Boy geniuses never seem to have it easy. Just look at poor Mal. Sure, he might be able to whip up amazing inventions like jetpacks and yum sauce (the only way to make dog food taste like anything other than a meat Cheerio!), but when it comes to wooing the cutest girl at school or staying out of trouble with his mom, he can’t seem to catch a break. Good thing his best friend Chad is always by his side to offer advice and provide support. And, oh, did I mention Chad is a talking dog?!
Mal and Chad, a first graphic novel effort by Stephen McCranie, is jam-packed with the type content sure to make elementary school-age (and even middle school-age) readers salivate. Though girls will likely get a kick out of it, the book is filled with the likes of dodgeball, dinosaurs, and time travel, making it quite clear that boys are the target audience. Mal and Chad also introduces some pretty heady concepts, such as time paradoxes, yet the text and dialogue never become bogged down by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a quick read, making it perfect for those among us whose attention spans may not be exceptionally long.
From the moment I turned to page one, the visuals grabbed me. McCranie’s bold, black-and-white artwork is laid out in an easy-to-follow manner and is absolutely brimming with life. Fans of books like the pre-colorized versions of Jeff Smith’s Bone series will be in for a treat. Mal and Chad may move along at a brisk pace, but it’s to the reader’s advantage to slow down so as to enjoy the subtle details found in the illustrations. I particularly found the character design of Chad to be adorable, yet not so cutesy that it would scare away male readers. I want a best friend like Chad!
Mal and Chad’s narration revolves around Mal trying to complete a school assignment about what career field he wants to pursue when he grows up. However, the storyline mainly serves as a means for McCranie to put our heroes into all manner of wild circumstances, such as shrinking down to microscopic size to explore the kitchen sink or travelling back to prehistoric times. McCranie’s inviting artwork fleshes out these scenarios perfectly, and it made me feel like I was in the midst of the action with Mal and Chad.
However, it was the smaller, offhand moments that actually stood out to me the most. When Mal’s mom declares that Chad, being a dog, is no longer allowed to be fed people food, Mal tries to console his best bud by eating a kernel of dog food to demonstrate that it’s not so bad—only to admit, yep, it’s pretty disgusting. These tender exchanges between friends are the best parts of the book, in my opinion, and thankfully there are plenty of them. They are reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes, and made me think that Mal and Chad would find themselves quite at home in a daily comic strip.
The only major criticism I can level at Mal and Chad is that its overall narration is a little shallow. That is, while the plot may allow for McCranie to put Mal and Chad into a variety of interesting situations, the actual storytelling is a bit hollow. Nevertheless, the book will more than satisfy readers looking for a light, fun, whimsical escape from reality. It’s just that anyone hoping for deeper issues than unrequited elementary school affection should look elsewhere. Still, as the first entry in what is sure to become a series, Mal and Chad does an outstanding job of establishing the characters as well as the universe in which they reside. The book is charmingly illustrated, packed with humorous moments, and simply a lot of fun to read. I’m anxious to see where McCranie takes the young scientific genius and his talking dog next. I’ll make sure to go along for the ride.
Mal and Chad: The Biggest, Bestest Time Ever!
Philomel Books, 2011