If you like Garfield, you won't like this

Review: Richard Short's Klaus.

Klaus
Richard Short
Nobrow, 68pp, £15

Richard Short's Klaus the cat is lazy, prone to cod philosophising, and has four-panel "adventures" with dubious continuity between episodes. But if you dive in expecting something like an even more generic version of Garfield, the blandest of the US gag strips, you're in for a nasty surprise.

While Klaus owes a clear debt to the US comic strip form, it takes their broad structure and then subverts it, creating something altogether weirder. The strip is not unlike Greg Stekelman's Sad Jokes (sample joke: A man walks into a pub. He is an alcoholic whose drink problem is destroying his family.), in being syntactically similar, even identical, to something comforting and familiar, while aiming for an utterly different meaning.

If there's one strip in particular which Klaus is aimed at, it's Charles Schultz's Peanuts. The art — simple black-and-white linework — is similar, and certain visual cues give it away, none more so than Klaus lying on his back on a mound of earth. And Peanuts is less hard to subvert than you might think if your memories of the strip remain tinted with nostalgia. Charlie Brown's existential despair, and the meanderings the strip occasionally fell into in its later years, could have been lifted wholesale and put in Klaus.

Other links are just as evident, though. The Garfield connection shines through — there's only so much variation on the lazy cat theme, and all the variation in the world won't sever that link — as does the weirdness of Tove Jansson's Moomin strips. Short draws his cats, Klaus and Otto, as standard cartoon animals, but things take a turn for the strange at his portrayal of other species. Birds have hands, a dog wears glasses, and weirdest of all are the rats, who are drawn as six-inch high naked people with tails. One particularly bizarre strip (and choosing the oddest ones here is not an easy challenge) involves Otto seeing the rats just a bit too well rendered: their lithe, naked bodies cavorting in the grass for the first two panels (tails still fully present), before switching to the regular viewpoint and showing them running away from his leering eyes. The punchline, delivered by Otto as the last of the rats throws an acorn at him: "Sometimes I'm just overcome by the strength of my visual perception".

The next strip, incidentally, features two moles discussing the fact that a cloud looks like a cloud — "In moles, imagination is governed by reason!" — before "forest spirit" walks behind them into a hole in a tree, and lays in wait, "to feast upon the bounty of unwary travellers". The spirit has Otto's body and a homunculus' face. He is never seen again.

My favourite strip — one of the few with a real conclusion, and one which could, with swapped characters, pass unnoticed in a Peanuts anthology — involves Klaus being repeatedly told he's doing "that condescending look", eventually gazing into a pond and concluding that he must have "condescending features".

Occasionally a string of strips will develop into a proto-storyline, as happens when Klaus hatches an egg or Otto gets taken to court for pushing a rat over with a stick. While they serve to make the book more coherent, though, it's clear they aren't where Short's heart is. The stories generally skip beats, make no sense, and end abruptly.

You may have noticed I've been focusing on Short's influences, on my highs and lows, on the weird strips and the strange turns, and not saying anything, really, about the quality of the actual book. And that's because I honestly don't know. I want to hate it: it makes no sense. Nothing happens. The characters wander around, exchanging words, and then the strip ends. Lather rinse repeat. And yet there's something so charming about the whole thing that I can't bring myself to do so.

The best shortcut might be this: Take a few Peanuts strips. Cut out the last panel, shuffle, and stick them back in in a random order. If the resulting non-sequiturs and aborted jokes leave you feeling bored and uninspired, steer clear of Klaus. But if you still find the greatness of Schultz's creation shines through, if form alone can give you enjoyment, then maybe Klaus might be for you after all.

Photograph: Nobrow Press/Richard Short

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder