Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Adventure of the Inexplicable Beast-Man

In the career of every legacy cartoonist, there comes a defining moment: a moment when he* finds himself slumped in a comfortable chair before a roaring fire, downing scotch after scotch while trying to come to terms with the fact that not only has he exhausted every possible joke allowed by the scope of his comic, but that his predecessor had actually exhausted every possible joke allowed by the scope of the same comic before the current cartoonist ever lifted a pencil to work on it. Despair overtakes him...and then recklessness. Rising from his seat, he stumbles over to his drawing table and passionately scrawls a strip of breathtaking originality, so far removed from anything that he has ever done before that he is sure it will prove the comic's redemption, definitively proving that he has made it his very own.

In the morning, he awakes with a blinding headache, a faint recollection of having snapped four of his pencils in two, and a nonsensical comic in which he compares a fat man to a Sasquatch.

As you can see, Mr. Walker has had such a defining moment. It is true, however, that whereas the comic certainly counts as "nonsensical" in a twenty-first-century context,** it is perfectly comprehensible when regarded as a work of the medieval period.**** The creature in the second panel, which appears to our modern eyes as a grotesque cross between a bear and King Kong, is clearly a medieval wodewose: a wild man of the woods. This popular medieval monster is a hairy subhuman creature who lives in the forest and goes around hitting things with sticks. He is sometimes represented as shy and retiring and sometimes as savage and murderous; he is often solitary but occasionally lives with other wild men (and women). The prophet Merlin is frequently portrayed as a wild man, especially in earlier non-Arthurian texts. What the wild man loses in humanity (though whether or not he is truly inhuman is under debate; for instance, the wild man in the Middle English romance Ywain and Gawain asserts his humanity in no uncertain terms), he makes up for in wilderness powers: strength, affinity with animals, and occasionally knowledge.

"Personnel's" equation of Sarge with a wodewose argues that Sarge himself has the potential for this sort of wilderness power, a fact easily observable via Sarge's proclivity for violence, fondness for camping trips, and inability not to devour everything he sees. The cartoonist is very cleverly showing us Sarge's inner self. While we perceive Mr. Walker as simply having churned out dreck conceived in a drunken stupor, he has actually produced a masterwork that would resonate down through the ages if it had, in fact, appeared in the late fourteenth century.

Some artists are ahead of their times. Tragically, most legacy cartoonists are far, far behind theirs.

*Or they. Or, much less frequently, she.
**Seriously...what? I mean...what the hell? It's a...that's a...what is it? Why? Why, for the love of all that is holy? Why?***
***Perhaps I should spend the evening with some scotch as well.
****I have been reading Arthur Conan Doyle lately, and now I find that I am writing very much as Sherlock Holmes speaks. Somebody punch me.


Michael said...

I've always had trouble understanding why Walker can't find decent jokes about the military. I spent over 20 years in the U.S. Navy. I know literally hundreds of humourous stories and jokes (some of them even true). Last summer I was in Canada and met a retired Canadian Forces Warrant Officer. He and I spent hours on a rainy Sunday regaling each other with stories.*

The last time I laughed at a Beetle Bailey cartoon was sometime in the 1980s. I even remember the cartoon, it was pretty funny and closely paralleled something that happened to an old shipmate of mine.** Since then Beetle Bailey has failed to raise a chuckle or even a grin.

*Our wives went somewhere else, they'd heard our stories too often before.

**No, I won't tell the story, it's rather long and requires some explanation to properly appreciate.

Anonymous said...

Apropos of Michael's comment....

Five minutes with "Skippy's List" could improve Beetle Bailey for the next twenty years.