Monday, March 2, 2009

Frogs go (Doc) Wilde!

Tim Byrd’s rollicking Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom is part Jonny Quest, part Doc Savage and all a massive hoot. It’s both a throwback and a reboot, taking its influences and moving them effortlessly to an alternate present where the police in New York still use dirigibles and will help a man simply because they know that if someone like him is breaking the law, it must be important.

Brian and Wren Wilde are the preteen children of Dr. Spartacus “Doc” Wilde: brilliant scientist, brawny crimefighter, world-famous adventurer and obviously the coolest dad ever. When Grandpa Wilde vanishes in the South American jungles, the Wildes find themselves battling evil frog-men (not the kind with scuba suits) to save the universe from ribbeting Lovecraftian doom.

For kids, the story is straightforward and action-packed (to say the least). Brian and Wren, like Jonny Quest and Hadji, are not spoken down to or treated as helpless; these kids are right there backing up dad. Like Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage, Doc Wilde comes with a team of unlikely allies who bring their own skills to the mix. And like Batman, the Wildes have an immense cave filled with all kinds of cool gadgetry. But even with these various sources, there’s thankfully no irony here: it’s a balls-out adventure that, while light-hearted, never turns to self-referential mockery.

There are in-jokes, though and for parents (at least for this parent) they're a big part of the fun. At one point Doc Wilde is referred to as “the Man of Brawn,” a clear nod to Doc “Man of Bronze” Savage. The evil frog-lord’s previous attempt to consume our universe was foiled by “a wild-haired barbarian from Sumeria,” a hat-tip to Robert E. Howard. But none of these are done at the story's expense: if you don't get the references, the tale still works just fine.

The only real criticism I have of the book is that it isn’t clear who's the main character. Doc Wilde gets the title, but at first the story seems to be told through his son Brian; then he's out of the action for a fair bit, and emphasis shifts. In a way this mimics the less-than-polished tone of the novel’s pulp inspirations, but as I read I wished Byrd would’ve picked a point-of-view character and stuck with it.

Still, in context that’s a pretty minor quibble. ‘Tween and young teen boys should eat this up; I can't wait to read it to my oldest son right after we finish The Jungle Book. Hopefully Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom will be the start of a fun series of more (pardon me for this) Wilde adventures.

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