May 03, 2012


Teamwork Means You Can’t Pick the Side That’s Right: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover with Your Left Hand: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

      Plenty of packaging is designed to conceal the contents and enchant the consumer.  Cake and brownie mixes, for example, show beautifully photographed food on the box front, in settings far more elegant than those in most buyers’ homes, when what you are actually buying is a bunch of powder sealed in a plastic bag.  But one of the great things about cartoonists Scott Adams and Stephan Pastis (who owes much of his success to Adams’ early discovery and recommendation of his work) is that you know the minute you look at a Dilbert or Pearls Before Swine book exactly what you are going to find inside.  Snarkiness, for one thing, and sendups of ridiculous trends and elements of the daily news, and inelegantly drawn characters whose appearance somehow seems absolutely right for the lines they deliver, and silliness and puns and occasional violence and a sense of unreality (or surreality) so pervasive that you know it has absolutely no connection with the real world…except that it does.

      Adams and Pastis simply do not disappoint.  Yes, they are both, to an extent, acquired tastes, Pastis to a greater degree with his very dark humor and propensity for killing off characters, but Adams, too, with his forays into large-corporation jargon and procedures that the self-employed and employees of smaller firms will likely never encounter (thank goodness).  The cover of the 38th Dilbert collection, Teamwork Means You Can’t Pick the Side That’s Right, makes it 100% clear what the book is going to contain, showing the Pointy-Haired Boss happily displaying a slide with the message, “Battery lasts 100 days!” – while Dilbert, standing on the other side of the display, is trying not to open his nonexistent mouth (or maybe not to throw up).  Even people lucky enough not to work in a Dilbertian workplace can follow and appreciate (or depreciate) what goes on here.  The PHB orders Dilbert to get approval from “the cloud,” which means going into a room filled with people who are invisible from the neck up because they are actually covered by a cloud.  The PHB orders Dilbert to use “black hat” methods to raise the company’s search-engine rankings, leading Dilbert to ask whether the PHB is more intrigued by “the fact that it’s unethical or the near certainty of getting caught.”  The company turns smartphones into “employee locator devices.”  The huge-headed (but obviously not huge-brained) CEO gets an escape pod that includes a rocket-powered executive chair and a big bag of money.  Long-suffering, super-smart intern Asok gets assigned a “mindless task…because you’re nothing but an intern and your time has very little value.”  Alice takes advantage of PHB “brain overload” to have the PHB stuffed and turned into a hand puppet.  Consultant Dogbert researches how long customers will wait for tech support on the phone before giving up, then designs an automated phone menu lasting slightly longer than their maximum tolerable wait time.  Wally finds all-new methods of work avoidance, such as renaming the Unix servers, keeping the new names in his mind for a week, then forgetting them.  The facial expressions of the characters (which Adams has gotten far more adept at drawing over the years) and the constant aura of hopelessness-plus-sarcasm pervading Dilbert make it unnecessary for readers to have personal experience with black-hat methods or Unix servers – or even smartphones or automated phone menus – to understand and be wryly amused by what is going on here.  Most people, sad to say, do have some personal experience of the topics that Adams explores – enough to find Teamwork Means You Can’t Pick the Side That’s Right extremely funny, then wonder exactly why they are laughing.

      If you “get” Pearls Before Swine – admittedly a rather big “if” – you won’t wonder at all about why you find it so funny.  The pervasive cynicism of the stick-figure characters, the near-constant parodying of other comic strips, the inclusion by Pastis of a disheveled, chain-smoking version of himself, and the utter absurdity (but consistent absurdity) explain everything.  Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover with Your Left Hand, the 12th collection of the strip (not counting five oversize “Treasury” volumes and a gift book), starts with Pastis bragging about getting to draw a really amateurish cover even though his editors dislike it (and it would be a truly awful cover for a collection of any strip but this one).  Then there is cynical Rat’s version of a maze puzzle leading to happiness – with no way to get there.  And Rat’s suggestion that if Pastis wants to make as much money as Garfield creator Jim Davis makes, he should steal Davis’ identity.  And a Bigfoot sighting, totally unrelated to anything else going on.  And Guard Duck rewriting Civil War history, during a reenactment, to have the South win.  And a “pachyderm peace officer” named Potus (which Pastis surely knows is journalese for “President of the United States”) who keeps urging Zebra to give the crocs parts of his body to eat.  And a return to fourth grade – unsuccessfully – for Larry the croc.  And a new invention called the Expectation Crusher.  And Pig objecting to Rat’s new business, “McZeeba’s,” which is “bringing zebra meat to the masses” even though Zebra is a friend – with Rat pointing out that Pig eats bacon.  And Sweet Fanny, a sheep who stalks Pig and demands to marry him.  And “the vending machine o’ dreams,” in which you can get a “bag o’ torrid romance” or a “bag o’ stable long-term marriage,” but not both.  And a Venus fly trap that uses a gun to hunt flies.  And…but why go on?  Pearls Before Swine fans can undoubtedly imagine all these scenes drawn in Pastis’ inimitable style even without seeing the book.  Non-fans will surely find the descriptions grotesque – at best.  This is a divisive strip, and Pastis clearly likes it that way, stirring up trouble and controversy at every opportunity.  Because Sometimes You Just Gotta Draw a Cover with Your Left Hand is unlikely to win any new fans for Pearls Before Swine, but it will cement the strip’s reputation among people who find its consistent brand of distinctly offbeat hilarity, well, hilarious.

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