Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Here Comes the New Year, Same as the Old Year

I'm back!

I don't know how regularly I'll be posting. I'm not entirely sure how I sustained that whole once-a-day thing to begin with. This translation gig actually takes up a fair amount of time. However, we shall see what we shall see.

As I am going to be spending most of January 1st on various airplanes, I shall while away the time until midnight arrives in BC and my parents and I can blow our little bugles out the door* by exploring the radical new direction in which the hack who currently churns out Hagar the Horrible is clearly set on taking the strip.

As we can see, today's gag is one that has made an appearance in the comic at least once and very probably five or six hundred times before. The gags in Hagar are, in fact, all recycled, and they have been since the seventh strip, which was the strip published the day after the cartoonist ran out of ideas. This commendable practice is entirely medieval in its provenance, albeit with a modern twist. Instead of borrowing bits and pieces from various "auctors" and thus imbuing his work with "auctoritee," the Hagar cartoonist is borrowing bits and pieces from his own strip and thus imbuing it with both "auctoritee" and status as an "auctor." He is his own source. The technique is innovative--or would have been in 1390--and has been emulated by most of the legacy cartoonists, though seldom so successfully as in this case.

Today's comic again draws on antifeminist stereotypes and the idea of horns representing a cuckold to provide a fresh take on the old "don't-lie-to-me-or-your-horns-will-fall-off" chestnut. Helga, as the typical nagging wife, is also the type of a hypocrite: she rails at her husband (probably with cause, as Hagar demonstrates when he grabs the horns) while actually forbidding him to shed his status as a victim of her own adultery. Hagar unwittingly clutches this status close; he thinks he is unwilling for Helga to know his secrets, but he is really wilfully blind to her treachery. Ah...the womens! The nagging, nagging womens! What a terrible double standard is imposed upon men by this socially and politically powerfully sex!

We here see a subtle evolution in the trope. In the earlier example, Hagar blatantly lies to Helga, thus demonstrating his guilt. In today's comic, Hagar indicates his potential for guilt but never utters the lie. I suspect that the next permutation of the gag will involve a wholly innocent Hagar and a raving, unreasonable Helga with unearthly blue flames issuing from her bodily orifices. Really, it's only a matter of time.

Happy New Year. May the funny pages continue to be relentlessly medieval in their content and outlook. I truly can't imagine that they won't.

*My family has some quite odd traditions. It's best simply not to ask.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Comic-Strip Christmas Carol: Stave Five

Jim Davis blinked, dazed, at his surroundings. The mist was gone. He was in his own bedroom, kneeling beside his own bed, and morning light was streaming through the curtains.

"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future," Davis repeated joyfully, and he rushed to the window to look out upon the new world.

And then, halfway there, he paused.

What did it mean, anyway? How did one live in the Past, the Present, and the Future? Didn't he already do that? Had the Ghost been implying he should change something? Give something up? Garfield?

"That's absurd," said Davis aloud to the empty room. "I've worked hard on that comic. Why should I give it up?"

Don't, then, the Ghost of Comics Past seemed to whisper in his ear. But remember little Jimmy.

"Little Jimmy was a bit of an idiot," said Davis. Already, the visions he had seen were fading, dying out in the stark light of the new day. "Children are naive. They grow up. They realise the real ticket to success is a solid business model. You don't get that by mooning over comic strips.

Remember the young man who wants to be a cartoonist, whispered the Ghost of Comics Present.

Davis felt a pang, but he counted to ten, and it passed. "Also naive," he said, "not to mention selfish. Why should people indulge him if he isn't willing to conform to industry standards? He has talent; he should give the syndicates what they want."

A spectral Ghost of Comics Yet to Come pointed forbiddingly at a phantom remainders table.

"Uh-huh," said Davis. "Come on...Garfield will never be remaindered in my lifetime. It's exactly what people less. The perfect formula. People who complain about it are cynical discontents. And I hardly have to lift a finger to make it happen."

As he moved towards the door, Davis thought, for an instant, that he saw all three Ghosts floating before him in the air, gazing at him reproachfully. "Oh, lighten up," said Davis. "You guys sure know how to ruin a punchline by hanging around for one panel too many."

And so, heart considerably lighter than it had been ten minutes before, Jim Davis left his bedroom at last.

The Ghosts stared disconsolately after him. "Well," said Johnny Hart, materialising, "another one bites the dust."

"We've tried this chap," said the Ghost of Comics Past. "We've tried Bil Keane, Cathy Guisewite, Lynn Johnston, the entire Walker clan. Every time it's the same: a ten-second epiphany, then bam! Right back to the drawin' board. Why the &^*$ does it happen?

"Cartoonists," explained the Ghost of Comics Present wearily. "They all have amazing capacities for ignoring stark reality."

The Ghost of Comics Yet to Come, exuding menace from every pore, extended a forefinger and pointed out the window. The other Ghosts, following the finger, noticed a pub across the street.

"Yeah, all right," said Johnny Hart. "To tell you the truth, I could do with a drink."

And the four of them faded out, leaving as evidence of their visit only a slight chill in the air..., tucked neatly under Jim Davis's pillow, a copy of the first Garfield collection, already out of print.

P.S.: A random online name-origin dictionary reveals that "Garfield" means "triangle field" in Old English, but I have chosen to take my favourite meaning of "gar," "spear," and translate it forward into Middle English. "Trianglefeld" just doesn't have the same ring as "Sperefeld."

Why the heck would it matter whether Garfield had stolen Jon's pants? He never needs his pants; he's always stuck behind that counter thingy. I'm also a bit* curious as to how Garfield managed to swipe Jon's pants, which Jon was presumably wearing at the time.

I do not particularly want to think about the fact that Jon apparently owns only one pair of pants.

P.P.S.: I'm afraid marking has once again taken over my life, and I'll have to take another break. With luck, I'll be back in a couple of days.

Stupid, stupid marking.

*Not a big bit.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Comic-Strip Christmas Carol: Stave Four

Some time later, Davis opened his eyes.

He had expected--or, at least, hoped--to be back in his bedroom once more. No such luck. Mist roiled about him as he struggled to his feet. He seemed to be on a plane of some sort, though he couldn't see far enough through the fog and darkness to tell how vast it might be.

"Hello?" he quavered. "Spirit? Anyone?"

There was no reply...but he became aware, then, of a presence at his back, and he turned.

A dark, silent figure stood there, cloaked and hooded in black. In one skeletal hand it carried what looked like a rotting newspaper; the other it extended before it, pointing through the mist.

"Ah," said Davis. "I take it you're the Ghost of Comics Yet to Come?"

The Ghost said nothing, but inclined its head slightly.

"Lead on, then," said Davis, feeling--perhaps not unreasonably--that whatever was Yet to Come in the world of comics, he himself would have influenced it immeasurably.

The Ghost, still pointing, slid through the mist, and Davis followed. After only a few steps, he found himself stumbling through into...

...What was this? A dingy bus station late at night...five or six men and women sitting, exhausted, on benches, or leaning against the wall. Three of them, saw Davis, were reading newspapers, and he moved eagerly to peer over the shoulder of the first.

The man flipped the paper closed before Davis could catch more than a glimpse of the interior, then turned to the woman next to him, whom he seemed to know. "Been reading this all day," he said. "Anything good in yours?"

"Well," she said sardonically, "Mary Worth is fixing someone's life again. And Dagwood is late for his carpool."

They both laughed. "God," said the man, "I wish the syndicates would just let those damn things die. Who do they think reads them, anyway?"

A bus pulled into the station, and the couple boarded, leaving their newspapers on the bench. Davis tried to pick one up, but his fingers slipped through it as if it, or he, was insubstantial. "Spirit," he cried, "help me!"

The Ghost pointed at the paper, and the pages riffled as if in a high wind, finally stopping at the comics page.

Or was it the comics page? Before him, Davis could see only three tiny strips: Mary Worth, Blondie, and The Family Circus. The rest of the page was given over to advertising and the detailed discussion of a hand of celebrity poker.

Davis stared at the page in horror. "It can't be," he said. "Where's Cathy? Where's Hagar the Horrible? Where..." He paused. "Where is Garfield?"

The Ghost pointed. Davis rose and followed it back into the mist, emerging finally in a brightly lit office. Before him, Davis saw a man...surely the same young man he had witnessed not long before, crouching in his dingy room as he sketched out comics. The man was older now, and he sat toiling at a desk job in one cubicle among many.

"Is he a cartoonist now?" asked Davis, but the Ghost merely pointed. Davis, following its finger, moved closer to the man.

A woman stopped beside his cubicle. "Got that report done yet?"

"Hardly." The man sighed. "My head hurts."

"Jim won't care," said the woman, shrugging. "You'd better get to work."

"I'm always at work," said the man. "I shouldn't be here, you know. I was going to be--"

"Yeah, yeah, rich and famous, whatever," said the woman. "When are you going to shut up about that, Steve? Newspaper comics have been dying a slow death for years. No one wants to read them; there's certainly no audience for yours. Finish the report."

She moved away. Steve stared hopelessly after her for a moment, then reluctantly returned to his report.

Davis looked anxiously at the Ghost. "Tell me it's not so," he said. "Tell me he still has a chance. Tell me it's not too late!"

The finger pointed. Davis followed it back into the mist.

He emerged in a second-hand bookstore. The proprietor, a creaky old man, moved slowly amongst the shelves, dusting; otherwise, the place was deserted. Davis walked forward. A sense of foreboding was growing in him, but he couldn't seem to stop himself from following that pointing finger, now directed towards a table near the back of the store. Closer he moved...and closer...

Garfield. The table was full of Garfield collections, all of them tattered and worn, none of them under ten years old. He had been remaindered.

For the third time, Davis fell to his knees. "No, Spirit," he cried. "I am not the man I was. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!"

The Ghost stood, still pointing at the table.

"I will honour comics in my heart all my life. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the incredibly low prices on these covers!"

He caught at the Ghost's hand...but the Ghost was no longer there.

P.S.: I don't even understand how today's Garfield is meant to encompass any sort of joke. Why would Santa Claus care if a cat put on a false moustache? Are we meant to accept that Garfield really thinks Santa is that naive? Are we meant to care? I can only conclude that Jim-Davis-as-Dessicated-Monk is at work grinding out nonsensical idiocies yet again.

By the way...the word "Santa" existed in Middle English, but it referred to a female saint. The name "Santa Claus" probably would have made medieval people point and laugh.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Comic-Strip Christmas Carol: Stave Three

Jim Davis collapsed onto his bed and fell immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep. He awoke only when the clock was once more striking midnight. Remembering the words of Johnny Hart, Davis looked wildly about for the second Spirit.

At first, he saw nothing...but various stealthy sounds soon alerted him to the fact that someone was crouched at the foot of his bed. Davis leaned over as far as he could and beheld an emaciated young woman in threadbare clothing, a pen clutched in her right fist. She was running her fingers up and down the cracks in Davis's floorboards.

She noticed him watching her. "Oh, sorry," she said, leaping to her feet. "You'd be surprised at how much change sometimes gets stuck in those things. I am the Ghost of Comics Present."

"Why are you looking for change in the floorboards?" said Davis, who had rarely encountered anyone imbued with an air of such quiet desperation.

"Come and see," said the Ghost. The bedroom vanished, giving way to a much smaller, shabbier room: a bachelor apartment, cramped and falling to pieces. A man in his early twenties was working at a cheap IKEA kitchen table. Davis peered over the man's shoulder and saw several half-finished comic strips.

"Hey," said Davis, "this guy's very good. The art is simple but effective, and the words complement it well. And look at this punchline. It''s...I don't know...right on the tip of my tongue..."

"Funny?" suggested the Ghost.

Davis snapped his fingers. "That's it! So which syndicate has picked him up?"

"None," said the Ghost. "He has tried them all, but he is rejected again and again. All the rejections begin with praise. 'You are a warm, intelligent writer, but...' 'Your comic captures the humour in an unusual scenario, but...' 'We were impressed by your astute use of visual storytelling, but...'"

David bit, cautiously. "But what?"

The Ghost shook her head. "But his comics encompass an ongoing storyline, not simply a gag-a-day world frozen in time. But he is not writing about office workers, suburban families, or high-school sports, and the syndicates therefore aver that his comic lacks wide appeal. But there is no room for him in newspapers choked with legacy strips and long-running features that have long since ceased to be funny."

Davis became aware that he was beginning to experience an unfamiliar sensation. It took him a moment to realise that it was guilt. In an attempt to stifle it, he said, "Okay, sure, if he ignores convention--"

The Ghost said, "How much good art has sprung from a slavish devotion to convention?" And Davis, despite his rather indignant feeling that he was being thumped over the head with an Odious Moral Lesson, had no reply.

She went on: "Do you think this cartoonist is alone? All over the continent, young cartoonists are struggling to break into a business dominated by a few lazy people who are already rich enough to retire permanently. By clinging to fame without putting any work into it, they are both depriving new artists of the opportunity to shine and ensuring that newspaper comics will not grow and change. The more out-of-date the strips become, the less interest the public will demonstrate in them."

Davis was only half-listening. The plight of cartoonists in general was just an abstract concept to him...but the young man he could see working hard at a comic no one was going to read was quite real. "What's going to happen to him if he can't sell his comic?" he asked.

"Who cares?" asked the Ghost. "He may as well give up his dream and start working in an office. Less competition for you, yes?"

Once again, Davis found himself falling to his knees in supplication. He clutched at the Ghost's rags and found them coming away in his hands. Beneath them, clinging to the Ghost's flesh, were what looked like two wasted children, bestial and sharp-featured. Davis recoiled from them in horror.

"Ah, yes," said the Ghost, "them. The boy is Tradition; the girl is Lowest Common Denominator. No matter how I try, I cannot escape them."

"But that's horrible," said Davis.

The Ghost said, "Why? They have been clinging to you too for many a year."

Dreading what he would see, Davis glanced down...and two little faces peered up at him as he felt phantom fingers dig into his flesh.

Jim Davis fainted.

P.S.: Today's Garfield isn't the best possible candidate for medievalisation, but I do seem to be committed, via my current Dickensian format,* to medievalising five Garfield comics in a row. I have thus sucked it up and translated the word "blink." Believe it or not, "Twynklen" really does mean "to blink" or "to wink"; it can refer to the human eye or to a shining star (thus the song). I aver that it works just as well for that tiny little Christmas light, though frankly, I'm not sure that even such a wonderful word as "twynkle" can save this strip.

I propose that the mice in Garfield hook up with the mice in Overboard, build a spaceship, and blast the hell off the funny pages. They will have plenty of adventures, and we won't have to read about them any more.

*Yes, I do realise that Charles Dickens was not writing in the Middle Ages. I could access my academic training and trot out a convoluted, evidence-clogged justification of my attempts to parody him, but instead, I think I'll just direct your attention towards a shiny object and run swiftly away.

A Comic-Strip Christmas Carol: Stave Two

Blame the lateness of yesterday's comic on my absurd need for sleep. I shall try to finish today's eventually as well.

Jim Davis woke at midnight to find someone in the room with him: a fat man with a disproportionally large nose, odd bandy legs that seemed too spindly to support his weight, outdated clothing, and a tendency to drop his "'g"s and swear entirely in keyboard symbols. "I am the Ghost of Comics Past," said the fat man. "Tonight, I'll be showin' you the error of your ways. Come with me, you ol' #$&%@!$."

Davis found himself floating out the window. He drifted for a moment, then fell...and landed, not, as he had expected, on the pavement, but in a bedroom strewn with old-fashioned toys and comic books. A small boy sprawled on his stomach on the bed, leafing through a newspaper. He took no notice of the Ghost or Davis, the latter of whom leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the date on the paper: July 15, 1955.

"Why," said Davis, "this is my own bedroom! And that's...that's me!"

"Got it in one," said the Ghost in a genial manner. "Little Jimmy, back on the farm again. And just look at what he's readin'."

Davis peered over the boy's shoulder and saw...

"All my old favourites!" he exclaimed. "Nancy! Blondie! Popeye! Peanuts! Pogo! They're all here!"

"Tha's right," said the Ghost. "Most of them were still funny then."

"I remember," said Davis fervently. "The hours I used to spend poring over the funny pages! The joy they brought me! I wanted to be like those cartoonists; I wanted to bring that kind of happiness to readers."

"And so you did," said the Ghost. The scene dissolved, then reformed. They were in the same room, and the boy Jimmy was still there...but he was older now, curled up on the bed, doodling on a scrap of paper. Davis saw slightly lopsided versions of Charlie Brown, Pogo, Beetle Bailey.

"Ol' Jimmy had talent," said the Ghost as the scene melted again. Davis was now in the different room, watching a yet older Jim Davis opening a Chicago Tribune that looked to be from June 19, 1978. "And one day, his talent led him to invent--"

"Garfield," breathed Davis, watching his past self read the first published Garfield strip ever. "The Tribune tried to cancel it, but no one would let it. And look what it's become!"

"What it's become?" intoned the Ghost...and Davis shrank back from its expression. "What has it become, boss? An automaton...a zombie, still clingin' to the glories of the past, churned out by a committee!"

"But...but you're the Ghost of Comics Past," quavered Davis. "You should like the backward-looking, the tribute to the genius of yesteryear..."

"I may be representin' the past," thundered the Ghost, "but I don't expect everyone to live there. We shouldn't be forgettin' the past, but that's no reason for us not to move forrard into th' future! Adaptation! Growth! Change! Tribute without stagnancy! Remember ol' Jimmy, and stop *&$% well betrayin' what he stands for!"

The Ghost, as he spoke, had grown to monstrous size, apparently swelling with indignation. Jim Davis fell to his knees and clutched at the Ghost's bow-legs in supplication. "Mercy!" he cried. "Mercy..."

The Ghost shrank...dwindled to a bedpost. Davis was back in his own room, in his own Now.

P.S.: As you can see from today's translation, this is the sort of strip that, while purporting to deal with universal themes, becomes dated quite quickly; the language in it thus reads as code to succeeding generations. The problem, of course, is that Davis is so stuck in the past that he genuinely believes that all his readers will know what a lava lamp is.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Comic-Strip Christmas Carol: Stave One

Jim Davis, or whoever does Jim Davis's work for him nowadays, has a sweet, sweet deal. The Davisites* churn out three near-identical panels a day. The jokes are old and/or stupid; the characters do not grow or change. As young, hungry cartoonists shiver outside in the cold, the Davisites hunch over their drawing tables, sneering, "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

Jim Davis:

I am the ghost of your colleague, Johnny Hart. I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard, constructing it of terrible jokes, cardboard characters, predictable situations, lazy art, and the inability to recognise my own shortcomings. Would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It is a ponderous chain!

You wonder at my condition, as I was always a good man of business? Humour was my business. The promotion of enjoyment was my business; cleverness, originality, boundary-pushing, and good writing were, all, my business. The earning of money was but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. You will be haunted by Three Spirits. Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow when the comics appear in the newspapers.

Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!

P.S.: And yes, this strip is worthy of medievalisation. The stupidity of the joke is as nothing compared to the idiocy of the unchanging "art." Jim Davis isn't quite one of our trio of monks, but he operates like an ancient monk gone to seed, bored with his own work and taking as many shortcuts as humanly possible. Instead of drawing all sorts of monsters in the margins of his manuscripts, he produces the same one over and over. He is, really, to be pitied.

*Quite like Deadites, except that even if you cut off their heads, sever their limbs, and burn their bodies and/or drawing materials, they keep grinding away at this damned strip.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Maybe I Could Feed My Students' Papers to Marmaduke

I'm nowhere near finished my marking...I am mired in plagiarism idiot driver clipped me with his car this evening...and a large dog tried to eat me. In honour of the last of these depressing circumstances, I shall spend at least a brief time with our friend Marmaduke.

In today's comic, we see that Marmaduke has grown to the size of an SUV. The joke is no longer simply that he's a great big dog; it is that he is becoming the canine equivalent of Audrey II.* If the artist is, in fact, familiar with the rules of perspective, he is calmly and deliberately drawing Marmaduke to be the same height as the guy with the hat...when Marmaduke is lying down. That, my friends, is a great big dog.

As well, the Antichrist story continues apace. As the Beast gains more power, that power begins to have an effect on his physical presence. Beware, Random Walking Couple; Marmaduke will swallow you whole. Just look at that tongue. It looks like an identifying mark of the Hellmouth to me.

Before long, Marmaduke will grow to roughly the size of Saskatchewan, and Armageddon will begin. It's really only a matter of time.

*If you have never seen Little Shop of Horrors on stage, now is probably a good time to start.