Friday, January 2, 2009

Charming, Regressive, or Downright Revolutionary? You Decide.

B.C. has been on a Resolution Kick for two days now. Luckily, the week is almost over, so it is probable that this (for want of a better word) storyline will not continue beyond tomorrow.

The New Year's resolution is a motif dear to the hearts of many cartoonists. Variations on the theme include: 1) I resolve to exercise, eat well, and lose weight (immediately before the character plunks down in front of the TV with a slice of chocolate cake and/or some beer and nachos);* 2) I resolve to be nice to other people (immediately before the character says something cruel); 3) I resolve to keep my resolutions (leading to a supposedly clever meta-discussion in which someone mentions the cartoonist). Oh, the wit. Oh, the irony.

I'm actually quite charmed by today's B.C. resolution comic. It deviates very, very slightly from the formula by allowing the character to keep his a pleasingly destructive way, even. Clumsy is darn well going to march to the beat of a different drummer, even if he has to pound a slab of solid rock through another slab of solid rock in order to do so.

What pushes this strip over into Japes territory is the shape of the slot after Clumsy is done with it. Johnny Hart, of course, was well known for his practice of attempting to convert his readership to Christianity in every single strip he drew (in the later years, at least). The Hart Descendants are equally well known for their practice of avoiding all mention of Christianity like the plague. Yet...there's that cross. In any other strip, it would pass without comment. In this one, it raises some complex issues.

Are the Hart Descendants** mocking Old Man Hart? Or are they, in a surprisingly Meta move, conforming to his vision? Is Clumsy's act of non-conformity the HD version of compliance to the Will of Hart? Or could that cross-shaped hole be an ironic comment on the usual trajectory of the New-Year's-resolution comic? Perhaps Clumsy actually is breaking his own resolution by unwittingly embracing the symbolism of a patently conformist religion.*** By trying to mix things up, he is really just fulfilling his ultimately conformist destiny. Good this comic deterministic?

The translation makes the heretical roots of the strip even clearer. Note that the word "conform" is difficult to convert into Middle English; the closest equivalent is "comfort," which can only with a great deal of imagination be forced to, well, conform to the modern word. The idea of "following the flock" (or crowd), on the other hand, is easy to translate. "Flock" is a word that can refer to either actual sheep or the Christian community as a whole; it can also easily stand in for "congregation," especially if one sees a parson as a "shepherd" (as Geoffrey Chaucer does in his General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales).**** The Hart Descendants, in their usual cutting-edge medieval way, are subtly poking fun at the Christian conformists who surround them.

You go, Hart Descendants.

*The distinction is generally reliant on the sex of the character. Women will break their resolutions with chocolate; men will head straight for the beer. Someday, there will be a chocolate-loving male character married to a lady with a beer belly. It is highly doubtful that these characters will appear in a newspaper comic strip, but there's always the Internet.
**I do quite like this appellation. They sound like a Christian rock band.
***That doesn't exist yet. Ah well.
****The actual lines in question are, "And shame it is, if a prest take keep, / A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep" (505-506). I am mostly quoting these lines because I am always looking for excuses to use the word "shiten."


Brian said...

And I primarily come here so I can hear discussions about comics that use the word "shiten".

Marq said...

I must admit, I enjoy the word 'shiten' too.

A hearty Welcome Back to the wonderful Japes that were sorely missed this holiday season. Long live the Japes!

Michael said...

Doesn't shiten still exist in Modern English? I shit. I shat. I will have shitten? Granted, the 't' is now doubled, but Middle English orthography was less ortho than Modern English.

Angry Kem said...

Well, I've never heard anybody say, "I will have shitten" ("I will have shitted" would be more likely), so possibly not, but it's a fun idea. You might also note that the medieval word is actually in an adjectival form there. The Middle English Dictionary tells us that there was even a possibility of using the phrase "shiten-arsed." It is very much too bad that this phrase is no longer in use.