Dilbert 2.0: 20 Years of Dilbert. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $85.
You got that right: 85 bucks for cartoons. And it’s worth every penny. It’s even a bargain. Why, it costs $150 in Australia! (Of course, those are Australian dollars. And it’s still a bargain.) Scott Adams’ Dilbert strips are the latest beneficiary of Andrews McMeel’s extremely clever idea of packaging top-notch comics in huge, heavy, handsome hardcover volumes, selling them as coffee-table books or tomes worthy of bookshelf places of honor alongside, say, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Except that you’ll probably read Adams’ work more often (along with the hardcovers of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, previously released this way).
The 2,000 or so strips reproduced in Dilbert 2.0 are only part of the book’s attraction. It also includes a CD with thousands of other strips – more than 6,500 in all. And the book offers some really wonderful history of the strip, including Adams discussing his early years (starting with his birth) and reproducing a formative letter from a TV host named Jack Cassady, whose early encouragement was a seminal influence on the budding cartoonist (the book is dedicated to Cassady).
Dilbert 2.0 is a fascinating and very worthwhile historical document: Adams takes the strip through four stages that he calls “The Early Years,” The Boom Years,” “The Dot-Com Bubble” and “The Modern Era,” showing how the characters developed and how his themes changed over time. And on a lot of pages, Adams has nothing whatsoever to say – which is just fine. The strips on those pages speak for themselves, usually saying something like, “Ha ha.” This should not be ignored. The strip’s tremendous commercial success (it is carried by more than 2,000 newspapers), its international appeal, the controversies it has generated (about everything from the quality of Adams’ art to some managers’ insistence on banning the strip for being, ahem, bad for morale), and its influence on other strips (through its three-panel format and Adams’ inspiration of Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis, for example) sometimes obscure the fact that Dilbert is hilarious, day after day after day. Yes, the early strips tended to flail around at times as Adams looked for a focus – he himself discusses this. Yes, some of strips wander off track – it is possible for a three-panel strip to be too long if the joke is over by the second panel, as happens occasionally. But in the vast majority of cases, Adams – abetted by his readers, who constantly send him Dilbert-worthy examples of corporate behavior from their own firms – manages to hit the proverbial corporate nail on its proverbial corporate head (or some other part of its proverbial corporate anatomy) time after time.
Dilbert 2.0 fills in some background in genuinely interesting ways. It is no surprise that Adams was influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side, for example, but it is a surprise to find out that his early strips contained very little in the background because of time pressure, not lack of artistic ability: “During this period I was working my day job at Pacific Bell. I woke up at 4 a.m. every workday and completed a comic in pencil before heading for my other job. …I worked every weekend, and every holiday, for the first ten years. That’s why I rarely drew background scenery. I literally didn’t have the time.”
It is also interesting, in a different way, when Adams shares his intentions in certain strips: “Does the doorway to the bureaucracy look like a sphincter muscle? That’s what I was shooting for.” And the contrast between some strips as Adams originally conceived them and as they were eventually allowed into newspapers is also worth seeing: apparently syndicate and newspaper editors have problems with talking babies looking at women’s chests, a would-be “boss’s pet” doing “the thing on my leg,” and an engineer finding “porn” on the boss’s computer (“smut,” however, was deemed an acceptable word). Oh – and let’s not forget the ongoing insights into Adams’ thought processes. For example: “Few things make me prouder than finding the perfect word for a sound effect.” And: “I’m always looking for the ultimate exaggeration. Spitting at a product until dying of dehydration is one of my better efforts.”
At the end of Dilbert 2.0 – that would be oversize page number 576 – Adams tells readers, “It has always been a challenge to put more absurdity in Dilbert than you might find in a typical workplace.” This book shows how successful Adams has become at exaggerating real-world work life – if, in fact, he is exaggerating it at all, rather than merely illustrating it. Either way, in this season of gift-giving, Dilbert 2.0 makes a wonderful present for that special put-upon someone who toils day after day in a large, bureaucracy-choked, soul-stultifying corporation. If that describes you, you owe the book to yourself.