Sidekicks by Dan Santat
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011.
hardcover, 218 pages. juvenile fiction (ages 8-12)
Captain Amazing, hero of Metro City, is so busy catching criminals that he rarely has time for his pets at home. He doesn’t even notice when they develop superpowers of their own.
So when he announces that he needs a sidekick, his dog, hamster, and chameleon each decide to audition. But with each pet determined to win the sidekick position, the biggest battle in Metro City might just be at the Captain’s house.
Then archvillain Dr. Havoc returns to town, and suddenly the Captain’s in serious trouble. Can the warring pets put their squabbles a side? Or is it closed curtains for the Captain? ~publisher’s comments
Am I allowed to call a comic most boys should dig adorable? Because Dan Santat’s Sidekicks is. With the high color, fun actions sequences, accessible artwork, and snickering humor, this Juvenile long comic does everything right. I mean, it even has its heartwarming moments. The nostalgia for our long-lived comic book heroes slips into tights familiar to current Saturday morning fare*, and it works.
The story is familiar to anyone who has had to share the attention of an adult and had to deal with sibling rivalry (in some form). Captain Amazing aka Harry is looking for a sidekick and even though he doesn’t want another pet sidekick, his pets are determined to fill the role and get to spend time with their human. The dog aka Roscoe aka Metal Mutt has a superpower and some training, but the hamster, amusingly named Fluffy, does not and is understandably not as confident as Roscoe. The most recent member of the family, the Chameleon named Shifty, just wants to belong. Doing what he believes family does, he sticks close to Fluffy and tries to help out where he can, like a sidekick would, “I thought maybe you could use a sidekick, you know? Someone to help you out” (45), “We’re family now–we should be looking out for one another…right?” (47). And ultimately, being family is what Sidekicks is all about–being available and acknowledging that each member has value. Don’t worry it is not as cloying as it may sound.
Roscoe/Metal Mutt is allowed to fade from the story a good length of time, as he is not about to help Fluffy become sidekick. And Fluffy needs practice if he is going to audition. Fortunately, he runs into Static Cat aka Manny. This gruff and disenfranchised ex-sidekick has a soft spot. He also proves to be a wise teacher, encouraging Fluffy to use the resources he already has: his small size, his brains, and that plucky courage. The hamster’s lessons are comical and they swiftly carry us into the conflicts that will round out the story. Old nemeses meet (both animal and human) and it will take every one of the sidekicks to save the day.
On his first outing, Fluffy chases down a thieving raccoon only to encounter a trio of hungry street cats. Trapped with Shifty (who had followed him), the two are about to be eaten. “Are there any last requests before you become a late-night snack?” Shifty, clinging to the equally wide-eyed Fluffy answers with “I-I have to pee.” The cats look at one another, “Ugh! I guess we’ll start with the blue one first.” Next frame: a panicked, Fluffy exclaims, “No, No, No! I have to pee too! I–” (38-9)
Santat’s wonderful sense of humor has timing and he captures it image and dialog perfectly. Many of the moments are surprisingly unanticipatory, which makes the laughter all the more pleasurable. What takes Captain Amazing down and helps him feel his age? A peanut allergy. (His mad dashes for the bathroom are hilarious.) The moves between real life and the mask are deftly handled with humor and create a lot of heart in this superhero comic.
The text is used sparingly, thus showcasing the imagery. The illustrations are highly expressive, the settings are cinematic, the use of color and shadow cause the page to practically vibrate with energy. The unexpected can be found in Sidekicks ability to create subtlety. There are sequences played out while attention is drawn elsewhere (i.e. p32-35 : “Later that night”). And while events may be acknowledged the Reader is drawn into the more pressing action. Santat needs to add ingredients to the plot that are meant to actually be tasted later.
Santat’s ability to shift gears from playful, to family drama, or silliness, and into intense peril-filled action seamlessly is something to appreciate. The panels are fitting: whether it be uniform, crooked lines, breaking, or full page with insets, they come off as fluid and are not hard to follow. He uses black pages for night and white for daytime; sounds are captured in thick fonts and vary as they reflect the sound and action. He uses the tools available. Sidekicks is good, clean, and safe.
The panels are noticeably larger in scale which should be brilliant for the younger eyes? and they work really well in that transition from picture book to graphic novel. The length of this long comic also helps in that transition from simple reads to longer chapter books.** Sidekicks is a good read for any gender, aged 8-12. Lovers of the older generation of comics and their heroes will have fun reading this with the young person in their life.
* you will not be surprised to find Santat was behind Disney Channel’s “The Replacements”. there is no doubt, the man knows his audience.
** we counted comics pages toward Natalya’s Reading page tallying goals in early elementary. For this 216 page book we might have said, 108-150 or so? course we didn’t have to argue this out with the teachers, not sure how those work for less avid readers. for Nate though, we felt it important to share our beliefs that comics are not useless/irrelevant; if anything they are good for their inclusion of art literacy as well.
School Library Journal’s “A Fuse 8 Production” blog has this review, and some links. I will go ahead and re-post the links here, but read the review; A preview pdf. A fun behind-the-scenes look at the sketches & art. The trailer is fun, so give it a go.
Dan Santat’s website.