Tomato Rodriguez is a Chihuahua-abusing, effigy-burning, heart attack-inducing vandal and kidnapper, but that doesn't mean she's a bad person. She's just your average San Franciscan in love. And when you're in love with a heartbreaker named Hooter Mujer, you're bound to get yourself in hot water. But Tomato's real problem doesn't stem from her dysfunctional, hellbent-for-the-electric-chair relationship. It's that for all her tough-gal, woman-in-chains bravado, Tomato "Mad Dog" Rodriguez just doesn't make much of an impression.
"They Call Me Mad Dog!" is Erika Lopez's sequel to "Flaming Iguanas," and again mixes narrative, typography and illustration to tell its tale. Unfortunately, the sum total is a book that's more than a comic strip but less than a novel. Lopez's cartoons serve as the story's Greek chorus, injecting indiscriminate and ironic commentary on the action (a humiliating courtroom scene is punctuated with a rendering of "anal beads for the timid"). Lopez's gift for cynical observation may be her best feature -- "Mad Dog" has a neat sense of both the horror and humor of absurd situations. The trouble is that the book is nothing but absurd situations; it careers from scene to scene without ever checking to see if it's actually going anywhere.
Not that "Mad Dog" is without charm. Lopez writes with snappy authority on sisterhood and betrayals thereof, and she's great with throwaway observations, like the connection between lesbian nuns and folk music. Her characters can't be accused of not knowing how to have fun, either. They do atrocious things to each other, shrug them off and calmly wait for karma to come back and bite them on the ass. Tomato is well aware she's fixing for a fall when her increasingly elaborate payback plans culminate with Hooter unconscious by the road, the words "Tomato Was Here" scrawled across her posterior. Sure enough, it isn't long before she's sent up to the Big House, where she suffers the indignities of bad lesbian sex and having to do customer service for a preppy mail order catalog.
Prison, violence and social diseases might harsh the mellow of less hearty souls -- but in Lopez's world, they're all the price of accruing your hipster cred. The populace of "Mad Dog's" San Francisco is achingly postmodern. Tomato, an artist who's built a career making fake penises, quotes "Scooby Doo" and fantasizes about Rosie O'Donnell. Her associates obsess over foreskin restoration and devour R. Crumb's Devil Girl chocolate bars by the case. While Lopez makes all this pop culture referencing and sexual swaggering look effortless and amusing, she also doesn't have much of a point. Both the author and her alter ego incessantly remind the reader that they are now 30 years old, implying that three decades of living have bestowed upon them a saner, slower approach to life. Is Lopez just being cheeky, pretending to savor true-blue adulthood while continuing to invoke Sid and Nancy? Or is there a strange kind of self-consciousness at work here? Lopez is smart enough to know that artistic maturity and youthful vigor are not mutually exclusive; she may also be aware that she hasn't yet mastered that delicate juggling act.
For all its outrageousness, "Mad Dog" remains as light and frothy as the head on a newly minted cappuccino. Characters say witty things and have fanciful adventures (Lopez writes in the spirit of Molihre, had Molihre ridden with a team of dykes on bikes), but their quirky doings never penetrate them emotionally or intellectually. Why does Tomato fall so hard for a lying, sloppy drunk like Hooter in the first place? Why is a woman so full of elaborate revenge plans inadequate when pursuing the truth behind the crime she's accused of? And why, if she's obsessed with Hooter, does Tomato think so little of her when she's in prison for her alleged murder?
Lopez is content to leave questions of logic and motivation hanging unacknowledged, perhaps guided by the mistaken notion that such things don't matter in a comic tale. But satisfying storytelling still relies on believable characters who think and feel like real human beings, even if they are real human beings who blaze their names on each other's rear ends. Lopez undeniably has talent; she just needs to figure out how to keep her fiction from becoming as two-dimensional as one of her own cartoons.