performing one of the most shameless acts in the business: intellectual insecurity. You’d read how it effortlessly lives up to the most basic expectations (my kids laughed!), or how it affirms with characters easy to relate to, or about how age-appropriate it is. There isn’t much here to offend anyone, if that’s the criteria you’re operating under.
No, this won’t be one of those reviews aimed at teachers, librarians, and parents looking to swap out yesterday’s Big Thing with tomorrow’s, performing this literary switcheroo with about as much care as changing out toilet paper. For these people, simply meeting the status quo is enough.
I don’t think that’s good enough.
At least not for an artist of his talent. I absolutely love Pearls Before Swine, easily the funniest comic strip out there, and I love books aimed at children just as much. Pastis (despite what he says) is a gifted cartoonist, having spent the last ten-plus years systematically dismantling the rigid inflexibility of the comic world with his acerbic and simply drawn comic panels
Where his comic counterparts, those still in the business anyway, are happy to toss breadcrumbs, Pastis prefers red meat, taking full advantage of his platform to excoriate the stupidity and often insane choices made in today’s society, an area where few are spared and fewer still escape critique. He also isn’t afraid to call out his fellow cartoonists, most of whom gave up the fight long ago to produce sequential art of any consequence or value, other than supplying the bottoms of millions of bird cages with colorful padding. Pastis’ trick, like that of Berkeley Breathed, is to make his scathing attacks palatable to the mainstream by dressing them in innocuous looking animal skins that easily blend in with the other cute critters and generic nonsense.
The landscape of children-centric and YA fiction, like newspaper comics, have become a cesspool of demographically-targeted garbage; popular, yes, but as nourishing as cellophane wrapping. So why would a cartoonist specializing in creative anarchy want to enter this phoney-baloney world at all?
Simple: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff Kinney’ series, which has sold tens of millions of books and including the live-action films, is rumored to be worth over $300+ million dollars, is the obvious inspiration here. Pastis, multiple winner of the National Cartoonists Society for Best Newspaper Strip, has found bestselling success of his own, most recently with the 2011 Pearls collection Larry in Wonderland, so its only natural that he’d want a piece of that sweeter, bigger money pie.
It’s familiar territory for cartoonists, including Berke Breathed (Bloom County) and his library of illustrated tales, Gary Larson (The Far Side) and his There’s a Hair in My Dirt!, and most popular, Charles Schultz’s famous “Happiness Is…” series. More recently Over the Hedge’s Michael Fry has The Odd Squad and even adult-fiction superstars like James Patterson and John Grisham have descended into the genre with aplomb (and from the looks of it, financial success). About the only one that hasn’t is Bill Watterson, who hasn’t seem to have done much of anything since retiring Calvin & Hobbes, but that’s not shocking..
That’s why it’s such a shame that so much of Timmy Failure reads like market-tested product, one carefully designed to appeal to specific demographics and offend as few customers along the way as possible. It feels held back, like there’s a really good story struggling to escape the demographically-pleasing limitations. Surely the man who created Rat, Pig, and the rest can do better than mimeograph Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
In truth, Timmy Failure mimes the Diary books about as much as Pearls mimes Dilbert, taking on familiar characteristics but arranging them differently, with nods to Pastis’ own comic background. Timmy’s relationship with polar bear buddy Total will remind many of Calvin’s with Hobbes, as will many of the characterizations throughout.
At least the artwork is fun. I really enjoy Pastis’ style quite a bit and find his simplistic line drawings a perfect fit for the medium. Longtime Pearls fans already know this through Rat’s various ‘attempts’ to enter the childrens’ book scene by banging out several of his own cautionary tales that seldom end well. What I wouldn’t give for a whole book starring Danny Donkey…
This goes for Timmy, Total, and all the other oddities doodled here. I especially like the way Timmy looks, with his uneven pupils and wild hair, and it’s pretty much impossible to misdraw a cartoon polar bear. There are several illustrated jokes that will probably fly way over the heads of younger readers but keen-eyed adults will catch right away, including a special nod to Say Anything I won’t spoil here.
The text could have used a bit more editing. Pastis writes in an uneven style that can sound flat and forced at times. I know we’re supposed to see this world through Timmy’s shaky narration (complete with misspelled words and his delusions of grandeur) but the sameness robs what might have been a more nuanced and thoughtful story of its power. This is especially evident in the mishandling of the book’s strongest element; Timmy’s relationship with his single mother, whose own struggles are only glimpsed. These are moments that feel genuine and fresh, but the story tends to prefer banality to satire and sweetness, making its most poignant parts feel like those artificial blueberries in discount pancake batter.
I get that Pastis is working within a system here and rules apply, and despite these limitations there are glimpses, however brief, of his true personality and what might have been. We see it in the hardcore classics lovin’ librarian Flo. Or in Frederick “Old Man” Crocus, an educator that lost his tingle for teaching a long time ago. Or the failings of the educational system in general; I can’t imagine any teacher reading this aloud to a full classroom and not recognizing the attack.
Or most of all in how unfathomably clueless and stupid Timmy seems to be. Ultimately, there are no real lessons learned here, no existential growth, or hope that our anti-hero might gain insight from his failing. Pastis even manages to pull a favorite Pearls trick by inserting himself into the story near the end as Timmy’s replacement teacher, the The New Guy. Nice.
I imagine a full-throttle Pastis book for children would be genetically closer to David Sedaris’s sensational Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary than a simple Diary of a Wimpy Kid clone, but something that magical probably won’t happen anytime soon. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is the first of a planned series (naturally) and has enough funny parts to justify recommending it, at least to hardcore Pearls fans, as is better than most of the uninspired filler that passes for kiddie fare. Here’s hoping success will empower Pastis, both creatively and editorially, in future editions and that we’re able to see more of his creative side rather than such an open appeal to his financial one.