I’ve been a fan of John Patrick Green since his Teen Boat! series about a lovelorn teen who turns into a boat at a moment’s notice. (Teen Boat! is a kid-friendly story with snarkier adult subtexts.)
I was hoping for something similar in Hippopotamister, Green’s latest comic aimed towards an early reader crowd. The story chronicles Hippopotamus, a resident at a zoo that has fallen into disrepair. Hippopotamus’s neighbor, Red Panda, leaves the zoo for the outside world and comes back to visit. “Life outside the zoo is great! My job is awesome!” Red Panda says on repeat visits back to the zoo.
One day Hippo asks Red Panda if he can join him on jobs in the outside world, but he must become a Hippopotamister first.
Transforming from an ordinary zoo resident into a human job-ready Hippopotamister appears to be as simple as putting on a hat. Hippopotamister is automatically accepted by the human world because he appears to be wearing the garb that matches the profession he is joining. He also appears capable to do almost any job he tries, from chef to dentist, while the reckless Red Panda is responsible for getting him fired at every job site.
I wish I could explain what Hippo learned about himself or about the human world by living among them, but unfortunately the text doesn’t go this far. I also wish I could see some character development in Hippo’s clumsy, self-centered, and ill-adjusted companion, but the text doesn’t go that far, either. What I do get from this story is a satisfying conclusion that underscores the importance of being yourself, finding your unique talents, and contributing meaningfully to the world.
Green’s simple prose, handwriting-like font, and large images provide this comic with reader-friendly navigation. However, his reliance on muted watercolor tones and aggressive use of shadows gives the piece a murky, muddled feel, especially compared to the brightness of other comics for young readers. Even the most cheerful scenes of the book feel a little tempered because of the color palette.
When I think of Hippopotamister as a picture book instead of as a comic book, I enjoy it more. Green’s inclinations here towards large still images, non-verbal humor, and a preference for a tidy plot over introspection and character growth strike me as more appropriate for a picture book. Had his editor encouraged him to go for full page images over sequential frames and zipped out about 40 unnecessary pages of story, I think I would have been much more thrilled to purchase and recommend this title to readers.
by John Patrick Green
First Second, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: (5+)