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The warped world of 'Lio'

This comic-strip kid, the opposite of warm and fuzzy, is the brainchild of a Gloucester County dad. His adventures begin Monday in The Inquirer.

Here are a couple of


comic strips that never made it past the censors: the one where Lio decapitates Barbie dolls. The one where Lio persuades his dad to get him a puppy, which he then regifts to Frank, his pet snake.

And the one where Lio goes to a graveyard and comes out with a bag over his shoulder. In the next panel, the kindergartner proudly waits his turn for show and tell, bag on desk.

Lio, in other words, is your basic dark and twisted weirdo kid, with an inner life of fantasy and peril, a hazy border separating real and imagined, a kind of Calvin and Hobbes lost in a Pan's Labyrinth, with occasional tendencies toward doll decapitation and puppycide.

Just like we like them, eh?

"Lio is a deceptively sweet-looking boy who nonchalantly is just in a dark surreal world," says creator Mark Tatulli, 44, whose pantomime strip Lio, drawn from his home in Sewell, Gloucester County, is the new bad boy of the comics pages, running to edgy acclaim in nearly 300 newspapers across the country. It debuts Monday in The Inquirer.

"I had to reel back a little bit on the dark side of it," Tatulli says. "I was getting so many complaints. I don't show the snake eating the puppy, but it's inferred."

Tatulli's own suburban twistedness is pretty much confined to donning Halloween outfits or fake teeth at odd moments and embarrassing his kids. "Lio is kind of like every child who has their own private little world. We as adults are just not privy to it."

Tatulli, father of three, ages 17, 15 and 12, began noodling around with Lio after he was laid off from his day job at a television production company in Philadelphia that works on reality shows - forced into his now-happy role as, he says, a "stay-at-home stripper."

Tatulli also draws Heart of the City - about a less dark but still angsty little girl named Heart who lives in Philly with her single mom and her Italian American nanny. Heart of the City appears Sundays in The Inquirer.

(In one recent strip, Heart is bemoaning the fact that her diary lacks sufficient drama to have a shot at being optioned to Hollywood. "Dear Journal," her mom writes in the last panel. "My daughter is turning out to be a real wacko.")

Previously, Tatulli drew Bent Halos, a strip about two trouble-making angels that began a short but popular 18-month run in 1996, and a strip for the Burlington County Times about a junior high school teacher.

Tatulli is also trying to pitch Lio as a television cartoon, an interesting idea since in the comic strip, Lio does not speak. In many strips, Lio (so named, in part, after Edward Gorey's alphabet of grisly kid deaths, as in L is for Leo, who swallowed some tacks) does not have a mouth. "Lio lives in the dark world and he's OK with it," says Tatulli. "He has a mouth when he needs it."

The wordlessness of the strip has prompted Universal Press Syndicate to try to market Lio internationally. It currently appears in the Bel De Morgen newspaper in Brussels, Belgium.

Between the two strips, Tatulli says, he's working constantly, often into the wee hours. His real-life children no longer provide cartoon fodder. "They've outgrown these kids," he says. "I reach into my own childhood. All cartoonists are freakishly bizarre people. These are people that don't get out much."

He had the pantomime idea in his head for a while, inspired by the wordless comic strips of his youth, like Henry and Ferd'nand. Plus, after years of drawing Heart, he says, there was a dark side waiting to come out, born of a childhood in which he felt certain the planes overhead were about to drop bombs and convinced that the commercial showing a person shaking a jar of peanuts and turning it into peanut butter could be replicated in real life.

For Lio, drawn with an art pen, he focuses on an idea for the art; Heart of the City, drawn with a brush and ink, starts with the story line and dialogue.

Lio is definitely a "try this at home" kind of kid, in a science-fiction-like landscape lurking around suburbia. He bears a small resemblance to Linus, but an anxious lost-my-blanket kind of Linus, a boy who nurses revenge fantasies, not blankets. Lio hangs in graveyards, and has been known to dispense antidepressants from a Peanuts-style 5-cent pharmaceutical stand, luring Charlie Brown over from Lucy's more primitive offer of psychiatric help.

His fantasy world creeps into his reality world. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it gets the better of him. One strip shows a wishing well that enables Lio to set an entire city on fire and go crashing through like Godzilla.

Another strip shows him as the only child clapping gleefully at a traumatic story hour by a scary guy named Mortimer Creech. He falls for a girl who pops his balloon with a sword, but he's disappointed when his efforts to scare older girls only cause them to gush over him. His dad sort of sits around and watches what happens, a passivity that Tatulli says was inspired by his newly unemployed self.

"Lio's dad, who's kind, doesn't have a job, just sits around and doesn't ask too many questions. Between Lio and dad being the way they are, any kind of thinking woman wouldn't stay too long."

So it's just the dad, just like in Heart of the City it's just the mom. Tatulli himself says his own childhood was nontraumatic and intact. The interest in the darker side of childhood comes from the artist in him, he says. "I have no pain in my past."

At home in Sewell, a pool out back, in the midst of a tranquil suburban landscape, Tatulli seems determined to maintain a twisted and dark sensibility, or at least a sense of literal darkness born of forgetting to change the lightbulbs in the ceiling lights above his work space. Hey, whatever gets you there.

Tatulli's strip often references other comics - making digs at the ones that continue posthumously, for example, and mourning the loss of some of the edgier ones like The Far Side and Boondocks.

He sees Lio - along with a few other strips like Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine - as trying to push the envelope in a medium that often settles for mediocrity and conventional humor. In one strip, other comic-strip characters are lined up for a turn at a periscope that Lio has aimed at a cartoon bombshell in another comic strip.

"I do dark things which you don't normally see in the newspaper," says Tatulli. "Because nobody else is doing it. That's as far as I can push it."