Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Suddenly, It All Becomes Clear

Nice as it is to be on a week-long "vacation,"* it is a sad fact that my Tuesday evening class doesn't observe Reading Break (it's an adult-ed class). I therefore spent yesterday writing a lecture and not, in fact, doing comics. Today, however, I have something special for you: possibly the most horrifying Shoe comic ever published. It very much makes up for the fact that Shoe offered no Valentine's Day fodder.

On the surface, the joke in the comic below is fairly conventional. I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere at least half a dozen times; cartoonists enjoy making fun of their overweight characters by implying that they are only skinny on the (absolute) inside. The joke is a relatively safe one. We're meant to go "Hyuck! Hyuck!" over the "skinny" skeleton and move on, still hyucking to ourselves, to find out how Cathy is doing on her endless quest to find a bathing suit that makes her look as if she has just been X-rayed.

However, examine the comic more closely. Check out the skeleton in the X-ray.

That is not a bird skeleton. Okay, granted, the head has a weird beak-like protuberance, but otherwise, we're dealing with a human frame, complete with hands and feet. Inside the big fat Perfesser is a skinny human trying to get out.

Do you realise the implications this revelation has for the universe of Shoe? This goes beyond the usual medieval-style beast fable; it even goes beyond allegory. The characters in Shoe are hybrid creatures, unnatural combinations of humans and birds. They are, in short, monsters. Shoe is not an allegory after all; it is a detailed look at the members of a particularly bizarre monstrous race.

In the Middle Ages, many writers provided descriptions of such races; some invented long accounts of their adventures among the monsters. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is one such account; Mandeville himself is likely an invention, and his "travels" consist of bits and pieces 1) cobbled together from older sources and 2) made up, but the work is still a fascinating look at the way medieval people thought of the lands "over there." Medieval world maps frequently group the monsters around the edges, off on the rim of Africa, and monsters prance through the marginalia of medieval manuscripts (some examples can be found in this blog, which is actually already linked in my own margins). The question as to whether or not monsters count as human is one that--as I've mentioned before--not even St. Augustine can answer definitively.

Shoe courageously tackles this problem by blatantly revealing the human frame beneath the monstrous exterior. It is a memento mori, yes, but it is also a reminder that a monstrous body may very well hide a (potentially) Christian soul. Shoe's writer may actually be advocating that we send missionaries to convert the hideous bird-people in this comic. If Saint Christopher could be saved,** surely the deformed frequenters of Roz's treetop bar have a chance at salvation as well.

At the same time, the Perfesser's oddly human skeleton raises the possibility that our insides may be monstrous. If the inside doesn't have to match the outside, what hideous beast could lurk inside me? That one panel is nightmare fodder. A Perfesser with human insides? *Shudder*. A teenaged girl with a slavering, bestial soul? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh...

I do not think I shall sleep tonight. Thank you, Shoe. Thank you so very much.

*"Vacation" in the sense of "temporarily not teaching three of four classes," not "vacation" in the sense of "relaxing and not having to mark anything."
**Christopher is frequently portrayed as a giant and occasionally as a dog-headed, cannibalistic giant. He may just be my favourite saint.


Fintano said...

Are you familiar with The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World's Greatest Traveller, by Giles Milton?

Angry Kem said...

Nope. Any good? I just hunted up the Amazon listing for the book, and it looks as if Milton is assuming Mandeville existed, really did go on these journeys, and wrote the Travels himself. This assumption makes me squirm quite a lot. The story is fantastic, but like most medieval "histories" and other such "factual" material, it's pretty clearly a compilation.

Jana C.H. said...



Jana C.H.
Saith E.G. Forbes: Never spoil a good story with too much truth.

Fintano said...

I thought it was an interesting book. It's a few years since I read it though.

He puts forth some evidence that there was a real Sir John Mandeville and that he wrote the book. He also finds some evidence in the book that Sir John did some amount of travelling and incorporated some obscure but true information--although this may be information not obtained first-hand. One example is the use of tame cheetahs for hunting in Cyprus. The first part of the book is a fairly believable description of a trip to the Eastern Mediterranean, with some interesting verifiable factual details--plus some gross exaggerations.

He points out that readers of the time would not have been very interested in a factual travel story, hence the incorporation of all sorts of fantastic tales in contemporary taste. Many of these tales can be traced to other writers (although they might still have a grain of truth, e.g., the dog-faced men could be baboons). And there are some plausible descriptions, e.g., the practise of suttee in India.

He also proposes that the second half be interpreted as an allegorical attack on the Church, since Mandeville selected from his sources only tales that emphasize the natural morality of the grotesque savages, in contrast to the Christians depicted in the first half. His discussion of the circumnavigation of the globe is very interesting for its time, and of course favours the ancient Greeks over the teachings of the Church.

I suspect you might find it worth reading even if you are not convinced in the end.

K. Ivan said...

St. Christopher is definatly MY favorite saint. I even still have a St. Christopher's medal that I wear semi-reguarly