I recently finished a non-fiction book on a heavy topic and decided I wanted to read something that could serve as a literary palate cleanser. I turned to my stack of unread graphic novels and bound comics collections and picked up Shrimpy and Paul and Friends, by Marc Bell. It seemed like just the thing.
When I first saw Shrimpy and Paul and Friends sitting on a shelf at Giant Robot, I was immediately attracted by the artwork's playful busyness. I was also drawn to a story described on the back cover as "the Catastrophic Tale of the LOSS of Paul's TWO NIPPLES."
My curiousity stemmed from the unease I've long felt regarding the rumored uselessness of men's nipples. While my friend Joe has disabused me of this widespread belief, I still feel a certain sadness inside when I think of men's nipples. They conjure up the same feeling I might get seeing brown petals falling off a fading rose in the late afternoon sunlight.
Shrimpy and Paul are indeed the stars of this collection of comics, along with a long line of characters--Blimpy, Saul, Taco, Miss Polly, Brosse the Goose, Mushroom Heddy, Sue the Tooth, Kevin, and others--who appear spontaneously as the story requires. I was surprised to read a review in Time Magazine that called out "Bell's sure hand at story structure." I bet these stories' structure came less from the author's sure hand than from whatever drugs may have been available to him at the moment.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's several well done episodes that capture a druggy feel, like when Paul lies down on the floor on his back and pretends the ceiling is the floor, or when a creature called the Ib-Ub gives birth to tiny versions of itself that obsessively build towers over every inch of Paul and Shrimpy's apartment. In general, the stories wander and weave in aimless reverie.
What gives life to the stories is the dynamic between the two main characters, the kind and helpful Paul, and his friend and apartment-mate, the charismatic and chaos-inducing Shrimpy. Most of the stories go something like this: Shrimpy does something godawful, and Paul tries to set things right again.
For example, in the case of Paul's lost nipples, Shrimpy steals the nipples while Paul is sleeping. The unforeseen result is that Paul's life force begins to slip away through the holes where his nipples were. Paul's friends must then help corral Paul's soul and replug his nipple holes.
As I read through these adventures, I began to recognize in Shrimpy a familiar type: the friend who is not a friend. Although Paul and Shrimpy spend most of their time together, Shrimpy can never be depended on to act in Paul's interest. In one affecting story, Paul gently tries to persuade Shrimpy not to give away his favorite things. Shrimpy ignores him.
Safely confined to the pages of literature, Shrimpy is nonetheless a fascinating figure. Because Shrimpy doesn't appear to act according to self-interest or any other rationale, his actions carry the allure of mystery. He doesn't care about consequences to himself or anyone else.
I have known many Shrimpys in the past. When I was younger, I would consider at length the pros and cons of their amoral actions. Now that I'm older, I can recognize the profile of a born psychopath more easily and take the appropriate action, namely, to run in the other direction as fast as possible.