The Webcomic Overlook #146: Tiny Kitten Teeth
Submitted by El Santo on December 16, 2010 - 13:42
Not too long ago, a reader took me to task in the comments section of one of my recent reviews. His comment implied that I am easily swayed by pretty pictures. It was as if a cheap, theatrical device blinded me to other deficiencies, which thus led to The Webcomic Overlook handing out inflated ratings.
Now, I could go into some diatribe about how ratings really aren’t that important, and it’s the content of the review that matters, and an opinion is just an opinion…. but, you know, this guy’s onto something. I’m man enough to admit that I like pretty, pretty pictures. And what’s wrong with that? If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be reading comics. I probably would best be spending my time curled up with a book or an audionovel or something where illustrations are not such a key component of storytelling.
That said, even I have my limits. There are times when nice art doesn’t hide deficiencies, but, rather, amplifies them. Case in point: Tiny Kitten Teeth, illustrated by Becky Dreistadt and illustrated by Frank Gibson.
Unsurprisingly, the two creators have solid artistic credentials for people working in webcomics: Ms. Dreistadt is a grad of the Savannah College of Art & Design, while Gibson is a grad from Griffith University in Media Communications. The two, who currently hail from New Zealand, have had their work featured in a few print publications, like the Popgun anthology from Image Comics and Discovered from Top Shelf.
Tiny Kitten Teeth is really two comics rolled into one. Part of the comic centers around a young tiger with the far-too-precious name of Tigerbuttah. Basically, these are single panel entries that run a couple of times a week … or whenever the comic needs loads of filler material.
The plot-centric portion of the comic is about a proper young feline lad named Mewsli. He is very earnest and very naive. He also has a kitty for a pet, a contradiction that confuses even the denizens of the Tiny Kitten Teeth universe. A reference to how Mickey Mouse could have one dog for a friend and another dog for a pet, perhaps?
Mewsli has just recently arrived to Owltown, a tight-knit metropolis built around a liberal arts college. Everyone in town also seems to be somewhere on a sliding scale between loopy to high-strung.
The first thing anyone with functional eyeballs will notice about Tiny Kitten Teeth is its gleefully retro artwork. Ms. Dreistadt’s illustrations are awash in bold colors that pop at the viewer and the playful superfluous asterisks. It’s like it’s the 1950′s all over again! It makes me want to go down to the local diner, order up an ice cream sundae, play some Elvis on the jukebox, and like Ike.
The character designs are simple and loose, and the settings recall the beautiful detail of an matte background from a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. They recall the fun, free-form stuff you’d see in the 50′s and 60′s. The artwork is very much like something you’d see in a children’s book, specifically Little Golden Books. (Incidentally, I wrote this portion in my mind before checking out the site’s “About” page. I pretty much did a fist pump when Dreistadt & Gibson cited Golden Books as an inspiration.) If I were a rich man, I would pretty much pay upwards of a million zillion dollars for Becky Dreistadt to draw all my Christmas cards.
Fun and attractive as it is, though, I don’t think that the artwork of Tiny Kitten Teeth quite works from a storytelling standpoint. The first story is tough to follow. Our very first panel follows Mewsli as he clumsily makes his way to the bus stop. Only … it’s not immediately apparent that that’s what’s happening, is it? Dreistadt seems to be so focused in making the page attractive that several emotion beats do not register. Compare that with the stylistically similar Bugs Bunny cartoons that share the same aesthetic inspiration. Sure, it’s a little bit of an unfair comparison. Bugs has got motion on his side, for one. Voice acting, for two. However, even if you look at the individual frames, you’ll notice that the sight gags are not cluttered to the point where they become irrelevant. They’re simple, clean, pointed … and humorous. In the case of Tiny Kitten Teeth, I don’t feel anything beyond, “Well, it does look pretty.”
Another scene tries to portray a stampede and its old-school 3D inspired aftermath. It’s nice to look it, but I had no idea what was going on the first time I read it — which robs the scene of any sense of impulsiveness.
To be fair to Ms. Dreistadt, I think she herself was aware of this problem, and more recent sight gags are far better paced. I still feel as if the panels are overstuffed, and elements could be eliminated without sacrificing the fundamental style … but they are less cluttered, and the action is at least discernible.
Even when you don’t factor in the art, the stories themselves are fairly trite and frustrating. They try too hard to be whimsical. Rather, Tiny Kitten Teeth feels more of a professor’s cold definition of whimsy, with the driest possible case study provided in the lesson plans.
For example: some time during Tiny Kitten Teeth, we’re introduced to a character named Rapstallion. (Heh, heh…. because he’s a horse, and he wears a backwards cap.) We are more or less informed that he is very annoying. Mewsli whimpers for help after spending some time with him and even goes so far as to tearfully apologizing for his presence. Rapstallion spouts “wacky” nonsequiturs about wanting waffles, looking for his car keys, and pretty much yelling in all-caps all the time. Clearly, he is supposed to be an annoying character.
So why doesn’t this gag work? Because everybody in Tiny Kitten Teeth is no less annoying than Rapstallion. The moment Mewsli arrives in Owltown, he’s pushed around by literally everyone. This includes the “good guys,” which include the deer, the owl, and the beagle guy. (There’s a gag, by the way, where Mewsli can’t remember the names of a couple of the characters. Trust me, when you get to that point, you too will be party to Mewsli’s frustration.) So why save all your exasperation for one guy? Is it because everyone else is so passive-aggressive?
Which doesn’t even factor in my sneaking suspicion that Rapstallion is a pale imitation of Donkey from Shrek.
It’s hard to even sympathize with Mewsli because he’s such a doormat. Every time Mewsli has to do something, it’s always explained away with “Well, he was forced to do it.” Had to go to a party? Forced to do it. Getting stuck with fictional writing as a major? Forced to do it. Ending up in a hazing ritual for a secret society? Forced to do it. I guess it could be a pretty funny running gag if it didn’t feel so … um … forced? It feels like it’s less a joke and more of a narrative cop out.
The whole “Mewsli gets stuck in a party” plot ends with Hootenanny, the owl character, ordering a puppy pal for his dog. How … silly? The one about Mewsli signing up for classes and ending up in a hazing ceremony concludes with a hasty “everything went according to my secret plan” wrap-up. Yeah.
I get that Gibson is trying to retain a loose, absurd vibe throughout the entire webcomic. It’s just that with everything being so forcibly and coldly nonsensical, the story arcs tend to feel highly unsatisfying.
The single-panel Tigerbuttah strips are less essential and far more saccharine by a factor of 10. They sometimes come off as the LOLCats meme, but with incredible art. I think that these strips may actually be better than the main narrative starring Mewsli, if only because there’s no attempt at putting together a plot. They’re all one-panel comics starring Tigerbuttah or, sometimes, a member of the cast. These single panel comics are also all unbearably cute. I mean, look how much Tigerbuttah loves them leaves! Who’s a big boy? You are, arentcha? Yes you are! Yes you are!
But I digress.
It’s way too precious for me. I’m sure these comics appeal to a wide swath of readers out there. I’m thinking cat people. Pre-teen girls. Grandmas. Er… middle-aged Neopets collectors.
After writing this review, I skimmed online to see what others had to say about Tiny Kitten Teeth. A lot of people, it seems, want to love this comic. The art is just so unique and eye-catching. We want to hold this up to other webcomic creators as an example of how to think out of the box. And yet, everyone also seems to admit that the problems in composition and storytelling are impossible to ignore. As in life, being pretty only gets you so far.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)