A pool of earwax and a dandruff avalanche

The 13<SUP>1</SUP>/2 lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers, trans John Brownjohn (Secker &amp; Warburg, &pound;18, 703pp)
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The Independent Culture

In Germany, Walter Moers, author of The 131/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, is a media phenomenon. He's a cartoonist with a simple but very funny style, situated perhaps somewhere between Crumb and Schulz. His farcical, bad-taste comic books such as Little Arsehole and Adolf, the Nazi Swine sell by the hundreds of thousands, and films based on his work are viewed by millions.

In Germany, Walter Moers, author of The 131/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, is a media phenomenon. He's a cartoonist with a simple but very funny style, situated perhaps somewhere between Crumb and Schulz. His farcical, bad-taste comic books such as Little Arsehole and Adolf, the Nazi Swine sell by the hundreds of thousands, and films based on his work are viewed by millions.

However, not only does he serve an adolescent desire for harmless taboo-breaking. He is also the creator of one of the most popular characters for younger children on German television, a tall-tale-telling hand puppet called Captain Bluebear. At the same time as Moers was being condemned by the Catholic church for the obscenity of his cartoons - which, of course, did him no harm at all - he was winning prizes for his children's television work.

Then, last year, Moers published a lengthy illustrated book, using the Captain Bluebear character, which was launched on the adult market. It became, with some inevitability, a bestseller.

Now, Secker & Warburg is hoping to repeat the trick in Britain. The problem is that, whereas in Germany there's a ready-made audience, not only of Walter Moers fans, but also of children who have been growing up with Bluebear as puppet, here both author and bear are unknown. Stripped of its native cultural and media context, The 131/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear is a children's book - no more, no less - somewhat inexplicably marketed as an adult one.

But, children's book or not, is it any good? The reader first encounters the infant Bluebear bobbing up and down on the ocean in a nutshell - and heading straight for the dreaded Malmstrom. He is rescued in the nick of time by the Minipirates, a bunch of minuscule seafarers. It's only the first of many hair-raising, cliff-hanging escapes and adventures as Bluebear, at once naive and ingenious, grows up, gets an education and travels the long-lost continent of Zamonia. (In heroic times, it goes without saying, before humans ruled all the earth.)

There are the usual features and themes of fantasy and fairy-tale literature: giants and giant insects, loyalty and treachery, favours returned and helpers rewarded, and so on. All the usual reference points are here, too: Gulliver's Travels, Baron Munchausen, Grimms' Tales, the Odyssey, Tolkien, as well as Dune, Star Wars, Wells's The Time Machine and The Yellow Submarine.

Just as important as those models, and not surprising in view of Moers's other work, there's a touch of Fungus Mungus to these stories. For example, our hero falls into a sticky pool of earwax in a giant's ear or is endangered by an avalanche of dandruff, climbing up the giant's head. There are plenty of occasions here for kids to cry out: "Yeuch!"

The 131/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear is altogether a book of aargh! and yeuch! Fun, in other words, without too much deeper significance, and the illustrations of dragons, troglotrolls, muggs and the rest make it a nice object to leaf through. I think it could please quite a lot of 11-year-olds.

* Martin Chalmers's translation of the Diaries of Viktor Klemperer has just been reissued as a Phoenix paperback

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