As bleh as high school proved to be, I loved history and civics (screw you, mandatory typing class!) — mainly because I had an absolutely hilarious teacher, whose stupid puns and deep intellect provided a blueprint for my own awkward slide into adulthood. It was his brevity and endless joking that made it easy to digest, say, the history of democracy or the branches of government. Plus, I am pretty sure he let us eat and drink during tests.
It’s that very same approach to such essential issues that rests at the heart of Criminy, the new graphic novel from artist Roger Langridge (Snarked!) and writer Ryan Ferrier (Kennel Block Blues). A 120-page story that explores politics, humanity, and the value of home in perhaps the most delightfully way possible: with adorable and lovable cartoons!
Criminy centers around the titular family: husband and wife Daggum and Ditto, and their brood Nadda, Bitt, and Bobb. One day, their home of Burnswick is overrun by nasty pirates, and so the Criminy clan escapes and heads off to sea. They spend the rest of the book trying to find help to get back to their friends and send the pirates packing. If that seems wildly depressive, just know they all look like adorable (but legally distinct) Disney characters. (Though one resident appears to be a blatant Donald Duck rip-off/homage.)
But amid all that cuteness — which also includes a rhyming narrator and silly words like “pubber” and “niblet sticks” — exists an interesting critique of sorts on government. Specifically, a kind of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”-esque exploration of effective governance. Upon leaving their home, the Criminy family wind land in three wacky locales:
Whalebatross: This is a flying slave ship that sucks the Criminy family up from the waters outside Burnswick. Here, they’re faced with nasty bullies and long lines, where people wait for years at a time for freedom (or just sugar cubes). The Whalebatross is likely a stand-in for anarchy — a bare-bones structure existing to perpetuate itself — or an autocracy, with the ship and its robotic Kapitan holding all the cards. Fortunately, it’s the family’s presence that brings the ship to a halt (remember that for later),at which point the Criminy’s head to…
Isle Bobo: Yet again more forced labor! This living island looks like a troll mixed with Audrey II and traps people in its cavernous belly, where they work day and night to provide the light and energy to keep the island moving and allow the surface-dwelling elite to enjoy life’s splendid treasures. If that isn’t a dictionary definition of oligarchy, then I’ve got a bridge in the Bay Area to sell you. Once more, though, the Criminys help break down this deeply flawed system, this time uniting the haves and have-nots in operating the island and sharing the vast riches.
Slinkle Reef: All good things must come to an end, however, and the Criminy family departs the idyllic Bobo and winds up at Slinkle Reef. Here, they get to enjoy a life of pure excess, where magical dust explosions give people permanent life, which everyone uses to eat and play games. Perhaps the best real-life fit is communism, where everything is done in the interest of the larger community. However, in perhaps best commentary in the whole book, the whole reef only works because of ritualized sacrifice to the monstrous Grimmer Niff. Yet again, the Criminy family puts a stop to this system and everyone on the reef returns to the natural order (which is to say, many of them die after eons and turn to shiny ghosts).
It’s the trip from the reef that eventually lands the Criminys home, and with the help of the Grimmer Niff (she’s a mom of sorts also looking for home; awwww!), the family turns the tide against the pirates and reclaims Burnswick. Not only that, but the Grimmer’s dust turns the island into a lush paradise with tons of fruit and prosperity. Cue happy ending.
You don’t have to be a third-year poly-sci major to see the greater narrative here: no system of government is perfect, and all of them have some of it right (sharing riches, providing basic resources, a regimented social structure, etc.) It’s these elements that matter, but only in a way that serves the most amount of people in a feasible manner. What I took away from that book is that home — a place that you love that you can prosper within — is a complicated idea. We make it more involved with our greed and stupidity and lack of vision. At the end of the day, home is something imperfect that we build, a concept that shifts as we move deeper into the world. Only with those journeys do we make something better for us and those we love.
At the same time, all of what I just said is worthy of immediate dismissal. That’s not to say this isn’t a valid dissection of the book – just that while the content encourages deeper exploration, the creators left things open ended, with little focus on specific, insular messages and more on ideas and themes. Maybe you’ll find your own socio-cultural wellspring to explore. Like, how the book is a parable for modern immigration politics (especially given Trump’s efforts/policies). Or, a grand exploration of, say, human decency and baseline morality. Maybe you’ll just like it for the pretty pictures and delightfully joyous ending (while still managing an effective level of moral realism).
A good book — regardless of the medium — invites the reader to explore ideas as they see fit. An emotionally resonant tale that at the very least entertains and engages the reader’s nougaty core of feeling and reasoning. For me, Criminy is a book about politics and the struggle for equality. And even if you went another direction entirely, we’ll both close this book with a sigh of contentment and a firm ear-to-ear smile. Unless you’re an emotionally-stunted goblin like my high school Spanish teacher, then there’s no help.
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