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All-ages show
Jef Czekaj jumps a Shark
BY CARLY CARIOLI

Somerville cartoonist Jef Czekajís new anthology Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters (Top Shelf) chronicles the exploits of a 10-year-old adventuress and her grandfather ó a slightly batty but interplanetarily renowned ichthyologist ó on their quest for the biggest shark in the world, whose name is Steven. The strips, most of which originally appeared in Nickelodeon magazine (an offshoot of the cable network), and which won a Xeric grant from the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are neither gross-out spectacles in the manner of SpongeBob SquarePants nor educational tools disguised as toons: theyíre hip and literate (one of Julieís classmates is seen reading something called Teen New Yorker) but also goofy, fast-paced, and full of hairpin plot twists. In the course of their adventures, Julie and Grampa have run-ins with eye-patched buccaneers (being of the modern-day variety, they turn out to be software pirates), a marooned squirrel-and-chicken musical duo whoíve just been crowned the "worldís worst rappers," and an evil-monster scientist named Jordan who, we learn, is an aspiring actor who took the evil-scientist gig only to pay the rent.

Czekaj is also an accomplished musician: heís performed with the punk band Anchormen, is a founder of Somervilleís DIY collective Handstand Command, and has released a pair of solo albums. Heís currently one-half of the excellent electro/hip-hop/goth-punk group Plunge into Death, who tonight (September 16) perform at the Middle East in Central Square as part of a memorial show for the late Kirsten Malone, who was the keyboardist for the synth-punk band the Faux. (Their two bands released a split-single together last year.) With Plunge into Death, Czekaj says, "We do lots of all ages-shows in basements, and the main reason Iím more into it [than into his old bands] is thereís so much more energy than with the indie-pop stuff: you have people actually dancing." That vibe will carry over this Saturday when Czekaj holds an unusual book-release party for Grampa and Julie at the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes. Like the book itself, the party is aimed at kids, but itís been tailored so as not to exclude adults. Thereíll be hands-on drawing activities for the young, and the rock bands playing have all-ages appeal.

Czekaj broke into the underground-comics world with his self-published R2D2 Is an Indie-Rocker (the title aptly explained the premise), a strip for adults that looked as if it had been drawn by a 10-year-old. So it wasnít too big a stretch for him to pull off a strip aimed at 10-year-olds that also appeals to their parents and their older siblings. "I think Iíve always kind of done the same thing. I just curse less ó or in fact not at all ó in the stuff for Nick. The only thing I made a conscious effort at was to take away the pop-culture references: there isnít much that applies to indie rock."

All the same, a childrenís book might seem like a departure for an underground cartoonist who, as he admits, doesnít know any members of the eight-to-10 year-old demographic that Nickelodeon aims for. But the connection isnít as strange as it seems: the magazine has a reputation for publishing the likes of James Kochalka and Brian Ralph, and Czekaj got the Nickelodeon gig from an editor who was impressed with R2D2. "Itís this great thing that people donít necessarily know about ó but a lot of underground folks have stuff that appears there. The editor there is great at seeking out indie cartoonists, and itís one of the few places that runs original color work and pays really well."

And though Czekajís drawing style is a natural fit for young audiences, heís not afraid to throw in a few grown-up in-jokes: one recent Grampa and Julie strip in Nickelodeon introduced a vegetarian piranha. "When I was a kid, I was into lots of stuff that I didnít understand. I think that when youíre a kid, you donít understand so much of the world that if youíre watching, say, a caricature of a movie star you donít know, you just roll with it. Because over the course of your day, everything is crazy and nothing makes sense. So if Iím gonna put in a big word, I figure theyíll just skip over it, or theyíll ask their parents."

Jef Czekaj celebrates the release of Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters this Saturday, September 18, from noon to 5 p.m. at the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, 403-405 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, with performances by Harry and the Potters, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, UV Protection, Jonnie Spaceman and His Curious Theremin, and the Humanimals; call (617) 524-3740.


Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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