Writing on the Pages – O Captain Underpants! My Captain! A Tribute

The last Captain Underpants book came out about six months ago.

Yes, that’s three Georges and three Harolds on the side. This series got really complicated. (Source)

First off, for those of you who haven’t been following the series in recent years, let me, a guy two weeks away from being legally able to drink, assure you that this is indeed the twelfth book in the series. Crazy, right? This series may be a staple from the childhood of my generation, the kids born after the Cold War’s end and Kurt Cobain but before 9/11 and mp3s, but it can be easy to forget that this is a staple of the childhood of the generation since. Dav Pilkey’s been writing (riding?) this franchise since freaking 1997. In the time between the defeat of Dr. Diaper and The Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, kids have learned to walk, stumbled through puberty, and graduated.

And all that’s over now. After Pilkey said he’d always planned to write ten, after numerous jokes within the text that this one was the last when it actually wasn’t, it’s really the end. Pilkey confirms it on his website: in the page for The Tyrannical ReTaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000, he states that the one after (Sir Stinks-A-Lot) is “the LAST and FINAL Captain Underpants book (and I really mean it this time).”

(But underneath that he also writes on the subject, “You probably shouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t.”)

I was introduced to the series in 2003 by a friend in my 3rd-grade classroom named Ben, and I was reluctant at first. The series was often featured in Scholastic book flyers – you know, those old leaflets you could use to learn about and buy kids’ books?

The best gift a book-devouring elementary-schooler can get, and it was a gift that kept on giving. Tell me they still do these! (Source)

Anyway, I’d seen these books in the Scholastic flyers … and thought they must be foolish. I distinctly remember telling my mom, “I mean, come on: a talking toilet?” No, I don’t know what was wrong with me.

But Ben suggested I give it a whirl, and he gave me a slightly battered copy of what was then the newest in the series: The Wrath of the Wicked Wedgie Woman. I was hesitant to start out with the fifth epic novel, which is why I’ve always been grateful that every book opens with a handy-dandy comic summarizing the series up to that point. That’s how I knew that Mr. Krupp was a jerk to children, that’s how I knew he was hypnotized into being Captain Underpants, and that’s how I knew that the Waistband Warrior got superpowers from an alien juice. By the time it was over, I was a convert.

Some scattered memories I have of Captain Underpants:

  • This series inspired me to draw comics, which became a strong passion for several years after. It began with a superhero book of my own, detailing the adventure (alas, only one and not a series) of Dino Boy, and in tribute to George Beard’s fourth grade reading level I made the widely-questioned stylistic choice of including misspellings. It’s really not an excuse, I knew perfectly well how to spell the words I used in the story, but that’s how I chose to do it. In this and other comics I also employed the “Flip-O-Rama” animation technique, which I thought was really bold and original.
  • The series went on hiatus twice in a row: it took three years for Pilkey to follow up The Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers with The Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People, and then it was six whole years before we got the long-awaited Terrifying Re-Turn of Tippy Tinkletrousers (it’s only annoying to write out these long titles if you’re not a fan!). I held up well and gradually pushed the series to the side as I went through middle and high school. Then I learned that the author took so long because he was caring for his terminally ill father up until his death. Dang.
  • Getting old enough to realize that there was a lot of satire and commentary in these books – or maybe that really was mostly in the later books. Sir Stinks-A-Lot’s dastardly plot is an outright parable for how quick people are to diagnose kids with ADHD and overmedicate them for what could just as likely be normal child behavior (Pilkey himself has been diagnosed with it and gets really personal about the issue). An earlier book shows an empty school library, a reference to the banning of certain books in schools – to which Captain Underpants, about a grown man fighting toilets and booger monsters while running around in tighty-whiteys, is no stranger. Perhaps the most interesting is the newest one’s casual reveal that Harold Hutchins has a husband in the future. It’s just one scene-setting sentence and a few drawings of them standing/sitting with each other, but some Amazon reviewers still complain that they wish they had a warning.

They’re the happy family on the left. (Source)

Mostly, what I remember and admire most about Captain Underpants is that it was just so darn creative, and perhaps boldly so. It dared to push the boundaries of just what kids should/could be exposed to in children’s literature, and it turned out that elementary-schoolers are more willing to read books if some of them have pictures on every page, feature comics and flip animations, and base their stories on potty humor.

Better still, it turned out that these books could contain all these gimmicks while further installments developed increasingly and impressively complex storylines, including time travel paradoxes and carefully reusing plot details/devices from way earlier in the series. And even better still, all this can inspire children to not just read books, but to write some of their own. Just look at my example, with Dino Boy! Sadly, it seems this comic is lost, so you can’t actually look at it, but still!

In fact, when did I start reading these books? Third grade? Goodness, I just realized: this series may have been a bigger influence on me than I thought. Dav Pilkey got into children’s books because he would draw comics and share silly stories with his elementary classes all the time (to the chagrin of his uptight teachers). He created Captain Underpants in second grade. Maybe I thought if a kid can entertain other kids with great stories, then I could too. Maybe this was how I realized that I didn’t just have to read other people’s stories and could actually make up and share my own.

My desire to be a fiction author, my whole life path, may have been influenced (at least in small part) by a cartoon man in briefs.

Also featured here: characters named Super Diaper Baby and Ook and Gluk, the Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future. (Source)

 newest Captain Underpants is a great closer to the series, and I recommend reading it and any others you may have missed. It has all the goofy humor and surprisingly intricate plotting that the series is known and loved for, and it even has some touching moments. The end is understated and a bit melancholy, and it’s a bit sad to know that George and Harold won’t shout in panic, “Oh no! Here we go again!” but it really is quite nice.

And even if it really is the end of the series, every book is still around for us, and kids in the future, to reread and giggle at and enjoy. (Plus, the pair will return as a framing device for Pilkey’s next graphic novel, Dog Man)

So hang your underpants at half-mast today and don’t forget how much fun reading can be.

I meant from a flagpole!

I meant from a flagpole! (source)

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