Potential bias alert: My college of choice had a ridiculously pretty campus nestled (no, seriously, it was nestled within an inch of its life) in rural, western Ohio. It was all Georgian red-brick buildings and mature trees shading winding paths. I was always fascinated by the campus squirrels, because they seemed so well groomed and purposeful. They were like a rodent version of Disneyland employees. And I always thought they were up to something, that they had a really organized union and a break room, maybe in the attic of the art and architecture library.
So early-adulthood nostalgia might leave me predisposed in favor of The Complete Chip Danger: Daredevil Squirrel, a mini-comic by Bill Burg. I don’t think so, though, because this is an entertaining, well-crafted adventure.
It was originally published in 25 installments (24 chapters with an autobiographical intermission) in the Guilford College student newspaper during Burg’s time as an undergraduate. Each page is a chapter (except for the two-page conclusion), and Burg does fine work making the installment stand alone while contributing to the overall narrative.
It’s told from the perspective of Arthur, an average campus squirrel whose life is changed by friendship with the title character. Initially put off by Chip’s seemingly pointless recklessness and low standing with the rest of the squirrel community, Arthur comes to admire the daredevil outcast, especially after Chip helps Arthur through a low point.
Their relationship has ups and downs, though, as Arthur always has some ambivalence about Chip’s behavior. Arthur loves the thrill of leaping from roof to tree, but he’s haunted by thoughts of his own mortality, and he doesn’t understand how Chip can be so heedless. But there’s more to Chip than Arthur suspects, and it’s surprisingly moving to watch Arthur come to understand his friend. Like most animal stories, there’s real sadness here, but it’s balanced with plenty of comedy and adventure.
It’s densely written, but it never feels over-written. There’s plenty of narration and charming dialogue, but it never overwhelms the accompanying visuals. It’s a fine balance of words and pictures. (At $2 a pop, it feels like a ridiculous bargain for the amount of material you get.)
It’s also wonderfully drawn. Burg manages to make each of his characters distinct without going overboard. (As other species of squirrel blend into the campus community, the task gets easier.) He also does a nice balancing act between capturing realistic moments – squirrels scurrying up and down tress, foraging, making wild leaps – and some charming anthropomorphizing, which I won’t describe in any detail because it’s fun and surprising to watch it unfold.
The Complete Chip Danger is just a really impressive comic. It’s a simple, engaging story told with real craft and imagination. And it provides a satisfying answer to just what those squirrels were up to on the quad.