Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Rocks (Quite Literally, It Seems)

There is something eminently pleasing about today's Hagar the Horrible. Sure, it's an antifeminist nightmare of epic proportions--sure, it is reusing the most prevalent of the comic's six jokes--but really, who isn't secretly amused by the image of Helga carefully sliding rocks beneath the sheets on her husband's side of the bed? Even more morally satisfying is that it takes Hagar a while to figure out what's going on, and then he's simply so tired that he just closes his eyes and begins to drift back into highly uncomfortable sleep.

The medieval context makes everything slightly more ominous. Why are Hagar and Helga wearing their helmets to bed? We already know that Hagar, who wears the horns proudly, is a cuckold...but Helga? Is she mocking her husband? Is she implying that she is, er, horny? Did she just forget to take the damn helmet off? Or is she lying there thinking, "I wear a helmet to bed, and you don't care! I put rocks in your bed, and you hardly notice! Maybe tomorrow I should hide my lusty young lover under the sheets. You'll get a real surprise then.*

Helga is the Wife of Bath, my friends. Soon--very soon--she will reveal her true colours. Perhaps she will even introduce a seventh joke to the comic. I can hardly wait.

*A cake! No, wait...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I Always Knew the Titchy One Wasn't Human

I could probably come up with an unconvincing excuse for every single day I've missed abusing legacy strips this week,* but instead, I figure I'll just jump straight in and abuse a legacy strip. It is a very medieval legacy strip, mind. I am eminently pleased with its medievalness.***

Today, you see, we finally receive proof positive that PJ, the Littlest Keane, is destined to be a hero. He already meets at least one folkloric criterion: he is the youngest of three sons. As any ardent admirer of fairy tales will tell you, it's always the third son who gets the booty; the other two are generally rude to little old ladies in the forest and end up inadvertently chopping off their own limbs.**** As a third son, PJ is probably inclined to sit on top of the oven all day, eating his own lice and pretending to be an idiot.*****

However, Dolly, in pointing out that he possesses paws instead of feet, is also identifying him with a folkloric motif that was quite popular in the Middle Ages: that of the hero with only one human parent. PJ is clearly descended from some sort of beast or demon, and he has a half-bestial form. The little tyke may seem sweet when he squinches his eyes shut and beams a sunny smile at the world, but believe me: hidden beneath PJ's PJs are hairy, deformed feet and the beginnings of a tail. It is probably only a matter of time before the kid starts breaking magical swords, riding untamed man-eating horses, and storming the Holy Land for fun.****** Eventually, someone will betray him; the traitor will be hanged by the neck until he is almost dead, then forced to watch himself be disemboweled and castrated and his entrails and genitalia burned in front of his eyes before he is beheaded and carved into four pieces that will be displayed in public.******* It's not easy being a half-human hero; it's even less easy being the person who stabs him in the back.

This latest revelation should give us new insight into the Keane family. We really need to stop mocking PJ. He's going to have a hard enough life, poor thing.

*For instance, my unconvincing excuse for yesterday is that I spent the evening in pain because while I was returning from the grocery story with my dinner, I slipped on the new-fallen snow in the middle of an intersection and smashed my knees on the pavement so hard that I first nearly threw up and then nearly fainted. The excuse is a stupid one, since my knees are not connected to my brain,** but I foolishly stand by it.
**Except that they clearly kind of are, since there's no other reason sore knees should make me want to throw up and faint.

***Medievality? Medievalitude?
****I am absolutely not making any of this up. I like fairy tales, so I know.
*****I'm not making this up either.
******We are talking about the Keanes here. Richard the Lionheart has nothing on the Keanes.
*******This punishment for high treason was on the books in England until 1814. After 1814, the punishment remained the same, but the traitor was dead for most of it. Everything but the hanging was abolished by 1870. Incidentally, the punishment was for men only; women were burned at the stake. I Am Not Making This Up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

...Eyes Like Smouldering Flames...

Sorry about the comicless day yesterday, folks. Tuesdays generally suck for me; I lecture for seven hours and don't finish the last class until 9:30 p.m. My night students were laughing at me yesterday because I had to stop every five minutes and take a drink of water; if I hadn't, my voice would have been entirely gone by the end of the three-hour session. There may be a few comicless Tuesdays this term.

However, I couldn't blow off today's comic as well because it provided such a good portrait of how the Antichrist--better known as Marmaduke the Devil Dog--might operate as he led the world towards fiery ruin. Notice how the hell-beast's "owners" cringe from him in horror as he emits the bizarre sound "whoof!" The extra "h" tells us that Marmaduke's every utterance is unnatural, bloated with unnecessary letters. He keeps his slaves in thrall and torments them with fiendish visitors from the most hideous regions of Hell. They know that if they disobey, he will devour them...and keep on devouring them for eternity. There is no winning when you live with the Antichrist.*

*Especially when you have to fill his food bowl every single day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Love of "Nature"...Oh, Yes

The titular character of Mark Trail has, at long lost, embarked on a new adventure. Fresh from fighting a dragon-like creature and being tempted by the devil, Mark has become enmeshed in a tragic tale of forbidden love. Poor Patty is clearly having an affair with Bucky; when her husband appears, she rushes the deer out the back door while addressing him as "honey."* Mark and Cherry, themselves animal lovers,** are not shocked by Patty's tragic and doomed relationship with the woodland creature. When Mark is not punching someone in the beard, he is quite open-minded.

One might also see a common medieval story type emerging here. Bucky may very well be an incubus disguised as a deer. Knowing Patty's predilections, he has cleverly wormed his way into her affections and will soon impregnate her with a half-demon child who will go on to advise King Arthur on the running of his ki--no, wait, that's Merlin. All right...the half-demon child will become a great king and eventually go off to the Holy Land to eat Saracen brains for di--no, that's Richard the Lionheart.*** Fine: the half-demon child will grow up to rape and burn alive all the nuns in one convent before he repents and is ordered by the Pope to crawl on the ground like a dog until--oh, damn, that's Gowther. At any rate, the child will be unusual and probably heroic.****

I am rooting for the half-demon child. If he appears, Mark Trail may actually become halfway interesting.

*Considering the context, I just had to translate "honey" as "dereling."
**I.e., people who love animals, not people who looooooooooove animals. Or so I assume.
***I am not making this up. There's a verse romance and everything.
****In the non-Disney sense of the word "heroic." I could tell you about medieval heroes. It would take a rather long time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Could Someone Please Help Brother Francis With His Hormones?

Today seems to be another of those "Gosh, I wish I could translate every comic in existence" days. Beetle Bailey has General Halftrack gazing adoringly at a picture of someone he says is Ronald Reagan, though the guy actually looks more like Adolph Hitler. B.C. makes fun of accordion players.* Blondie waxes poetic on the beauty of the obsolete; outmoded stuff, it claims, will one day become popular again. Crock has two characters debating that age-old question, "What do women want?", while standing on top of a phallus-shaped tower. Hagar the Horrible reinforces the solid medieval truth that a woman's place is in the home. The Marvin colourists make the mistake of covering Marvin with chocolate ice cream, in the process causing him to look as if he has had a bowel movement and smeared feces all over his body. Marmaduke involves the Really Big Dog preparing to eat an entire boys' football team. Spider-Man gives us a hero who faints after he is knocked down by water.**

However, I think I'm going to have to go with my first impulse and choose Archie. It's been a while since we've checked on Brother Francis, the breast-obsessed young monk who has never exchanged words with a woman in his life. Today, we see Brother Francis projecting his libido onto his young hero. Just take a look at the direction of Archie's gaze there. Veronica may be expressing noble, albeit patently false, sentiments as she projects little hearts into the air with her mind, but Archie's brain is clearly going, "BOOBIES BOOBIES BOOBIES BOOBIES BOOBIES." The grin is not Archie being suave; it is Archie achieving orgasm.

Brother Francis tries to cover up his personal stake in the content of the comic by giving it a flimsy frame that simply parrots everything he's ever heard about women: they claim to exist only for the men in their lives, they actually exist only for the money in their lives, and they project little hearts into the air with their minds. The antifeminist stereotyping may also very well be the good brother's attempt to convince himself that women really are the root of all evil. The guilt that he feels every time his thoughts stray to breasts has made him overcompensate by vilifying not himself but the wicked creatures who cause his sin.

Note that in the second panel, Veronica's breasts have disappeared. Fight it, Brother Francis. Fight the lure of the evil, evil mammaries. You can do it. And if you can't, you can always nip into your cell for a bit of private time.

*I am the scourge of cartoonists who make fun of accordion players...the scourge, I say. Mock accordionists at your own risk, Hack Writers of Doom!
Some of these links will continue to work forever; some may not. Curse you, Inconsistent but Otherwise Useful Houston Chronicle comics page.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I Am Weeping at the Lost Opportunity

It is quite clear to me that the hacks who produce Shoe are medieval at heart. When they're not mocking the French via allegorical cannibalism, they're discussing other medieval-flavoured subjects...such, today, as the seven deadly sins. The mind-twisting image of birds eating meatloaf barely even registers, so prevalent is the completely unexpected conversation on the Deadlies.* However, the conversation is only "unexpected" if one doesn't take into account the fact that these cartoonists are utterly unacquainted with the twenty-first century and everything in it.

If they had been even slightly familiar with, oh, the last hundred years or so of cultural history, they would not have screwed up their own joke so unforgivably. Sure, it's hilarious** to take the seven deadly sins, which loomed large in the lives of medieval people but don't really come up in casual conversation all that much today, and change one of them to something that insults one of your friends...but for optimum zing, you have to pick 1) the right sin and 2) the right substitute. Shoe has chosen to excise pride from the list, and he has replaced it with Roz's meatloaf. As pride and meatloaf are generally unrelated--unless, of course, Roz is proud of her cooking--the substitution is only minimally effective. It's true that "pride" is probably the best choice here. "Gluttony" wouldn't work, as Roz's meatloaf apparently causes the opposite of gluttony, and the others wouldn't really fit at all.*** could Shoe not have excised "lust" and replaced it with "your mom"? For crying out loud, Shoe! It's a stupid joke, but it's less stupid than the tired old "your-meatloaf-sucks-because-you-are-a-woman-who-can't-cook-hyuck-hyuck-aren't-I-the-manly-man" angle. If you're going to tell an idiotic joke, make it a "your mom" joke, for pity's sake. "Your mom" jokes never fail to cause juvenile laughter. Don't you want to cause juvenile laughter? Isn't that, in fact, what newspaper comics are there for?

I am disgusted with you, Shoe hacks. You can't even screw up your own ancient joke effectively.

*Why the hell are Roz and Shoe talking about the seven deadly sins? I mean, I know that realistically, the subject has come up because the cartoonists want to make a cheap, stupid joke, but still: are we supposed to believe that a jaded waitress and a cynical newspaper editor are sitting around chewing the fat when one of them suddenly challenges the other to list all seven sins? I think about these things, cartoonists. You are hurting my brain.
**In newspaper-comic terms, that is.
***I'm guessing, however, that Roz is just on the verge of experiencing quite a lot of wrath.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I Bet You Had to Restrain Yourself Physically from Drawing a Sarcastic Halo

It's been a while since Jeff Keane (all grown up) has compared his big brother Billy to Jesus. Last time, he managed to humiliate Billy by drawing him standing in cruciform position while wearing a frilly pink dress. This time, Jeff is, on the surface, slightly less cruel; instead of implying that his brother looks ravishing in lace, he merely assaults the poor guy with a brain-cell-destroying pun. It is not a particularly good pun. Actually, none of the puns that appear in The Family Circus are particularly good puns. It does, however, allow Mr. Keane to use his knowledge of medieval philosophy to make Billy look like a jerkwad.

I seriously believe that Jeff Keane had a hard time not drawing a sarcastic halo here. Little Billy is very much a type of Christ in this comic: glowing, surrounded by the Little Lines of Enlightening,* ready to accost the poor unsuspecting world with his revelations about how 2+2=4. Mary and Joseph--er, Bil and Thel--are amazed by their son's raw intelligence, as well, I suspect, by the Little Lines; they are so impressed that Bil just has to say something incredibly stupid.

However, there is a dark side to this portrait. One should certainly aspire to the imitation of Christ, but Billy's smug smile implies that he is very pleased with his own brilliance. Was Christ not humble? Beware, Billy, of the Sin of Pride. To know you are a type of Christ is to prove that you are not a type of Christ. Jeff Keane, by portraying Billy as a self-satisfied Christ-like figure, is saying to his brother, "Billy, you're going to burn in Hell. In Hell, I say. I don't care that you work for Disney. I'm not at all jealous. You are going to weep blood as you boil in the fat of your victims! Want to come over for dinner on Sunday?"**

*We can't use the word "enlightenment"--oh, no--because that would destroy the pun. Heaven forbid we destroy the pun.
**We're having roast pork and baby peas.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ziggy 2009: The Rise of The Machines

Back in the world of Tom Wilson II, Ziggy is still doing exactly what Ziggy always does: living in a cultural landscape that hasn't been relevant for years. Once again, Mr. Wilson II is struggling against his impulse to take Ziggy all the way back to the Middle Ages. He is not entirely able to defeat this impulse; he is certainly not setting the comic now. Take a look at that computer. I have a computer like that. It is ten years old, and I don't use it any more. It is ancient, dysfunctional, and obsolete...sort of like Ziggy.

The attitude expressed in the comic is also quite an old one. TWII is, in fact, drawing on a social anxiety that existed in 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out: the idea that those newfangled computers are eventually going to become sentient and either kill us all or brainwash us and make us kill each other.* Such an anxiety tends to arise every time a new technology is introduced to a society. In fact, I would wager that TWII is here commenting on computers only because he is not quite brave enough to go all the way back to the printing press. You can almost sense the cartoonist's yearning to draw Ziggy setting type while his parrot worries that his mind will be enslaved to the lower cases.

Be strong, TWII. Follow your first impulse. If you really do just go ahead and make Ziggy as obsolete as hell, it may become a great, great comic strip.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

He Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog

Fred Basset has always been an oddity of a comic strip. First syndicated in 1963 and now drawn by the original artist's daughter and a colleague, this bizarre little daily feature gives us a basset hound named Fred who spends all day behaving quite like a dog and thinking abstract little thoughts that have very little to do with anything at all. I will freely admit that I do not "get" Fred Basset. I am not convinced that there is anything there to "get." Granted, I will take its whimsy over the blatant stupidity of Crock, but I do sometimes wish that Fred would get the hell out of the 1970s. Perhaps his owners could even break out of their gender roles. That might be fun.

In today's strip, however, the authors demonstrate that, in true medieval fashion, they recognise the greatness of their own work. As medieval writers aspired to be "auctors" whose work would be cited and honoured by others, so do Michael Martin and Arran Graham. Their determination to have their greatness recognised has led to them placing a collection of Fred Basset comics amidst books labelled, "Tolstoy," "Dickens," "Proust," and "Mark Twain."* The self-promotion isn't even disguised. Well done, you guys.

Next week, tune in to watch Fred eat a chocolate, imply to his owner that he needs to go for a walk, and join the Third Crusade. It promises to be quite a good time.

P.S.: I had to make some stuff up here. There is no Middle English equivalent for "eponymous." Since there's also no modern English synonym, I had to break the word down and cobble it together out of tiny scraps of English (instead of Greek). There is also no Middle English equivalent for "hero" in the way meant here. Ah well.
P.P.S.: This is Japes' hundredth post. Hip. Hip. Hurrah!

*Why does only Twain get a first name? This is going to bother me for days.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Darkness Visible (and a Big Blue Monster)

What a crazy, mixed-up landscape the Inferno portrayed in Overboard is. Here we have the intriguing concept of Hell as a ship forever adrift on the Ocean of Eternity, pointlessly moving over the waves in apparent search of treasure the pirates/damned souls never do find. The dispirited battles with the Green Ship (take note: green is one of the devil's favourite colours),* the dead-eyed dalliances with various female characters who soon inexplicably disappear and are forgotten, the misguided attempts to demonise the accordion: all are aspects of a particularly interesting kind of eternal damnation. Flying-Dutchman-like, the doomed ship never stops questing as its demonic vermin (at last count, two dogs, a whole colony of mice, nightmarishly huge rabbits that own little boats, and at least one scaly green monster) keep the tormented pirates on their toes.

Today's strip introduces a new variable into the equation. It seems that Louie, main demonic guardian of the ship, functions to keep the pirates in but also to keep other monsters out. The blue infant Cthulhu that appears today is clearly not welcome aboard. This scenario raises an interesting possibility: perhaps hell-spawn are actually territorial. Each demon is in charge of its own little segment (or circle) of Hell and will not let other demons intrude. "Mine," says Louie in his great universal "Grrrrrrr." "These pirates are mine to send into screaming, writhing despair until the end of time. Go find your own bankrupts or tax lawyers to torment. This is not the blue-squid-monster zone! Gawd!"**

We need more courageous comics that are set not in offices or suburban split-levels but, in fact, in Hell.*** Nicely done, Chip Dunham.

P.S.: It's my birthday. I can think of no better day on which to write about Hell.

*It's true. In various folk tales, not to mention Chaucer's Friar's Tale, the devil wears a green coat. I could go on drearily for a bit about possible implications, but let's just leave it at the fact that the folkloric devil likes green.
**Or, you know, "Saytan!"
***Actually, come to think of it, it's entirely possible that comics involving offices and suburban split-levels are set in Hell.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Day the Newspaper Comic Died

Dear Brooke McEldowney, Creator of 9 Chickweed Lane and Pibgorn:

I have stood up for you. I have gone to the freaking wall for you. I have looked back upon your older comics with approval, for though many mock them for their unusually literate teenage characters and their tendency to rely on a lot (a lot) of words, I happen to like words. I also happen to have been an unusually literate teenager, and so I do know that such creatures exist. I appreciate the fact that your older strips deal with the sorts of characters not usually found in the funny pages. It is especially pleasant to see you focusing on three generations of a family from which all the men have departed; the dynamics between grandmother, mother, and daughter are nicely handled. None of the three protagonists is particularly stereotypical, and all are fun to watch.

Alas...I mean "were." They were fun to watch. A few years ago, the youngest protagonist, Edda, moved to the city to pursue a career as a ballerina. Since then, the strip has been heading steadily downhill. Edda has lost her gentleness and originality and become--must I say it?--an intolerable, backstabbing little bitch. She spends every strip whining. So do all the other characters. For the last year or so, Edda and her on-again, off-again childhood sweetheart Amos have been at odds for no real good reason except that Edda is a jerk and Amos a jellyfish. Now you have brought them together again.

I am sorry to say that the reunion of Amos and Edda has propelled your once-promising strip into Japes territory. Well...I'm not that sorry. How often do I get the chance to translate phrases such as, "Helplessly, uncontrollably, her fate imminent, manifest" into Middle English? You have provided me with some deliciously juicy words there. You see? There's still hope! You could still pull yourself out of this terrible, terrible tailspin and make your comic worth reading again! At the moment, it seems a little (dare I say) self-indulgent, with Edda and Amos smooching and having hand-sex* all the freaking time. In today's comic, you even thrust the once-independent Edda** into the stereotypical role that has been allotted women since the Dawn of Sexism. Replace Edda with any medieval maiden, and the comic will remain essentially the same.

You know what, Mr. McEldowney? Women exist for more purposes than showing off their bodies and being protected by men. I used to think you realised this, but if you did, you seem to have changed your mind. Welcome to 1381, sir. Come join the party, to which I have also invited the creators of The Family Circus, Hagar the Horrible, Crock, The Wizard of Id, Hi and Lois, and many, many more. I think you'll fit right in. Have some roast boar.

I did once think, Mr. McEldowney, that your comic was one of the things about the funny pages that was actually pretty okay. I really hate it when I'm wrong.

Yours sincerely,

Angry Kem.

P.S.: And if you want to see something really bizarre, check out Pibgorn.
P.P.S.: In the spirit of obscurity and self-indulgence, I have used medieval Roman numerals in the title panel.

*Hand-sex is a peculiarly McEldowneyish phenomenon that involves the cartoonist drawing hands and arms in various states of entanglement in order to represent intercourse. There has been a lot of hand-sex in 9 Chickweed Lane lately.
**Note for the uninitiated: Superlative Girl is Edda's imaginary alter-ego. She is usually able to fly. Apparently, love has deprived her of this power. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

More Evidence for Jack Straw

The Wizard of Id is really quite a misunderstood comic. We complain about its cardboard characters and irrelevant content without understanding that it is actually commenting, with profoundly up-to-the-moment cleverness, on the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. My uncertainty as to whether the King in the comic represents Richard II or Richard III has now definitively been resolved in favour of the former. Today, The Wizard of Id comes right out and tells us that the advent of Jack Straw et al is right around the corner.

This strip succinctly summarises the situation in 1381, albeit with some of the main players disguised. The mention of taxes is a very slightly veiled reference to the unfair poll tax that angered commoners after its institution in 1377. The King's insistence on keeping all taxes, even in the face of revolution,* echoes the real-life situation in the early 1380s, though as Richard II was only fourteen at the time and most of the governing of his kingdom was done by his powerful advisers, it is possible that the "King" in the comic is really only a puppet, a mouthpiece through which the words of John of Gaunt and all his little friends can issue. Rodney, here representative of the more far-seeing (and less powerful) nobles, warns the King of what is coming and proposes a cowardly but workable solution that the King (read: Gaunt) utterly rejects. Once again, the creators of The Wizard of Id are lampooning the government of the day and urging readers to join in their crusade.**

It is truly tragic that these comics are appearing so many centuries too late.

*Sort of like Rorschach, who vows to pursue his self-destructive course "even in the face of Armageddon." Yes, I like Watchmen. Yes, I have read it many times. Yes, I just quoted it from memory. So sue me.
**Who will be strong and stand with...them?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Play That Funky Music, Old Boy

The demon Wikipedia* tells us that Tom Batiuk first started publishing Funky Winkerbean in 1972. Many have remarked that the early Funky was a funny, irreverent comic dealing with the trials and tribulations of several high-school students and their teachers. I believe each strip ended with an actual punchline. The comic also contained larger-than-life elements that added to its humour. The characters did not age; they remained eternally in high school.

In 1992, Batiuk jumped the comic forward ten years, now portraying the same characters in adulthood. The characters started to age. At the same time, the story began to get more serious as the comic fell victim to Cerebus Syndrome.** The demon Wikipedia mentions the following issues as prevalent in the strip during these years: teen pregnancy, suicide, censorship, dyslexia, gun violence, steroids, capital punishment, bullying, child abuse, teacher-student relationships, alcoholism, breast cancer, and land mines in Afghanistan. Wikipedia forgets to include hearing loss and amputation in this list, but I think you probably get the picture.

In 2007, the strip jumped forward another ten years. Now the original high-school students are fat, balding failures with rebellious teenage children, and the Cerebusity of the strip is more apparent than ever. It is not a terrible comic--I would choose it in an instant over some of its more stagnant little friends--but Batiuk really does seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word "comic." Funky Winkerbean has evolved from an enjoyable gag-a-day comic to a seething cauldron of soul-deadening despair. If you enjoy witnessing a world from which all hope has been erased, read Funky Winkerbean.

This view of life as difficult and rife with the fickleness of Fortune is, of course, quite medieval. The comic does an admirable job of portraying the bleak day-to-day life that one must bear if one wishes to float happily up to Heaven in the end. Note today's strip: even just in the first panel, we have a one-armed woman watching as a man who has lost quite a lot of his hearing while conducting a high-school band lectures a bunch of teenagers on earplugs. In the Funkyverse, it is important to crush the younger generation as quickly as possible; Harry Dinkle here hastens to disabuse his audience of the notion that playing music in a large group can be fun. We must not have fun! We must save the fun for Heaven, which probably isn't fun at all! This makes perfect sense! Despair, little Funkies...despair!

*May it be cast forever into a fiery pit of perdition, obviously.
**Click on this link at your own risk. It is safe for work, but it is not safe if you want to work; TV Tropes is the sort of site on which one can happily spend hours and hours and freaking hours.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Love Is Apparently Quite Morbid

I already had a headache when I came across today's Love Is.... Now my headache has grown to monstrous size, and I'm still not sure why the legacy clone who produces this comic thought it was a good idea to draw his heroine weeping over her lover's grave. I know the Loveshmoos are quite mutable--sometimes courting, sometimes married, sometimes having kids--but come on...death? In a Love Is... comic? Stefano Casali, have you gone mad*?

A medieval context may cast at least a faint light on this...whatever this is. The female Lovescmoo is clearly sinning here; she is weeping over her swetynge's mortal remains instead of being happy that he has departed this vale of tears for his wondrous, well-deserved afterlife. Her relentless focus on the World and the Flesh (plus, by implication, the Devil) is going to land her in the Bad Place and not win her an eternal place by Mr. Loveshmoo's side.

Woe, quoth the cartoonist. Woe, doom, and despair! Learn to let go, you fools! By placing flowers on some guy's grave, you are flirting with eternal damnation! Marmaduke will come for you and drag you down to Hell!

It is, of course, entirely possible that I am wholly misinterpreting this comic, and the Loveshmoo is actually just hugging her surfboard. It's surprisingly difficult to tell.

*...der than usual?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

An Apple a Day Does Not Avert the Apocalypse

Marmaduke, ladies and gentlemen, is still a great big dog. However, his secondary role as the Antichrist is becoming more and more clear as time goes on. Witness today's comic. The female Munchkin is helping the male Munchkin with what seems to be a subtraction problem; he is worrying his poor little head over the fiendishly difficult question of what six minus one equals. The Munchkins have raided their mother's fridge* and/or fruit bowl in a quest for a visual aid that this incredibly stupid child can use to help him with his math homework. Along comes Marmaduke and slavers over the apples, despite the fact that dogs tend not to like apples much. What on earth is going on?

Well...note that the Munchkins have stolen six apples. The current problem evidently deals with the number six, but what about the others? Surely a child who is incapable of figuring out that six minus one equals five without help is going to need apples for every homework question. We can thus reach the conclusion that no problem on that sheet necessitates the presence of more than six apples. There are three questions. Is it not possible that every one of them involves subtraction from the number six?

Six. Six. Six. Antichrist strikes again.

Of course Marmaduke is slavering over the apples; they represent his future conquest of the world. He will devour them just as he will devour everything else. The little girl, who has demonstrated in the past her place as one of his main disciples, recognises this fact and urges her brother (another disciple) to finish his math before the Devourer of Worlds gets going on the terror and despair.

Enoch and Elijah are going to turn up any day now. Just wait for it.

*It is undoubtedly sexist of me to assume that the fridge belongs to the mother. Then again, this is Marmaduke we're talking about here. The fridge does belong to the mother, who is undoubtedly currently ensconced near it, dressed in a skirt and high heels and probably baking cookies.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Happy Man Wore No Shirt

American cartoonists have lately been freaking out quite a lot about the economy; they seem to believe that it is their duty to comment wryly upon a problem that affects their dwindling and apathetic readership, even if the jokes they manage to churn out tend to be weak.* Most of the comics that appear on this blog have been created by people who probably aren't going to be all that affected by the economic downturn, seeing as even if all they do to earn a living is create Crock, they are apparently set for life. Their "Oh gosh, we're in a recession!" jokes thus ring a little false. They also tend to be behind the times, albeit through no real fault of their own; the syndicates' requirement that cartoonists finish their work weeks, if not months, ahead of time leads even the cleverest of cartoonists into the kind of unfortunate error made yesterday by one of my favourite comic creators, Stephan Pastis.

At any rate, every time I read a comic strip revolving around the economy, I cringe and want to burn things. The only redeeming quality in today's Momma** is its profound medieval philosophical background; otherwise, it is just another stupid comic about how hilarious poverty is when it happens to people who aren't the cartoonist.

Francis, Momma's ne'er-do-well son, is here portrayed haunting Momma's dreams as a scruffy panhandler whose plea to the general public revolves around the fact that he was poor first. This argument may seem to be somewhat along the lines of, "What do you mean you're going to eat your last peanut butter sandwich? I was hungry first!", but hey, whatever works for dream-Francis works for me. What makes the comic interesting is Francis's little smile. It can be seen as smug ("Ha! I've found the perfect argument for why you should give me money! It sucks to be you!"), but I prefer to view it as a simple indication that Francis really isn't bothered by anything much and will be quite as happy if everyone ignores him as he will if everyone showers him with dollar bills.

In fact, Momma is having a profoundly significant dream that she is probably going to misunderstand completely. Her son Francis is actually following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; he is cheerfully poor and entirely willing to live mostly on handouts.*** Unlike Momma herself, who is eternally discontented with her lot and spends much of her time whining, Francis rolls with the punches while emulating his Saviour. His message on the wall can be read as a plea for cash, but it can also be read as a statement of contentment: "Yes, you people are all broke, but I've been broke forever, and I'm doing all right. Would you like to become my disciples?"

Francis also illustrates the story of the Happy Man. Very briefly: a king whose son seems to be pining away through sheer unhappiness goes to a wise man for a remedy and is told to find his son "the happy man's shirt." The king searches far and wide, but everyone he meets is anxious or sad or plagued with worries in some way or another. He is about to give up in despair when he comes across a ragged fellow in a patched coat and breeches who is wandering through the forest, whistling. The king questions him and realises that he has, in fact, found a perfectly happy man. He demands the man's shirt...whereupon the man unbuttons his coat and shows the king that he has no shirt. The moral, of course, is supposed to be that one should be content with one's lot in life and not always be longing for more. You think Francis is a waste of space, Momma? Wrong! He's a born philosopher...a shirtless happy man who embodies Christian morals much more completely than you do. Ha ha HA!

Not everyone is able to appreciate the multiple layers of Momma. It's really too bad that it isn't studied by more academics. I think there's a dissertation in there somewhere.

*Just like all the other jokes they manage to churn out on any subject at all, admittedly.
**Betcha never thought you'd ever hear anyone utter the phrase "redeeming quality in today's Momma."
***Plus perhaps a miraculous multiplying fish or two.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Figowitz, Figowitz, (Humperdink), Figowitz!

Now, Crock has never been sane. Yesterday's comic, which I'm kind of sad I didn't see in time, is a case in point; it involves Grossie (the Fat-Women-Are-Hilarious character in orange you can see below) inadvertently poisoning an entire regiment with "hash." Today's comic is just as insane in a different way. Sad-sack Figowitz thinks he's a failure, so Grossie tells him to smile if he wants the world to smile with him. Figowitz smiles. Then...


...the world...goes away? The world winks out? The sun goes down? Someone turns off the lights? The world does not want to smile with Figowitz? Trite sayings don't apply to Figowitz? Figowitz is the Cheshire Cat? Figowitz is in the dark about...stuff?

I just like writing "Figowitz"?

I don't know, Crock creators*...I think you need help. Seriously, dudes: the fact that you think you are funny tells me that you are actually both freaking lunatics. Why are people paying you for your nonsensical scribbles? I shall pound my head on walls!

Medievalisation only helps marginally here; Crock is insane in a medieval context as well as a modern one. Clearly, this strip is an allegory gone awry. Figowitz, as Everyman, is despairing because he doesn't seem to succeed at anything he tries. Grossie pops up as Truth or Good Deeds or something and points out, in a cliche that was old even in the 1350s, that There's No Use Complaining Because a Positive Attitude Conquers All (and besides, if you suffer in this life, perhaps you will be all warm and happy and blissful and harp-playing in the next life, especially if you're all paid up in indulgences, or something). Figowitz smiles and immediately turns into Job.

My theory is that each panel has been created by a different monk...not one of our regular bunch, but some visiting monks who have amused themselves by having a comic jam. They meant to burn the results, but Brother Lawrence, who wouldn't recognise "humour" if it joined him in prayer, sent it in to the syndicate. Thanks a lot, Brother Lawrence.

*Why the hell does it take two of you to churn out this hideous monstrosity from Hades? Inquiring minds want to know.

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!).


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 Mary, full of God's Christ's sond Saint Saint other saints with good rhyming names** Isidore Austin myn auctor saith...quoth I...quoth he...God send you alle gode 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.

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.

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."