In the tradition of naughty French schoolboys such as Goscinny’s Nicolas, Coppee’s Toto, and Clarke’s Cedric, a new anti-hero has arrived—Toby.
Based on a series of popular joke books for French children, this is the first Toby title to debut in the US. Toby narrates some of the typical events in his life, introducing readers to his family, his school, and his friends in a series of brief and humorous vignettes. Toby describes his best friend George “I’m going to tell the truth here, because I respect you too much to lie. George isn’t the sharpest crayon in the box.” Good pal Frank is a little more intellectual, and the two enjoy discussions about living in prehistoric times and lots of other good jokes together. Toby also talks about his parents, who love him but sometimes get exasperated with his grades and other shenanigans, his annoying little sister Zaza, and his success (in his own mind, anyway) on the soccer field.
Serge Bloch is best-known in the US as a picture book illustrator, but he shows his cartooning skill can easily translate to a comic book in a mix of panels and full-page artwork. Spot-art, a variety of fonts, and short stories told in three to six panels are shown against bold backgrounds of orange, black and white. The characters in Toby’s world all have a similar cartoon look—long noses, quickly sketched in large eyes and a scribble of hair, but they lack the traditional style of a French comic, showing more of Bloch’s unique style with bold lines and vivid emotions and humor. Toby’s eyes pop open with delight as he comes up with brilliant plans; his friend George looks sad when his lack of mental ingenuity is disclosed, and his friend Frank’s darker skin is offset by his flyaway glasses and frequently panicked expression. Most of the other characters are basic stick figures with blocky clothes and squiggles for hands which they use to gesture at the appropriate moments.
Like many comics featuring naughty little boys, this is being promoted as a read-alike for popular characters like Wimpy Kid and Big Nate, but I don’t think it’s very similar. The humor in these French characters is very different than their American equivalents. The jokes come mostly from an outsider seeing Toby’s naivety and how he inadvertently torments his parents, siblings, friends, classmates, and teachers with his cheerful indifference to the destruction and mayhem he leaves in his wake. There’s a very different family dynamic as well; whereas the parents of the American characters are seen mostly as attachments to their children, portrayed as embarrassments or impediments to social success, Toby’s parents have their own lives and are largely present as authority figures, when their own shortcomings are pointed out as a joke, or occasionally when they interfere in Toby’s life. Finally, the American equivalents are simply older. They’re interested in potential romance, want to appear cool and sophisticated, and generally suffer from the tragedy of being middle class suburban children. Toby and his friends are much younger; they may be interested in girls but it’s a passing interest at best and while some of their language is more graphic than anything that shows up in a Wimpy Kid book, it’s clear that they’re still innocent kids at heart.
Despite these differences, Toby seems to be a book that might potentially bridge the gap between French and American humor in kids’ comics. The short vignettes and silly stories will attract reluctant readers and the instant humor will hopefully help them tackle the more difficult, small fonts used in the dialogue. School libraries, especially those with a more strait-laced audience, may want to stay away from the French-style humor (some parents will be particularly upset by the lack of consequences for pranks, disobedience, and the casual attitude towards cheating on tests in school). But for those libraries whose readers simply can’t get enough funny comics, this will be a popular choice.
Toby Goes Bananas
by Franck Girard
Art by Serge Bloch
Scholastic Graphix, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 7-10