The Acme Catalog
by Charles Carney
illustrated by Scott Gross
Published by Chronicle Books
94 pages, 2006
Close, But No Exploding Cigar
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
Just about any North American kid who was sentient in the 1960s and 70s fantasized about the existence of this book. They dreamed about holding in their hands and between two covers the actual catalog that Wile E. Coyote used to order all of the bizarre contraptions he had delivered in his ill-fated attempts to catch his sweet and cheerful nemesis, the (beep beep) Roadrunner. Even while you watched him set up contraptions that would catapult him to where the Roadrunner was, or lay down a manhole you could roll up and put in your pocket, you just knew his attempts weren't going to be successful. But you also knew you didn't want to miss what was going to pop out when he ripped into the brown paper wrapper that his latest Acme delivery got dropped off in.
And just what was it about the Roadrunner/Coyote dynamic that so enchanted us? No one ever actually wanted the Coyote to prevail (Or did they? And, if so, what would it say about your personality?) but -- somehow -- it just didn't seem right for that improbable purple bird to get off continually scot-free.
In a balanced world, Wile E. wouldn't have wanted to bring down this nemesis so badly and -- against all of Wile E's munitions, the Roadrunner would have had a lower success rate. But what was it all about? Was Wile E. set on eating the Roadrunner? And, if so, why? With all the loot and technology he spent on Acme gear that never worked anyway, couldn't he just have called out for the occasional coyote-appropriate pizza?
Of course, trying to inject reality into the whole scenario is completely inappropriate. I'm still not sure I've gotten over the shock of seeing my first actual roadrunner on a family trip when I was 10. I thought my parents were lying to me. "That's not a roadrunner," I insisted, indignant. The creature my mother had pointed out was neither purple nor anything close to six feet tall. What was she thinking?
It's difficult to drop an actual book on top of all of these well-formed thoughts on coyotes and roadrunners and the Acme Company. Our vibrant childish imaginations did so much to embellish all we were given. How can a real world book ever compete with that?
Even so, The Acme Catalog might have had a hope if they'd just taken the whole thing a little bit further. As it is, The Acme Catalog was apparently written by one Charles Carney, "a former high school teacher who has been writing for Warner Bros. for 16 years." The illustrations -- smooth, stylish and just as you remember them and perhaps even more -- are credited to Scott Gross, but you have to look really hard to find his name and he doesn't rate a bio. And the book's copyright isn't held by Carney or Gross but by Warner Bros. Entertainment, which is actually not a big surprise.
I only mention this matter of copyright because I think it shows in the book. The Acme Catalog doesn't feel like the culmination of a personal dream or the making of reality of a long-held fantasy. (And it should. And it could.) But, rather it feels like the well-executed work for hire that it probably was. An actual representation of the type of gadgets ol' Wile E. might have had to choose from.
While it's mildly entertaining to read catalog copy for Acme Iron Bird Seed ("Government tests show disturbing evidence that wild birds suffer from a lack of iron in their diets.... The bird eats the pellets... [and] is vulnerable to electromagnetic forces beyond its puny control."] Jet-Powered Pogo sticks; Boomerang ["A guaranteed return on your investment!"] and Disintegrating Pistols, after a while, it's just not enough.
To put it another way, everything that's in The Acme Catalog is very good; very well done. The illustrations are really wonderful. The copy is funny, ironic and occasionally charming. The devices are mostly well thought out. But I really wanted at least a small section on the characters that had spawned all of this. Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner and even the characters that spawned them. The Acme Catalog is a good book. But I still want more. | May 2006
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe magazine.