February 03, 2011


I’m Tempted to Stop Acting Randomly: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Ambushed! in the Family Room: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 26. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Shapes and Colors: A “Cul de Sac” Collection. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     One need not be a serious student of comics and cartooning to see how enormously varied the art and stories are in today’s best strips. Just look at a daily newspaper – or, okay, view a selection of comics online, although they really do lose something when displayed on a computer screen. Or pick up some collections of some of the best strips around – in book form, not on E-readers, since, again, comic strips really do look better when reproduced on paper. The latest collections of two long-running and one not-so-long-running strip confirm all three as among the very best being written and drawn today, even though each is very, very different from the others.

     I’m Tempted to Stop Acting Randomly is, believe it or not, the 35th Dilbert collection: Scott Adams and Andrews McMeel just keep churning them out. Like other recent Dilbert books, this one is in color throughout, but that does not conceal the primitive nature of the art or the extreme stylization of the characters. At this point, in fact, Dilbert and his cohorts have become archetypes, their very simplicity of appearance (including Dilbert’s absence of a mouth) saying something about just how dehumanizing it is to work for a large corporation under the management of an unnamed incompetent whose hair forms Satan-like horns. As the Pointy-Haired Boss explains at one point to Alice in the new book, the company is going for “an egg carton vibe” in its layout. But Adams’ characters seem less breakable than they used to: they have more of an attitude, are more willing to push back at manifest corporate idiocy, more willing to say things directly to management rather than behind managers’ backs. And the point? It makes no difference what they say or to whom – things go on as they always have. What keeps this from being depressing and makes it funny is how neatly Adams skewers the whole corporate world. Dogbert, originally focused on world domination, is now satisfied with corporate governance, appearing frequently as a CEO who, for example, tells a senator that although bribing him would be illegal, he “hired your wife as a consultant despite the fact that she thinks ‘present value’ is some sort of gift card.” Dogbert also orders, “Assemble the illuminati” – a huge-brained human and an alien – who work together to create “another economic bubble to drive up our stock value.” Meanwhile, back in the trenches (or is that tranches?) of the company, Wally rises to new heights of work avoidance; Dilbert’s competence continues to cause him frustration and get him into trouble; Alice’s abilities in engineering give her less satisfaction than punching out all sorts of unpleasant people; Asok gets put in charge of “pandemic emergency planning” and starts wondering whether creating a pandemic is a route to a bonus; and there are the usual one-time characters – the industry-standards committee meeting in mud-covered Elbonia, the woman who judges potential mates based on their cell-phone apps, the job applicant whose huge family always needs his attention (so he has no time to work), the angry demon who is the firm’s new director of marketing, and many more. The point of all this? None of it matters: the company continues to function, the workers keep doing their jobs, the world keeps turning, and somehow all of it is both pointed and often hilarious. Quite an accomplishment.

     The accomplishments of Baby Blues come in a more-typical realm for comic strips: the family unit. But what writer Jerry Scott and artist Rick Kirkman do with the modern family is quite different from what was done in the days of, say, Maggie and Jiggs of the Bringing Up Father strip, which started in 1913 and ran until 2000. The MacPhersons have been coping with family life since 1990 – Ambushed! in the Family Room is the 26th collection of the strip – and watching things get more complicated from the early strips, when Zoe had just been born to Darryl and Wanda, through the birth of Hammie, and more recently when baby Wren was added to the mix. It’s quite a mix, as in “mixed-up.” The wonderful thing about Baby Blues is that almost everything in it is immediately recognizable as real-world happenings – exaggerated ever so slightly. Everyone has experienced the breakage of a 53-week-old appliance with a one-year warranty – but when the MacPhersons have to cope with their just-broken microwave oven, the very next strip has their refrigerator start coming apart, and the one after that features the dishwasher leaking; and when everything is fixed, several strips later, the family is left with big bills and Darryl’s telling comment, “Funny how difficult it is to own stuff that makes our lives easier.” The writing by Scott (who also writes Zits, another top-notch family-focused strip) has become more pointed over time, while Kirkman has started taking more chances with his art and even making it more surreal (although not to the extent of what Jim Borgman does in Zits). In the new collection, one panel shows “Wren Scissorhands” (with child-safe scissors, of course); one beach scene has Darryl unaware that he is about to be “devoured” by the huge sand dinosaur that Hammie has been building; and one especially clever panel shows Wanda’s self-image as a robot vacuum cleaner and cook, with faucets for breasts. Many strips focus on the interactions among the very well-defined family members – Baby Blues is first-rate character comedy – while others are gathered into sequences that are even funnier as they go along. There is, for example, “When Life Attacks!” – in which, at one point, Hammie says, “I know we’re in a hurry, but shouldn’t you have put Wren in the car before we left?” and, in another strip, Zoe says as she drops off to sleep, “Remind me to tell Mom that I volunteered her to make three cakes for tomorrow’s class party.” Or there are the perfectly illustrated “Moments of Household Terror,” such as “stepping on something squishy in the dark” and “finding a capless marker in the dryer.” Add in the fact that, in this collection, Wren starts to walk and talk, and you have all the ingredients for a lusciously indulgent helping of slightly-too-close-to-home humor – a, shall we say, “happy meal,” which Wanda will probably burn.

     Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac has not been around nearly as long as Dilbert or Baby Blues: the new collection, Shapes and Colors, is only the strip’s fourth. But Thompson has already established himself as one of the most offbeat thinkers and best artists among today’s cartoonists. Like Baby Blues, Thompson’s strip centers on family life, but in very different ways. The central character, four-year-old Alice Otterloop (as in “outer loop,” part of the Beltway ringing Washington, D.C., in whose lookalike suburbs Alice and her family live), attends preschool and has age-appropriate worries, fantasies and academic (or pre-academic) abilities. But she has a distinctive thought pattern that, apparently effortlessly, combines genuine little-kid unworldliness with some of the grown-up concerns and expressions that made the original Peanuts strips (circa 1950) so wonderful. Thompson is surely aware of this bit of comic-strip history, since Cul de Sac is filled with tributes to earlier comics, notably Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, which is here reflected in Little Neuro, the favorite comic of Alice’s eight-year-old brother, Petey. In fact, Petey threatens to upstage Alice as the central character of Cul de Sac, because his world’s genuine oddity is so interesting: his evil-genius-in-training acquaintance, Ernesto, who may be imaginary; his out-of-body oboe-playing experience; his tendency to try to chew his own arm off when he gets upset; his preoccupation with his standing on the world list of picky eaters; his Toad Zombies graphic novel, which never goes anywhere; and those Little Neuro strips, whose central character also never goes anywhere. Petey’s matter-of-fact way of upsetting Alice’s world – for example, by telling her that their parents have real names, Madeline and Peter – is one key to both kids’ characters. Alice’s is further illuminated by the gaggle of friends with whom she interacts: huge-headed Kevin, vaguely unsettling Dill (who has surprising control over his 10 hairs), ponytailed Nara, scrapbook-weary Marcus (whose mom collects absolutely everything about him and eventually creates a Marcus blog where fans can buy merchandise), and others. Each character has an individual personality and is drawn in a slightly different style, almost as if all the children wandered in from different planets for a conclave – which, when you think of it, is a pretty good portrayal of kids’ social interaction. Add in the social commentary of houses that look exactly alike, each with “a small, unique feature in a feeble attempt to differentiate it” (in the words of marimba-playing Viola, who calls Alice’s brother “Petey Potterpoop”), plus unique takes on everything from shoe shopping to tag (each four-year-old has to yell the name of an artisanal cheese so the person who is “it” cannot tag him or her), and you have a remarkable mixture of erudition and laugh-out-loud humor, all wrapped in a subtle parody (sometimes not so subtle) of suburban life. Cul de Sac is definitely a comic for the 21st century.

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