December 12, 2012
(++++) ASSEMBLAGES OF BITS
Big Nate: All Work and No Play—A Collection of Sundays. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
I Can’t Remember if We’re Cheap or Smart: A “Dilbert” Treasury. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
There are many ways to slice and dice a comic strip when putting it into book form. The simplest, and generally the best, is simply to collect the entire strip sequentially for some period of time, typically around a year, and make a book out of it. This preserves whatever continuity the cartoonist has built into the strip in story lines, introductions or disappearances of characters, and so on, and it also lets readers see how the cartoonist’s style and approach have changed over time, if they have. When strips have been around for a while, though, other approaches to collections are available. Since Sunday strips run in color and weekday ones do not, one idea is to collect just the Sunday strips and have a ready-made full-color book – instead of one in which color has been added to weekday strips or one in which the Sunday strips appear in black and white. The Sunday-strip assemblage can be a good one when the cartoonist keeps Sundays outside the main narrative, so they stand on their own and do not depend on the prior week’s strips – or the following week’s – to make sense. Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate works very well in its first-ever all-Sundays collection, because although Peirce carries certain themes through the entire strip, he expands on them on Sundays in ways that set the longer, color strips apart from the weekday narrative. For example, sixth-grader Nate, who is 11 or 12 (depending on the sequence), is himself a would-be cartoonist, just as Peirce says he himself was at that age. Peirce uses the Sunday strips to show “Nate’s” cartoons, placing them within “framing stories” about Nate’s everyday life. So, for example, there are Sundays in which Nate offers “Celebrity Interviews” hosted by characters named Chip Chipson or Biff Biffwell – the “celebrities” including Cupid, New Year’s Resolution accountant Howard Plotz, and psychic Claire Voyant. There are “Superdad” adventures in which Nate chronicles his hapless father’s nonexistent love life and oppression of Nate (who is required to do some chores around the house). And there are many jabs at social studies teacher Mrs. Godfrey, Nate’s nemesis. The Nate-created comics are done crudely, in black and white, while the framing panels are in Peirce’s usual style and in color. Thus, a Nate comic showing his dad splitting pants that he is trying on introduces a discussion between dad and Nate that eventually leads to the revelation that what Nate is drawing is called “Dad’s Real Life Comics! Episode 6: A Humiliating Incident in a Dressing Room at The Gap,” which Nate describes as “same old, same old.” The Sunday strips also give Peirce extra panels to show Nate’s relationship with the neighbor’s feckless dog, Spitsy, and with friends Teddy and Francis, and with his big sister, Ellen. Occasional Sunday strips are real gems, such as one in which Ellen’s boyfriend, Gordie – another budding cartoonist – discusses Nate’s cartoons with Nate, explaining how to make the gags better, while Nate’s dad, in the background, unwittingly acts out the sorts of scenes that Gordie is describing. Big Nate is a more sophisticated strip on Sundays than it is during the week – still funny, but with a bit more of an edge to it. So Big Nate: All Work and No Play works very well indeed.
Scott Adams’ Dilbert is a much-better-known strip that continues to turn up in collections of all types. I Can’t Remember if We’re Cheap or Smart is the 39th of them. But here the collection approach does not work very well, and while this oversize “Treasury” volume gets a (+++) rating because so much of the content remains so effective, the actual purpose of the collection is missing (well, except for selling yet more Dilbert books, which is a perfectly respectable purpose). Oversize “Treasury” volumes give a cartoonist a chance to expound upon a particular theme, showing how it has been handled through the years – but that does not happen here. They let cartoonists comment on specific strips or strip sequences, on what they were trying to do in certain cases, on what worked and did not – but there are no comments by Adams here. They provide insight into a strip’s development through clever arrangements – but not in this book, which simply reprints a wide variety of strips originally published between 1995 and 2011, not even in chronological order (and some are shown twice, for no reason whatsoever, as on pages 115 and 167). Aside from his usual amusingly off-the-point introduction, Adams brings nothing new to the book at all. Yes, all of Adams’ skewering of big-company management is on display here, and yes, much of it remains as pointed as ever. But there is nothing particularly treasurable in this “Treasury,” which is essentially just a sampler of Dilbert for anyone who is interested in the strip but has managed never to notice it before and has failed to encounter any of its prior 38 collections.