Saturday, September 27, 2008

Meditations on Transcendence: The Importance of The Family Circus in Medieval Philosophical Thought

I know this is my third time back on The Family Circus, even though I have really barely begun to plumb the depths of Bad Newspaper Comicdom...but damn, it's a useful comic.* Bil and Jeff Keane seem to have an inherent, effortless grasp of a medieval philosophical mindset. Sure, you could claim that their comic was an idiotic waste of time that had been around for far too long (since 1960, for crying out bleeding loud) and now stole at least half its jokes from those infuriating chain e-mails your "friends" keep sending you under the mistaken impression that you find the concept of one-liners from the 1890s, updated clumsily to accommodate the existence of the telephone, automobile, radio, television, Internet, speed dating, Nigerian e-mail scams, and George W. Bush amusing (damn it, Cecilia,** stop sending me that stuff! And stop with the long meditations on friendship and happiness! And stop with the missives that try to convince me to accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour! And if you absolutely must impose this garbage on me, stop just forwarding the damn e-mails without removing the names of the thirty billion previous recipients from the top!)...

...what was I saying?

Er. You could, in fact, claim that the Keanes' comic was all these things, but if you look at it more closely, you realise that these gentlemen are merely writing several centuries too late. Take today's comic, for instance. My God, says little Billy to Dolly, his disciple...those guitar strings aren't strings. This observation constitutes a major philosophical and theological revelation. If the strings are not strings, then human perception is faulty; we are not simply stuck at the back of Plato's cave but quite happy to remain there, secure in our approach to the world through the flawed medium of language. Little Billy is here experiencing a major spiritual awakening. The strings are not strings; the physical is not the ultimate. In the "strings" of the guitar resides music, which goes beyond the essentially "stringness" of the physical property but has to be teased from the instrument by a human hand guided by a human brain. Are the guitar strings not equivalent to us? Are we not played upon by the metaphorical hand of the Creator? Are we not imbued with souls so that we become more than the mere physical? If we learn to see beyond our own "stringness," we can leave both the philosophical and the theological aspects of the cave behind us and emerge into an understanding of our relationship to our universe and the Lord of All.

Revelatory in the twenty-first century? Not at all. Revelatory in the fourteenth century? You bet. The Keanes, in embracing an archaic understanding of the philosophy of religion, have courageously declared themselves immune to the ravages of both time and common sense. They are not afraid to get medieval. They are true artists of a previous age.

*Scott McCloud actually argues that The Family Circus is not, by definition, a comic, as it rarely shows events in sequence; it is instead a cartoon. I like Scott McCloud's stuff enormously, but I'm going to pretend he never said that.
**Name changed to protect the very, very guilty.


Anonymous said...

I've hesitated to bring up McCloud on CC, because by his definition of comics, "Family Circus," "Dennis the Menace," and "Marmaduke" would all be off-limits -- a real shame. And technically, "Slylock Fox's Comics For Kids" aren't really "comics" most of the time.

Angry Kem said...

Yeah...his definition does seem somewhat limiting at times (odd for someone who points out how few limits the form actually has). It's too bad he couldn't find a way to squeeze "cartoons" into his parameters; the simple presence or absence of sequence in single-panel cartoons shouldn't have to separate them rigidly from sequential strips. You also have the problem of what happens when what is usually a multi-panel comic runs a single-panel strip.

Incidentally, today's Dennis the Menace has two panels. Whaddaya gonna do about that, Mr. McCloud?