Fuzz and Pluck – Splitsville

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— 12-Sep-11

Ted Stern’s Fuzz and Pluck first appeared in the third issue of David Mazzucchelli’s Rubber Blanket in 1993, where it sat uneasily amongst the forward-looking euro-expressionism that Mazzuchelli’s post-superhero penance demanded of him.

Sitting right there, page by jowl with the seminal, serious Big Man, were a plucked chicken and a threadbare ted balefully making their way through a toon world part Kim Deitch, part Doug Allen.

Strange sometimes how much difference context can make. Surrounded by the avant-garde finesse of its Rubber Blanket peers, Fuzz and Pluck’s’ down-home air of old-fashioned funny animal feature seemed nostalgic and perhaps backward-looking and its tone quite at odds with the high-brow bearing of its companion pieces. Rubber Blanket, venerable as many aspects of it were, trod a high-wire that always threatened to tip into pretentious artiness, and Fuzz and Pluck’s’ inclusion threatened to puncture the high seriousness of Rubber Blanket and also the charm of Ted Stern’s work, doing neither party any favours.

The strip appeared again, a more complementary setting this time, in Fantagraphics’ Zero, Zero where, surrounded by the old/new underground types like Bill Griffith and Doug Allen, Fuzz and Pluck – not a strip striving to push the formal boundaries of the medium and all that, but one dedicated to telling an good story well – made a deal more sense.

This is because the very particular row that Stern is hoeing is, as noted by Matt Groening in the back cover blurb to Splitsville, is a more or less traditional funny animals turn. Fuzz and Pluck, teddy bear and chicken respectively, live amongst other talking animals – badgers, hares, alligators, black cats, ducks, etc. – some humans (almost always in a position of authority or paternalism), and the odd (and I mean very odd) vegetable character.

Stern renders this world in a fairly sparse scratchy line, all in black and white, and the end result is folksy, rather than arty. Despite a notable (and desirable) lack of slickness to his style he conveys the world he’s conjuring up with considerable deftness – it’s a world full of carnies and pirates and broken junk, shacks and sideshows and charabancs – and his ability to suggest character and mood is excellent. This is more than equalled by his lovely, humane, dialogue and plotting, which, though it has its darker turns, is characterised by a wistful well-meaning charm that totally elevates the series.

Like so many good comics, the co-mix (thanks A Spiegleman) between the art and the writing is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Surrounded by the high-art leanings of Rubber BlanketFuzz and Pluck could look naïve and unfinished, in Zero Zero and later in Mome (where it is still being serialised) the surrounding styles are more conducive to its foibles, and it stood a better chance of being appreciated. But contained in their own books (first in Fuzz and Pluck, now in Fuzz and Pluck in Splitsville) the characters can, unencumbered by inappropriate comparison to fellow editorial bedmates, create their own sustainable milieu that, without the proximity of other strips, allows you to be drawn into their very self-sufficient world.

In Splitsville, as the name suggests Fuzz, bewildered and well-worn bear, and Pluck, feisty, angry, featherless chicken, are parted from each other following their service at the Lardy’s diner (“Home of the Lard Sandwich”). Fuzz’s devotion to dutiful delivery of said sandwiches and Pluck’s brutal dispatching of rude diners send them on separate paths – Fuzz through a sequence of strange encounters with lost and deluded strangers, and Pluck to The Floating Arena, a touring gladiator spectacle at which he excels.

Though the settings and characters are surreal, Stearn creates a solid, consistent world, ruled by its own internal logic. This feeling of consistency and coherence is underpinned by an underlying respect for how and why the characters are behaving as they are. There is a pathos and sweetness to (nearly) all the characters and their interactions that lends it a melancholy that grounds the whole in a fantastical yet credible experience.


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