SUMO MOUSE

Written and illustrated by David Wisniewski

Chronicle. 32 pp. $16.95

Who is that round, shadowy figure soaring past the moon high above Tokyo? "Is this some lawless lump in leotards? Or a chubby champion of justice?" The boisterously playful language that introduces Sumo Mouse is just what a reader happily expects to find when cracking open the latest offering from David Wisniewski. That happiness becomes inevitably tinged with melancholy, however, when one realizes that this vibrant, fast-moving tale is Wisniewski's last. The Caldecott-winning author-illustrator died in September after a brief illness, at the age of 49.

Like the books that made Wisniewski's reputation -- The Warrior and the Wise Man, The Wave of the Sea-Wolf and Golem -- Sumo Mouse features cut-paper illustrations, this time done up in colors as bright and fluorescent as the candy coating on a fresh batch of Skittles. Wisniewski often cited Marvel comic books among his many inspirations, and the influence can be seen in this story's thin plot, which involves a massively muscular mouse who fights with skill and honor and punishes evildoers to the tune of Crash! Bang! and Kaboom! Against vivid backgrounds of orange, purple and red, Tiger Tanaka, the crooked honcho of Tanaka Toys, gets all of Tokyo a-twitter as he abducts mice to stuff inside the squeaky playthings he sells. "We can't make squeaky toys without squeaky mice," he explains with a snarl.

As the list of missing mice grows, the twisted toy tycoon teams up with the nefarious mad scientist Doctor Claw in an attempt to bring down Sumo Mouse, the costumed avenger who has been thwarting their plans. They suspect that the mouse behind the mask is Gachinko, a grand champion sumo wrestler, but they are mistaken. In reality, the fearless crimefighter is Yama, a humble barber who studied to be a sumo wrestler but "never grew in body." After tending to the topknots of the sumos who do battle in a capacious arena, he sneaks away to the basement, where he dons a supersuit that enables him to leap tall buildings and manhandle thugs with effortless flair.

The action scenes between the imposing sumo wrestlers recall the battle scenes in Master Man (2001), an Aaron Shephard tale that Wisniewski illustrated, and once again evoke those classic Marvel superhero clashes that typically spread across two pages. When the two Master Men squared off above the savannah, their face-off resembled Spiderman going nose-to-nose with the Green Goblin. Ditto for Sumo Mouse's climactic combat with a mechanical colossus built by the dastardly Doctor Claw.

Fans of Wisniewski's work know that he wasn't all puns and comedic capers. His books include what might be called serious volumes (Sundiata: Lion King of Mali, the award-winning Golem) and lighter fare, such as Tough Cookie and The Secret Knowledge of Grown-ups, Files 1 and 2.

The common element in these works is the phenomenal art, all meticulously crafted via the time-ripened method explained in Wisniewski's notes at the end of each book: "Each detail was cut out with a #11 X-Acto blade. The pieces were assembled with double-stick photo mountings and foam tape. Finally, the completed pieces were photographed, with light and shadow controlled to capture the most dramatic effect."

Even in the rare exceptions, such as this fall's Halloweenies, which casts off the cut paper in favor of pen-and-ink, the author's knack for memorable metaphors is put to enthusiastic use. In that parody of horror movies, pungent phrases stalk across the pages like zombies on the loose: "Lightning poked the stormy sky like jagged fingers looking for change in the dark cushions of an angry couch"; "a smell like cabbage being boiled with gym socks and tuna fish."

There are puns aplenty in Sumo Mouse. The robot nemesis, after opening his belly to reveal a spinning blade, announces that he is the hero's "biggest fan." But the language is fairly spare compared to the large-scale illustrations, which are full of leapfrogging sumos, pratfalling henchmice, dust, smoke and exclamation points. The plot strands, if we may call them that, are neatly and colorfully tied at the end: The abductees are freed, the bad guys are vanquished, and the hero, like those masked avengers of the Golden Age, "disappears as quickly as he came." David Wisniewski is gone as well, and far too quickly, but he'll never disappear. *

Jabari Asim is children's books editor of Book World.