You can go for years reading comics and come upon plenty of bizarre works, but at least understand where these are coming from. It’s more rare to hit on one that are more confounding, the ones that make you ask questions like “Where did this come from?” and “Who would do this?”
So it is with Julian Lawrence’s Drippy the Newsboy adaptations of the works of American author Stephen Crane.
Drippy is a newsboy — in fact, he is a water drip, and he inhabits a world of goofy looking animals and goofy looking creatures that you can’t really identify, and then a lot of goofy looking humans, with a retro-comic strip feel like something that might appear alongside the Katzenjammer Kids. It’s a wacky rendering, and on its own, this scenario isn’t very unusual, but add in the devotion to Crane, and that’s where it veers off the rails.
Lawrence’s previous volume in the trilogy, Drippy’s Mama, adapted Crane’s book George’s Mother, a tale of poverty and debauchery that Lawrence transformed into a comedy filled with wacky hijinks that heightened the affectations of the original work. Through its cartoonish delivery, it actually ended up bringing the incidents of Crane’s book into a more sinister place.
In this second volume, The Red Badge of Courage finds its way into Drippy’s life as he goes off to fight in a war with all his pals. Who they are fighting and why they are fighting aren’t so clear, other than the opposite army originates from the Forbidden Zone, in the previous book presented as the wrong side of town where everyone likes to hang out, but here a dangerous cluster of demonic black kewpies that look like evil incarnate if evil incarnate were kind of cute.
For a long stretch, though, the only things Drippy and his fellow soldiers do constant battle with are rumors that there is a battle coming up — or that there isn’t, playing on the Drippy’s paranoia and any clarity he might have in his situation. Under the command of the intensely oblivious and bath-obsessed General Bleeker, the soldiers are lead blindly along until it is too late to make any other choice than to go to battle.
The Red Badge of Courage is renowned for, among other things, its realistic depiction of war, presenting all the ugly and gruesome that could undercut any romance, and The Red Drip of Courage is surprisingly no different. Once the battle begins in earnest, Lawrence’s tone shifts to something more nightmarish and even disturbing. Though managing to maintain laughs, they are aimed at darker corners of the funny bone, and then, sometimes, ignore the funny bone entirely.
It’s a masterful balance, building on what he accomplished so well in Drippy’s Mama, and though it doesn’t tell us anything new — war is figuratively and literally hell — it does remind us of a truth we’ve been struggling with since the dawn of humankind, and that doesn’t change just because it’s being presented from the point of view of a boy with a water drip for a head.
One might mistake the Drippy stories for parody, or even irreverence, but Lawrence is doing a great job of taking Crane’s themes and transforming them into something completely modern and different, while still retaining their core and, therefore, their integrity.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book author living in Massachusetts. Find him online here.