Friday, May 29, 2009

Tomorrow, We All Crawl Back into the Swamp

From this day forward, when I am weeping my way through the comics page and trying to decide whether Crock or Hagar the Horrible is a greater affront to my gender, I shall have a standard against which to compare them. I shall simply turn to today's Mary Worth and attempt to discover whether these comics are as condescendingly, arrogantly, nauseatingly sexist as the two panels below. If they aren't, I may be able to forgive them.* If they are, Armageddon may be just around the corner.

For the last three hundred years,** Jeff's daughter Adrian has been head-over-heels in love with a con man named Ted. Adrian, please note, is a doctor and therefore not a stupid woman; her brains did not stop her from advancing Ted a wad of cash and helplessly bewailing her fate when he subsequently tried to skip town. Luckily, big strong Detective Scott Hewlett came to her rescue. She was wary about trusting him at first, but now that her father has spent seven freaking strips in a row*** gushing about how he knew and adored Scott's father, Adrian seems to have decided that it's okay to fall for the guy. Today, she time-travels back to the 1950s, or possibly the 1350s, as Scott gallantly pays for her meal and sweeps her off her feet with his manly refusal to let her think for herself.

The medieval aspects of the comic are pretty clear. The first, of course, is the fact that a bloody goddamned doctor is apparently incapable of doing anything for herself without her father's approval or the help of her current lover. The only bit of the strip that doesn't fit is the fact that Adrian is a doctor.**** Otherwise, we may as well be back in the days when men were men and women were treated like right idiots.

My latest theory is that newspaper comics are, in fact, a time machine for our brains. Slowly, irrevocably, they are dragging us back into the past, simply by attempting to convince us that nothing has changed since the late fourteenth century. When everybody stops using forks and bathing, we'll know what's going on.

P.S.: "Madrian" is ginger treated with lye, as well as possibly an amusing name for Saint Adrian. I have appropriated it.

*Well, no, but I could possibly refrain from stabbing them for a minute or two.
**Or, in Mary Worth time, ten minutes.
***Or, in Mary Worth time, ten seconds.
****I am sure, however, that when she marries Scott, she will give up odious work and start doing what women do best: nagging, putting on weight, popping out babies, and ending up bitter and emotionally isolated.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Alle Yow Nede Ys Lufe

The hideous Loveshmoos* of the (for lack of a better word) comic Love Is... have always been terrifying creatures who pretty clearly represent somebody's Issues in a bloody big way, but today they also really show off their medieval roots. The female Loveshmoo here poses nude for the male, which would be more shocking if these two shapeless, sexless things weren't always posing naked for each other. What highlights the medievalness*** in the panel is the position of the female (despite the somewhat ironic caption) as an object of the male gaze. She is even on a pedestal of sorts. I think we may have a metaphor for courtly love on our hands.

It does make a great deal of sense. The female Loveshmoo has been elevated to a point that lies beyond the temptations of the flesh, a fact signified by her lack of secondary sexual characteristics; the similarly non-sexual male Loveshmoo represents the purity of the knight's devotion to the lady. The glances they are giving one another, however, are references to the dark underbelly of courtly love: the idea that beneath all the chaste worship is a vast pit of roiling lust. Check out Malory's Lancelot for a good example.**** The Loveshmoos could probably give Lancelot and Guinevere a run for their money. Five seconds after the moment captured in this comic, they'll be going at it like bunnies.******

I do often wish that the Loveshmoos would just go the hell back to the Middle Ages, but since we're stuck with them here, we may as well just ferret out their medieval characteristics and try not to gag as we do so.

*Or, in fact, Loveshmoon.**
**I have been spelling "shmoo" incorrectly for months, but I have discovered the error of my ways and gone back to change all the shmoo references. I think I need to get out more.
***Interesting factoid: Firefox believes that "medievalness" is a word (or it did for a bit. It has stopped now. Damn you, Firefox...stop playing with me!). I think I shall try to use it in Scrabble. I mean, if someone else plays "medieval" and I add "ness" and hit a triple-word score, I shall be rolling in points. Of course, that would necessitate someone else first playing the eight-letter word "medieval," which would gain the player a bingo for using up all seven letters and earn him or her an extra fifty points, but hey: I would get to play an ultra-cool word that Firefox claims exists (sometimes). I shall shut up about Scrabble now.
****"I haven't done anything wrong, Arthur. I'm completely devoted to you. I'm absolutely your most loyal supporter in every possible way. Mordred, Agravaine, and a bunch of other guys caught me sleeping with Guinevere, and I initiated a bloody slaughter that ended with everyone but Mordred dead, then fled for my life and later abducted Guinevere just as you were about to burn her at the stake for adultery? I know, and honestly, I haven't done anything wrong. As God is my witness, I am entirely virtuous in every way." And on and on and on. It just makes me want to freaking slap him.*****
*****Of course, Arthur isn't any better. "But what should I do, Gawain? Lancelot is my truest knight! It doesn't matter that he's slept with my wife; I can always get another one. I'd like to forgive him. You don't want me to? Okay."
******Bunnies without sex organs. Ah well.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dagwood the Philosopher

It has actually been seven months since Japes has paid Blondie a visit, possibly because Blondie often contains a wall of text in every panel, and I am somewhat lazy. At any rate, today's strip has proven impossible for me to resist, as it fits beautifully into the medieval tradition and actually reads better in Middle English than it does in modern English. Here we see Dagwood truly coming into his own as a medieval-style philosopher. Watch his method; it's quite beautiful.

In the first two panels, Mr. Dithers asks his employee a question so hackneyed that it is probable that Geoffrey Chaucer rolled his eyes at it. How many comics have trotted out the whole glass-half-empty chestnut?* There is nothing new here or, in fact, in Dagwood's response, but it's the expression of calm innocence on Dagwood's face as he questions the contents of the metaphorical glass that really highlights the brilliance of the comic. Dagwood is actually challenging the entire framework of Mr. Dithers's approach to the world. Dithers posits a universe that can only accommodate two types of people; Dagwood points out, succinctly, that such simplistic categorisation is unfair in light of the myriad of different possible situations that can make up the contents of the "glass." He is poised to examine the purpose of existence: a key concern of medieval thinkers.****** The comics may seem to be about a fool giving an idiotic response to a moronic question, but we know better.

Another intriguing fact is that the translation has forced me to change the syntax of Dagwood's reply. As far as I can tell, there is no stand-alone Middle English verb that means "to depend"; there are several words that can be used with prepositions, but they wouldn't make sense on their own. The revised sentence deprives Dagwood of his maddening answer-a-question-with-a-question technique but adds a certain zing to his words.

Blondie may be as old as the hills and contain characters who haven't changed their clothes since 1930, but its medieval content and techniques are virtually flawless.

P.S.: There are no Middle English words for "optimist" and "pessimist." I had to go to the Online Etymological Dictionary for help in cobbling together my translations.

*A lot.**
**9 Chickweed Lane did a week-long series on it. No, really.***
***Admittedly, it was infinitely more amusing than the recent months-long series on young lust.****
****You wouldn't think it would be, but trust me: the glass-half-full strips made me much less eager to find Brooke McEldowney and throw rotten fruit at him until he went away.*****
*****I wouldn't particularly care where.
******And Douglas Adams, obviously.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Francis Among the Virgins

We've seen today's Archie coming for a while now. As you know, its creator, the randy monk Brother Francis, is unable to stop himself from drawing nubile young girls, even when they have nothing to do with the content of his gag. Betty and Veronica are expressions of his fantasies, but of late, he seems to have been growing tired of them; they have faded into the background, replaced by a parade of mute, busty beauties. Almost every comic Brother Francis draws is a desperate cry for help.

Today, he comes out of the cell* and blatantly inserts himself into the strip. The girl in the foreground of the first panel is basically right up against the picture plane, almost within reach of the reader but much further away from Dilton and Archie. She has the usual impossibly gigantic breasts and just a hint of a bare thigh beneath a tiny skirt. Notice that in panel 2, it is Dilton who expresses aloud his opinion that the girl is "very pretty," though he immediately returns to his book. He here represents one of Francis's companion monks; Francis sees him as rapt in his contemplation of marine biology (i.e., the study of life moving over the face of the waters, i.e., the Bible in disguise);** he can appreciate beauty but not be distracted by it. Archie/Francis, on the other hand, has his pupils turn into little hearts just from seeing a perfect stranger pass by. Francis's lust is beginning to overwhelm him; he is unable to keep it from taking over his work entirely.***

There is also evidence here that Francis may be cracking up. That comic book with Jughead on the cover has been making the rounds lately, here in company with a profoundly creepy Archie marionette. Francis is becoming awfully meta; he is acknowledging the fictional properties of his comic within the comic itself. In addition, today's comic actually places Dilton in front of a tilted and skewed picture plane in the second panel, as if he is falling right out of the strip. It is really only a matter of time before Francis loses it completely and has a mysterious new character show up to reveal to Archie that he is the One, destined to liberate the residents of Riverdale from the comic-strip world and show them the gritty reality beyond the panels.****

Someone needs to get that boy a secret girlfriend. At this rate, he'll be having mystical visions in the desert before he turns thirty.

*As it were.
**I'm not sure who that makes the guy on the back cover, but since Francis is busy tumbling headfirst into sin anyway, I'm suspecting God.
***I think somebody needs an intervention. Break out the holy water and the hair shirts, Brothers!

****Or was that The Matrix? I forget.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Richard II, All Grown Up

Back at The Wizard of Id, that clever tribute to the reign of Richard II, we get a wistful strip that comments metaphorically on the tragic youth of the child king. Due to the comic's frequent references to the Peasants' Revolt, we know that it is set around 1381, when Richard was a fourteen-year-old puppet. He is represented in the comic by a "short" (read: young) king who is frequently ineffective and reacts childishly to the world around him.

Today's strip is extremely telling. Here we see the little king longing to be taller: i.e., to grow up. Behind his words is a veiled wish for more power, which is being kept from him by his advisers. The wizard here represents John of Gaunt, the most controlling of these advisers. Note that the comic is actually named after him; it may often seem to be about the king, but the true power behind the throne is revealed in the title of the work. The manipulation of the mirror is a reference to the subtle politics involved in controlling a puppet king; the wizard/Gaunt must make it seem as if the king has "grown up" and seized power, and he must do so without actually relinquishing his own position.

The Wizard of Id is one of the cleverest comics out there today.* It is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it mimics editorial cartoons in its succinct, multi-layered comments on an important political situation. Though it's true that it hasn't been 1381 for a while, it's fair to say that the Parker Descendants** are extremely good at writing about what they know. If what they know just happens to be late medieval England, who are we to judge?

P.S.: Happy Towel Day. I trust you all know where your towels are.

*If you are taking me seriously here, I shall smite you. I mean that.
**Or whoever is responsible for the comic at the moment. Seriously...these guys eventually sort of fade into the woodwork.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More Filler, Extremely Pointlessly

As I have remarked before, modern cartoonists are just as addicted to filler as medieval poets, albeit with much less justification. Sunday's Hagar the Horrible acts as an excellent demonstration of this practice. Mr. Browne has a three-panel joke but is working with a nine-panel grid. The first panel goes to the title of the strip; the next two establish that Hagar and Lucky Eddie do not know the gentleman with the moustache,* a fact that is completely irrelevant to the gag at hand.** The next two panels involve the gentleman asking for a dry martini and the bartender promising to get him one. We then get two cut-and-paste panels in which Hagar, Lucky Eddie, and Moustache Man sit perfectly still in silence. In the final two panels, the bartender gives Moustache Man his dry martini, and Lucky Eddie remarks that the drink looks wet.

Leaving aside the fact that the joke here is one that I first made when I was about eight years old,*** what we seem to have is a very, very sparse situation stretched out over far too many panels. Hell...this gag could fit into one panel.**** It is a terrible joke, but even so, it would be funnier if it were shorter. As it is, I had a hard time discerning the point of the comic. The filler panels are especially egregious, as they have absolutely no reason to be there.

This Hagar comic is therefore drawing on the medieval tradition of the really bad verse romance. Not only is it far too long, it inserts its filler so clumsily that the cartoonist may as well be waving vigorously and screaming, "Hey, look! Filler!" Its plot is clumsy and nonsensical, and it ends with a line that is meant to be clever but would not know cleverness if it met some in the street. The effect is very much that of the anonymous romance churned out by an unrepentant hack.

Someone needs to take Mr. Browne's Ctrl-V function away from him before somebody gets hurt.

*I have made him French because Lucky Eddie calls him "fancy-looking," and he is not drinking beer. It is amazing how anti-French stereotypes have lasted for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
**To be fair, a lot of Sunday strips involve two throwaway panels that certain newspapers don't use; cartoonists need to ensure that their jokes will work without them. To be less fair, there is absolutely no reason that the throwaway panels can't actually be funny.
***I mean, who hasn't? When your parents are drinking "dry" wine, of course you're going to make a crack about it being wet. You're eight. That's just the way your brain works.
****Bartender: Here's your dry martini, sir. Lucky Eddie: Gosh, I don't know; it looks awfully wet.*****
*****Or even just...Lucky Eddie: Barkeep! I asked for a dry martini. This one's wet!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kids These Days and Their Crazy Newfangled Technology

Today, the odd and disturbing beast-allegory and/or examination of the monstrous races that is Shoe strikes off in a slightly different direction.* The current strip is marvelling at how crazy it is that the world does not remain forever the same. Like many another cartoonist who yearns for the relative simplicity of the Middle Ages,** the hack who creates Shoe is shaking his head at the terrible fact that Things Change. All, he feels, is mutability; the wheel turns, and the entropic dance goes on.

Typically, however, he is disregarding the fact that when things change, they change. Shoe's words to the Perfesser may constitute a wry criticism of our need to stay uber-connected via many different forms of technology, but it is also rather grating because it ignores the fact that the only type of communication that the Perfesser is actually going to need to "hold" for Shoe is, well, the first one. The rest will sort of "hold" themselves by definition. The joke*** is marred by the cartoonist's sacrifice of common sense on the altar of technophobia.

It is possible that the cartoonist actually has no idea what "cell photos" and "tweets" are and is simply repeating exciting words that he has heard his grandchildren using, but I like to believe that he has dabbled in these frightening things called "texts" and "blogs" himself and has come away from the experience scarred. Take heart, creator of Shoe. Someday, when you are gone and your grandson is working on the comic,**** he will find himself looking back wistfully on the days when there were only six or seven ways to keep in touch with his acquaintances. Mutability rules, but what goes around comes around. Those kids with their texts and their tweets will someday bloody well get theirs.

P.S.: I would like to thank Shoe for the opportunity to translate the word "tweets."

*Albeit not, alas, a new one.
**People who yearn for the relative simplicity of the Middle Ages are usually forgetting about the waste-disposal problem, among other things.
***Such as it is.
****You just know this is inevitable.