Friday, February 27, 2009

Francis, Francis, FRANCIS...

I am drowning in marking, but it's late Friday night, so I shall pause for a moment to impart some medieval observations regarding our good friend, Brother Francis, Creator of Archie and Lover of the Female Form.

One of the qualities about Brother Francis that I find truly endearing is his adoration of breasts at the expense of absolutely everything else about his comic. Brother Francis, who does not know any women personally, nonetheless is so fascinated by the curvy bits on their fronts that he tends to draw random girls who have absolutely nothing to do with his strips in the foreground while the actual named characters fade into the background. So intent on the breasts is he that he does utterly silly things such as making Betty's and Veronica's silhouettes into deformed Rorschach blots, drawing a little Kool-Aid face on Betty's purse,* inserting a mannequin head wearing a coonskin cap into the background, and giving Veronica a "credit card" that is half the size of her head.** What does it matter? None of these things are boobies. No one is looking at them, anyway.

Eventually, Brother Francis is going to give up on the background altogether. Archie strips will become an endless parade of bosoms, each more swollen than the last. After that, it will only be a matter of time before the other monks enter his cell one day to find him huddled in a corner, giggling madly and trying to make love to his mattress.

*Or is that a truly terrible attempt at creating the Watchmen happy face? If so, Brother Francis is falling into a sad little trap that often ensnares his fellow cartoonist-monks as well; he thinks he is being edgy and up-to-date, whereas he is actually just demonstrating his extraordinary ignorance.

**Yes, Josh Fruhlinger made a similar observation earlier today. I am late. And slow. And wanting not to mark any more. Damn it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

So Simple, and Yet So Very Not Profound

Fred Basset is like raisins: relatively inoffensive but disappointing to find in a cookie you thought contained chocolate.* The strip's humour ranges from mild to completely nonexistent, and while it's hard to see why it has survived for so long, it's even harder to work up a good loathing against it. I don't like it in my cookies, but I'll force it down if there's nothing else to eat.

Every once in a while, however, you get a raisin that has fermented and acts as a hallucinogen.** Today's Fred Basset is such a raisin, though it is perhaps less "hallucinogenic" than it is "completely bloody insane."

The comic reminds me, disturbingly, of a cross between Nancy and Love Is.... Fred is smiling just like either Nancy or a Loveshmoo while making a cryptic statement that means nothing but would fit nicely on a Hallmark card. One imagines that just before he drew this strip, the cartoonist 1) ran out of ideas for good and 2) bought a new compass. He played with the latter while attempting to deal with the former, thus producing the...thing...we see below.

The strip does make more sense in Middle English. Fred's conversion of his world from square to round would make a great allegory for the achievement of spiritual enlightenment. Fred has taken the unnatural corners of his universe and converted them into circles...a circle, of course, being a symbol of the completeness of the Almighty. The dog's obvious bliss in the final round panel is understandable, as Fred is now encompassed within the circle and has become one with his Creator. It's all very beautiful, really.

Moving spiritual allegory or absolute freaking lunacy? You decide.

*Actually, I can't stand raisins, but I wanted to make a simile.
**This is not true at all. I'm still doing the thing with the simile, except now it has become a metaphor. Oops.

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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Allegorical Dessert Foods, Inc.

The hack who currently produces Marmaduke is really getting into this whole Antichrist thing. Today's comic is an excellent illustration of the rich meaning inherent in the view of Marmaduke as the Devourer of Worlds, Harbinger of the End, Child (Metaphorical or Otherwise) of the Devil, Et Cetera, Et Cetera. Run from the Beast, Marmaduke-flavoured Munchkins. That Antichrist is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. And it absolutely will not stop--ever--until you are dead.*

Below, we see two small, perspiring children hiding behind an ominous black bush as Marmaduke slavers above them, his focus apparently on the doughnuts they hold. Many would claim that Marmaduke is actually aiming to consume their tender young flesh; I, however, believe that he really is yearning after those doughnuts, which clearly represent the souls of the boys clutching them. The golden-haired youngster, generally portrayed as one of Antichrist's disciples, seems to be coming slowly to the realisation that the Beast does not mean him well; he demonstrates his new wisdom by coming out with a cliche that would be annoying if it were not, in this context, so very, very true. Cower, tiny mortals, for the End of Days is at hand, and the Great Big Dog will--after a few amusing adventures resulting from his size--bring down everlasting night. Doom. Doom. Doom.**

*Or, you know, wracked with eternal torment in the fiery bowels of Hell. The Terminator really has nothing on the Antichrist.
**In other news, it was a beautiful day today. How are you?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Most Wonderful Thing About Crockers...Is There Is Only One

I spent today having fun in such wildly disparate ways (after a dim sum lunch, my friends and I played mahjong for several hours, then grabbed some sushi and went to see Coraline) that I almost feel that I really may not be hallucinating today's Crock. If I had, say, marked for twelve hours--as I probably should have done--I would have been more willing to dismiss the comic below as a delusion brought on by too many misspellings of the word "writing."* The juxtaposition of several earnest discussions regarding the most efficient way to stack mahjong tiles and the viewing of a 3D film involving characters with big black buttons for eyes has left me quite willing to accept that Crock's insanity is nothing out of the ordinary.

As you can see, Mssrs. Rechin and Wilder have absolutely no idea how sugar works. They seem to think that it makes everyone who consumes it, including legionnaires who are generally portrayed as being on the verge of starvation, grin madly and bounce around like Tigger. Never mind that the sugar is not replacing the actual nutrients that generally keep the soldiers lethargic and despairing; it is apparently capable of energising them to a miraculous degree.

In fact, what we are witnessing here is clearly either a miracle or a demonic possession. As Crock has proven itself to be consistently medieval, I am going to have to go with the latter. Medieval people certainly enjoyed a good miracle tale, but possession was much more fun. Crock is wrong to admonish Orville; he is not feeding the men sugar but attempting to save their souls by forcing them to fast for their sins. Alas, the devil has entered into them, and all the cook's hard work has been undone.

Tune in next Sunday as Figowitz speaks in tongues for six panels, then belches flame and leaps off a cliff. It should be quite a good time.

*As usual, I'm truly not making this up. I've lost count of all the times my students have discussed "the writting of Stephan King's The Shinning." Sometimes, my brain really hurts a lot.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

His "Hat" is "Wiggling"...Yeah, Uh-Huh

Reading Week has begun, my friends, and therefore, I am back.

Reading Week (for those unacquainted with the oddness of university life) is the week-long "study break" students tend to be given in February. They are not given such a break in the fall term. Go figure, really.

As usual, I shall be spending Reading Week marking midterms. However, as I shall also be spending it not teaching almost every morning, I am going to be able to get back to the comics...and what better day to return to the wonderful world of medieval comics blogging than "Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make" (as our friend Geoffrey Chaucer puts it)? I rather wish that Shoe had been love-themed today; I would have been able to make all sorts of sarcastic comments. Alas, today's Shoe seems to be about reducing the carbon footprint with chocolate. No, it doesn't make sense to me either.*

Now, I hate Valentine's Day. As far as I'm concerned, its only redeeming quality is the fact that it gave rise to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls; otherwise, it can simply go hang. It does, however, produce some absolutely appalling comic strips. Today, we pay a visit to one of those strips.

The Beetle Bailey comic below is not really about Valentine's Day, but I doubt it is a coincidence that it features Killer, the Beetle Bailey character whose purpose in life seems to be to sleep with everything that moves. The necessity of getting 1) Killer to interact with a girl who is 2) not in the army while 3) Killer and his friends are engaged in Killer's second-favourite activity, beer-drinking, has led the cartoonist to set this strip in what appears to be a bar-slash-grocery-store. It is possible that we have here a very subtle Chaucer tribute;*** the jumbled setting may indicate that some sort of dream vision is occurring. I think it more likely that the cartoonist is a lazy ass, but you never do know.

The real medieval content appears with the mention of the word "chivalry" and the almost immediate undercutting of that word by Plato. Killer's "chivalrous" action, which he claims to undertake out of "duty and honor," is, as Plato notes, hollow; his seemingly courteous behaviour is simply a mask for the sexual impulses that are, in this strip, generally represented by the "wiggle" lines around Killer's hat. The hat's motion can almost always be read as indicating that Killer is in a state of physical arousal. Judging by the soldier's self-satisfied expression as he ushers the scantily-clad shopper out the door,**** this strip is no exception.

Today's Beetle Bailey thus encapsulates a common late medieval approach to chivalry, acknowledging the concept's surface ideal while revealing the darker motives that drive it. Actually, Chaucer takes this very same approach in The Parliament of Fowls. Nicely done, Beetle Bailey legacy hacks.

As an apology for my frequent absences this term, I here present to you, for the first (and most likely the last) time ever, a second comic. I include it mostly because though it has nothing to do with the be-cursed concept of be-cursed Valentine's Day, it continues the lovely Family Circus philosophical tradition with a thoughtful question***** that indicates how close the young Keanes are to achieving enlightenment.****** Billy has meditated on why guitar strings are not really strings; Jeffy has described the tragedy of earthly impermanence through the image of a lost spoon; now, Billy inquires as to how one spells "spell" (oh, the irony! The irony!). I am truly surprised that no enterprising blogger has yet produced The Zen Family Circus or The Philosophical Family Circus or something along those lines. There's a need, people.

P.S.: If you are enjoying Valentine's Day, good for you. If not, remember: tomorrow is Half-Price Chocolate Day. Hurrah indeed.

*In fact, it simply doesn't make sense. I advise you not to read it. By the time the Perfesser sticks the light bulb into his ice-cream cone,** your head will already have exploded.
**I am absolutely not making this up.
***Very, very subtle.
****Who shops in a tube dress and high heels? I mean, honestly.
*****Albeit one that has been appearing in comics and bad comedy routines since the dawn of freaking time.
******Or, at least, decent marks in spelling.