Steph Cherrywell’s Pepper Penwell and the Land Creature of Monster Lake is perfectly entitled—not simply because it’s a rather funny title, but also because it indicates the extent and nature of the silliness of her pitch-perfect teen sleuth parody.
When we meet the British school girl detective, she has just cracked the case of how her classmate cheated to win a cross-country race (like many of Pepper’s cases, it involved ice), and it’s one case cracked too many. Because of the chaos she’s caused, her headmaster expels her.
“And just like that, the story of Pepper Penwell, Girl Detective, was at an end!” Pepper narrates. “The story of Pepper Penwell, Girl Spunky Adventurer With Detective Elements, on the other hand—that was just beginning!”
That story sends Pepper to the remote English village of Monster Lake, so named because, as the new head of the town chamber of commerce explains, “the monster lives near it, not in it.”
Pepper is looking for a missing drum majorette, who accepted a free ticket to visit the village—which the suspicious chamber of commerce lady has transformed into a sort of Disney World of monster toursim—and then promptly disappeared.
Some believe the monster, a big swamp creature sort with the blank stare and dangling trunk of Marvel’s Man-Thing, got her. But suspects abound: There’s the wacky couple who run the inn, the band of weekend druids with a camp on the edge of the woods, the mad scientist who bought the local castle and the Catholic priest/monster-slayer.
There’s an almost relentless silliness to the comic, as Cherrywell gives each of the characters rather outrageous quirks to wring gags out of, but it’s a very well-calibrated sort of silliness, which never overpowers the story itself.
That is, as funny and weird as some of the characters and dialogue and flashbacks might be, the plot itself is taken seriously. It’s seriously constructed, seriously executed, and works just as a mystery story of this type should.
Cherrywell, therefore, pulls off the pretty neat trick of parodying Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy types of stories, while also telling one.
She does so with artwork that reflects the same versatility as the verbal bits of the book. The black and white artwork demonstrates a style that has integrated all sorts of different types of design.
Pepper herself is drawn rather manga-esque, as are some of the characters of her own age, but most of the adults are extremely exaggerated, with huge, funny-shaped heads or out-sized forearms or, in several cases, are little more than funny shapes with limbs radiating form them and faces slapped on ‘em.
Cherrywell does cherry-pick some joke shortcuts form manga as well, mostly in terms of character reactions and interactions, but the layouts are Western, and the book moves and reads like a Western comic.
Beyond her clever character design, she fills her backgrounds with funny filigree, particularly in the scenes set in the woods and swamps. There’s therefore a lot in these pages, much of it quite amusing, and all of it extremely well executed.