14 Years of Loyal Service in a Fabric-Covered Box: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Children at Play: A “Cul de Sac” Collection. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
The Natural Disorder of Things: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 25. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Lust and Other Uses for Spare Hormones: A “Zits” Look at Relationships. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Math, Science, and Unix Underpants: A Themed “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Thirteen dollars gets you an uncounted number of laughs from a wide variety of sources in a size you can actually read (unlike the size now accorded to most newspaper comic strips) in these excellent new collections from Andrews McMeel. The preeminent workplace-oriented strip of our time, Scott Adams’ Dilbert, is now in its 33rd collection – with all strips in color – and as usual is filled with ideas that are just slightly too plausible to be real. There is Dilbert’s invention, the “carbicle,” which let you drive your workplace around – but, as Dogbert points out, unfortunately lacks a bed. There is the character who becomes Employee of the Month for the superb command of jargon with which he says “we need to plan the plan’s planny plan” – but unfortunately the guys with nets show up looking for him. There is “forcible relocation to an agrarian society” as the penalty for asking for too much technical support. There is Dilbert exposing the double standards permeating Congress when he is called to testify there, causing one lawmaker to say, “I yield my time to the hypocrite from another state.” There is the inspirational poster, “If all else fails, your coworkers are edible.” Throw in the three-headed rebate-preventing monster Rebaterus, a woman who laughs too much, and a performance review describing an employee as “like a blister on a skunk’s colon,” and you have a modern version of what Mad magazine used to call “humor in a jugular vein.”
The amusements are gentler but no less surreal in Children at Play, the second collection of Cul de Sac, one of the most visually as well as verbally interesting comic strips of recent years. Expect to pause every now and then to try to understand just what is going on with Alice Otterloop; her big brother, Petey; their parents; and the various hangers-on who populate Richard Thompson’s world. Watch Alice do her dances on the manhole cover! See Petey have an out-of-body experience that ends when all of his selves are knocked down by a soccer ball! Listen to the “skweeks” as Beni tries out his new hammer! See Alice try to make her eyes extend on stalks! Observe Dill peeking through the Otterloops’ mail slot “as a community service”! Read along with “A Child’s Garden of Haiku” in a Sunday strip written entirely in haiku form! Hear the legend of Pulpy Joe and his watermelon head! Watch Petey dance to the tune he makes up by saying the names “Alice-Beni-Dill” real fast! Then discuss the merits of Halloween candy – “I like candy corn because it tastes like wax” vs. “I like eating wax, but only in crayon form.” And when you stop laughing, read the book again.
Or move on to a different sort of family and laugh there. “There” would be the MacPherson house, where The Natural Disorder of Things includes oldest child Zoe helping baby Wren break the annoying habit of always saying “da da da da da” by teaching her to say “no no no no no” unstoppably. Middle child Hammie decides to be called “H” from now on, because capital “H” is a manly letter that looks like a goal post or steel beam – except that small “h,” as Zoe points out, “looks more like a potty chair.” After her hair, nose and face get pulled and twisted innumerable times while Wren is feeding, mom Wanda learns why she should “never breast-feed with your hands full.” Also here, you can learn the game of “X-treme sistering,” at which Zoe is an extreme expert. Meet the cicada that takes up residence on Hammie’s nose. And catch the wisdom of dad Darryl: after everyone else says Hammie’s drawing looks like an eel, the wise father takes a peek and immediately says, “It’s an elephant” – gaining Hammie’s instant appreciation (and then, when Wanda asks how he knew what it was, Darryl explains that “all of his elephants look like eels”). Jerry Scott’s writing and Rick Kirkman’s art meld so perfectly in Baby Blues that it is hard to imagine a better-matched team. To see how well Kirkman and Scott work together, just check out the “Ask a Mom/Ask a Dad” strips – for example, to the question “Can you fix it?” the mom answers, “I’ll get the manual,” while the dad says, “I’ll get the duct tape.” This is almost too true to be funny. Almost.
If there is another strip with the collaborative punch of Baby Blues, it is the other one that Scott writes: Zits, for which Jim Borgman provides some truly amazing art. The latest Zits collection is a “theme” book whose focus is one of those things you can’t really get into in newspapers, even in 2009 (at least, not in newspaper comic strips). The word Lust is in huge red letters on this book’s great cover, which shows Jeremy Duncan and girlfriend Sara in a lip lock so intense that everything around them is burning up (including the back cover), each has sprouted multiple hands to hold the other that much closer, and their faces have merged into a single face. The cover alone makes this book worth buying. But there’s much more inside, including not only Jeremy and Sara but also multiply pierced Pierce and his girlfriend, D’Ijon, plus RichandAmy, always seen as tightly wrapped together as their names (name?) – until they briefly and very traumatically break up before getting very together again (two people wearing a single pair of shoes – enough said). The “lust” element here is implied rather than seen – the newspapers of 2009 are not even close to where the underground comics were in, say, 1969 – but Scott and Borgman extract hilarity even from that situation, as when Jeremy fantasizes about the school guidance counselor in jungle costume and “Mrs. Robinson” pose; and Jeremy’s parents embarrass their son into more incoherence than usual when they start giggling after having a weekend alone together. Toss in some of those patented (well, they should be patented) Borgman surreal-art strips, such as one in which Jeremy and Sara call each other names and turn into whatever they are called (chicken, pig, Neanderthal, Miss Goody Two-Shoes), and you have a collection whose main theme is hilarity.
Ditto the first “themed” collection of Bill Amend’s almost-late, almost-lamented FoxTrot, which now runs only on Sundays. It’s really a shame that it is no longer possible to get a daily dose of Math, Science, and Unix Underpants. Amend has a degree in physics, of all things, and he often used math and science – sometimes rather complex math and science – in his strips, usually through the character of 10-year-old Jason. The new FoxTrot collection includes examples of the many ways Amend brought these subjects into the strip: Paige exults at getting a 91 on her math test until Jason reveals that he got 108 on his. Jason and his pal, Marcus, program a printer to spit out 1,000 labels saying “kick me” that they can paste on fellow students’ backs. Jason struggles through a poetry assignment and then reads a computer book to relax, because “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a binary tree.” Sixteen-year-old Peter starts drooling on his math test when a question about π makes him think of pizza. Jason (who really does wear Unix underpants) sets up the family’s answering machine to require callers to “press the square root of 1,296 minus the cube root of 13,824 times 17.5 minus the 4th root of 1,908,029,761.” There is much more of this, all of it thoroughly in character – that is, in the character of each member of the Fox family and the people with whom the Foxes interact – and it all adds up to a delightfully funny collection from which, if you are not careful, you just might learn some math or science. Now, how comical would that be?