by Masahi Tanaka
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1998 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material
Comic books with animal stars are more common than you might expect. Usually these are heavily anthropomorphic with the animals acting essentially like tiny humans. Gon Swimmin' offers an animal comic with a slightly different view. Most of the animals in it act like animals with the exception of the title character.
Gon is a tiny dinosaur that lives in something resembling modern times though no humans or signs of civilization appeared in Gon Swimmin'. Instead Gon encounters different animals in his travels and the animals have to deal with Gon's tough-guy attitude. In this fourth book in the series Gon tries on a turtle shell and joins the migration of baby sea turtles who fall one by one predators, tries to cross a desert with some unfortunate animals, and struts around the savanna with a group of feline cubs.
The stories are completely "silent"; there is no dialog or onomatopoeia. While the later two stories were simple enough that the technique worked fine there was an unusual transition in the first story that left me completely bewildered and without any context. With the art carrying the weight of the story there are some flaws that turn up. On occasion it is difficult to follow the flow of the action and I sometimes had to flip back to make sure I didn't miss something.
On the other side of the art Tanaka draws some spectacular animals. While Gon is clearly cartoony the rest of the cast is drawn almost realistically. The exception is the occasional distortion of their faces to help make them more expressive. It's such slight anthropomorphism that it could easily go completely unnoticed and it brings home the fact that these are stories about animals instead of people.
Even with the weaker storytelling on the part of the art the first story with the turtle migration is by far the best of three in this book. It captures the struggles of the natural world as the number of baby sea turtles dwindle over the course of the story. The second story was the weakest in my view since none of the animals crossing the desert connected with me. On the other hand the final story which might have been the slightest of them in plot was more fun because it just let Gon push his way across Africa.
One thing that I did not like in Gon Swimmin' was that the U.S. publisher added a text introduction to each story that unnecessarily explained the plot. These could have been dropped and it would have improved the book.
After reading Gon Swimmin' I've decided that Gon is not for me. I just didn't find Tanaka's silent storytelling compelling enough to return and Gon himself didn't interest me. Still I can understand why someone might enjoy the series: it's well drawn and has some adorable character designs. If you like cute animal stories then you'll probably have fun with Gon Swimmin'.