Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Great Tradition of the Lazy Cartoonist

Once upon a time, as my mother quoth to me, i'faith, there was a city--a city, I say--near the sea (may God's messenger send you many blessings!).

Filler!

Ah...filler, filler, filler. How I love you. You are sprinkled daintily throughout every extant Middle English metrical romance like a plague of useless little flowers in a meadow.* By God...by Christ...by Mary, full of grace...by God's sond...by Christ's sond ...by Saint Loy...by Saint Charity...by other saints with good rhyming names**...as Isidore saith...as Austin saith...as myn auctor saith...quoth I...quoth he...God send you alle gode chere...as preest yn chapel...and on and on and on and on and on! Filler!

In medieval verse, filler words and lines fulfil a very specific function. It is not easy to go on for hundreds, if not thousands, of rhyming, scanning*** lines without plugging in a few inconsequential bits now and again. The better poets either manage the filler so well that the reader doesn't particularly notice it or draw attention to it for the sake of irony. Less good poets spend way too much time dragging in Saint Loy every time a character experiences joy, and the filler becomes painful to read.

The newspaper cartoonist has a similar practice, though it generally involves images rather than words. As you can see in today's Adam@Home, Brian Basset has run into a bit of a problem. He has a joke,**** but it is a three-panel joke: the sort of thing that would work well***** in a weekday strip. However, as he has absolutely no better ideas for his Sunday comic, he needs to fit his three-panel content into a six-panel format (with a seventh panel containing a header). His solution is the visual equivalent of the medieval filler line...appropriate enough for someone detailing the life and times of Chaucer's idiot scribe.

Look at the skill with which Basset makes it perfectly, deadeningly clear that he's got nothin'. After a header that is mostly wasted space, the cartoonist provides a hastily drawn picture of Adam's back. We only know it is Adam's back if we are foolish enough to keep reading; wise people who give up after the first panel may think they are looking at a lamp or perhaps someone's kilt. In panel 2, we see Adam (in a red plaid shirt) staring at an exercise bike. In panel 3, we also see Adam staring at an exercise bike, though now, in true medieval-romance-hack fashion, he also appears to be worrying about his weight, thus erasing the import of the joke that follows. The remaining panels contain the actual content of the strip.

It is gratifying that Basset has mastered this important medieval technique. Frankly, all cartoonists should. I hope they do; it gives me joy.

And now I'm finished, by Saint Loy.



*Or possibly lyk flowr in mede.
**I.e., not Saint George.
***Well, relatively scanning.
****Well, relatively a joke.
*****Well, relatively--oh, forget it.

6 comments:

voxindeserto said...

Actually, I don't think that's Adam's back in the first panel. I think it's meant to be his... rather substantial belly.

One might also comment on how our cartoonist manages to comment on both sloth, gluttony and avarice in the same comic - but it does drown a bit in all the filler, really.

Angry Kem said...

Ooh...you're right. Perhaps Brian Basset is trying--and failing--to replicate the great Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons technique whereby the "camera" draws back in a cinematic fashion, allowing more and more of the scene (and more and more of its meaning) to come into view. Unfortunately, Basset gives up after one panel and leaves Adam standing foolishly in the middle of the frame.

He's certainly got sloth, gluttony, and avarice in there...plus pride, since Adam is seemingly unable to admit that he should really be using the damn bike himself. However, Adam is refreshingly void of envy, lechery, and wrath. Maybe Laura is about to cover those. Well...possibly just wrath.

The Prettiest said...

I was really expecting to see something about Barfy's idolatry today. But that wouldn't be so good because there's nothing to translate, unless you wanted to just scrawl a moral message over the entire thing about the lesser beasts not recognizing the glory of whatever.

Then again, Adam didn't present much more material.

Angry Kem said...

Yes...I was tempted by Barfy and the snowman, but there were no words. The closest I've come so far to "translating" a wordless comic is with Stave Three of my Christmas Carol, which coincided with a Garfield comic containing only the word "Blink." I always kind of feel that I need at least one word to justify a translation. If only Barfy had barked! Or panted! Or barked and panted, then urinated on the snowman! Thereby wolde haue hung a moral tale.

Oddly, while Sunday's FC is stupid, it isn't particularly lazy. There is no earthly reason Billy should abandon his dog in the middle of a game, but since he does, Barfy's reaction more or less makes sense. Adam@Home, on the other hand, is both lazy and stupid. Well done, Mr. Basset.

Brian said...

"Knarresbille" -- how delicious-sounding. Was Knarre an actual man's name from the time period? Or is it some derivation of a word meaning "crag", or something along those lines?

Angry Kem said...

"Knarre" means "crag"...and "Craig" also derives from the word "crag." I am doing my usual "find the English definition of the word, then mindlessly translate it" thing. I too was quite pleased with "Knarresbille."