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The Complete Mullein Fields Paperback – April 24, 2014
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The characters are not simply humans in animal suits; their "animal" characteristics are factored in, such as how they evolved, but that aspect is not overplayed either. Politics is brought in, but that is not overplayed either, nor is it disingenuous didactic propaganda as politics usually is in comics. Most of the comic's focus is on the stories of the two families, both in how they get along with themselves, with each other, and with the outside world. The comic's New Jersey location is a major factor in the story; there are plenty of jokes about the differences between northern and southern New Jersey, but not so much that it turns off non-New Jersey natives. Another major factor is the heavy encroachment of housing developments and how they affect the town, its residents, and its surroundings. The biggest factor of all, however, is how the children react to their siblings and to their friends and neighbors. They behave and talk like genuine children without being precocious or (excessively) obnoxious, and the adults are credible too.
The series isn't prefect; I could have done without the silly Oleohoff story arc toward the end. But overall this series is a winner that is enjoyable in that it is entertaining without resorting to silliness, exaggeration, or mushiness. Recommended.
Set in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey, The Complete Mullein Fields revolves primarily around the lives of Jerry and Loretta Henner — two grade-school-age sibling foxes, their parents Fred and Maureen, and their young neighbours Penny and Georgia Didelphis — an opossum and raccoon who are inexplicably twin sisters. As the slice-of-life strip evolves over its three-year span, characters such as mayoral candidate Heidi Steike (a middle-age vixen), dubious land developer Peter MacGillacurdy (a fox), and unscrupulous ‘farming czar’ Bill Oleohoff, Sr. and family (all equine) are introduced and subsequently elevated to positions of prominence.
Like Inhuman Relations, Mullein Fields is one of a just a handful of post-twentieth century comic strips that display the earmarks of the classic newspaper comics that peaked during the middle third of the past century. Thus, like all the great ‘traditional’ strips of old, it conveys a strong sense of family, reflects the seasons and their accompanying holidays, and comments with (usually) light humour on the changing times. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the youth of its creator — by my calculations, Hyer clocks in at only 32 years of age.
Walt Kelly is clearly the main influence at work in all of Hyer’s strips, but I think it’s safe to say that the likes of Charles Schulz and Carl Barks can also be detected in varying doses across this collection. Although obviously steeped in the traditions of Kelly and his contemporaries, it should also be pointed out that Mullein Fields is by no means devoid of its post-modernist moments — even in some of the strip’s earliest installments.
As noted, Mullein Fields takes place in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. Given such a setting, I guess one should not be surprised that the destruction of natural habitat in the name of land development and ‘urban sprawl’ is a recurring motif throughout the length and breadth of the book.
The bureaucracy that one associates with over-regulated contemporary life in general is equally represented and well-handled as a theme throughout the collection. Other social themes milked for their humour by Hyer include bullying (increasingly relevant more than a decade later), ‘overscheduled’ schoolchildren, political and corporate corruption, and subliminal advertising.
As the book progresses, the strips grow increasingly stylised but somewhat less detailed. As well, the art often tends to be lighter and rather ‘scratchy’ in appearance in the final installments from late 2005 and early 2006. I’m not sure if this can be attributed to a change in pens and/or brushes around this time, or if there is an alternative explanation. I’m pretty certain Hyer did not switch to a graphics tablet or some other digital means of drawing....
Also noticeable in this latter section of the book is a heightened sense of the ridiculous. There are plenty of fun moments and entertaining story arcs to be found throughout the collection, but when it comes to full-fledged belly laughs, I think Hyer outdoes himself in the latter strips. Take for example the storyline involving Georgia’s metal detector and the inept goings-on at the local fire station. Equally humourous are the strips that focus on the Pickwickian exploits of blundering Bill Oleohoff, Jr. — a sort of ‘Bus-driver Otto’ figure amongst members of the horse family. And when matters with the Oleohoffs get out of hand and Ms. Heidi Steike resorts to prayer, the results would make Bill Cosby jealous.
If there is one story arc that really spoke to me on a personal level, it would have to be that which focuses on young Loretta’s attempt at composing a poem for a school English assignment:
Mr. D. P. Roosevelt,
a senior resident of the
sunbelt, authored a
He condemned the stratagems,
theorems, and serums of
From an editor’s perspective, I can honestly say that this gag poem is no worse than some of the submissions that I had people try and pass off as ghazals in the mid 2000s!
Also memorable is the storyline in which, after a series of strange dreams and a slight memory lapse, Georgia starts doubting the realities of her waking hours. “Could it be that everything I’m seeing right now are mere figments of my imagination?” she asks. These strips conjure up not only Schulz’s Peanuts at its most philosophical, but also A. J. Ayer’s The Problem of Knowledge!
On the downside, there’s no pictorial introduction of characters with corresponding names at the outset of the book (as the early collections of Schulz’s Peanuts and other strips often had), leaving those with no previous knowledge of Mullein Fields to learn to identify characters ‘the hard way’ (which, admittedly, is often the best way).
Similarly, Hyer’s website contains vital information regarding the strip’s evolution that should have been included in the book’s introduction. For example, one learns from said website that the book’s two final strips were written and drawn especially for this collection — eight years after Mullein Fields ended.
As well, there aren’t any four-colour extended ‘Sunday’ strips like one might expect from an artist so steeped in the time-honoured traditions of the US’s classic cartoonists. There are, however, several full-page ‘enlarged’ strips towards the front and back of the collection, so I guess Hyer has covered all the bases (more or less).
Such perceived ‘shortcomings’, however, subtract very little from the enjoyment of this collection overall. The Complete Mullein Fields is easily the best and most entertaining comic-strip collection I’ve read in years. In fact, for my money, Hyer is the only cartoonist under forty working today who may actually be blessed with genius. Bearing this in mind, it seems rather a shame that an extensive Inhuman Relations collection isn't also available. But wait! — according to Hyer’s website, such a project is already in the works; so watch this space....