July 25, 2013
(++++) THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Your New Job Title Is “Accomplice”: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
The Birth of Canis: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Beginning Pearls. By Stephan T. Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. But a consistent foolishness is the angel of first-rate cartooning, and if you don’t believe that, then maybe you will be convinced by the latest Scott Adams and Darby Conley collections. Adams’ Dilbert has been consistent for two decades (after flailing about somewhat for the first few years after its 1989 debut). It has now reached the point at which the greatest exaggerations in the strip seem entirely logical within the context of big-company business, where Dilbert’s misadventures take place. Thus, in Your New Job Title Is “Accomplice,” it makes perfect sense for Alice to claim “territorial waters” extending 12 feet from her cubicle, build a robot shark to patrol the area, and then claim it is only a dolphin when people complain. It makes sense for Dilbert to be named Project Leader and told that the title gets him a three-inch-wider cubicle, but since the company does not have any, he has to lose weight so his current cubicle appears bigger. There is a “cash cow” wandering the hallways – that seems right, too. Speaking of cash, Wally gets a billion-dollar settlement when he claims the company discriminates against “short, bald, nearsighted guys,” is admitted to the “top 1% club,” but then soon finds himself right back where he started – yup. Asok the intern reads the Pointy-Haired Boss’ list of “25 focus areas for next year” and decides that “this misunderstood man is a brilliant comedian. He is only pretending to be an angry idiot.” Dogbert continues to exhibit his consulting prowess while showing the boss how to “imbue your staff with a sense of urgency” while avoiding “a creepy vibe.” Catbert tells Dilbert that the poor employee parking arrangement is designed to prevent people from running personal errands, and when Dilbert asks if he is intentionally making life more difficult, Catbert responds, “What do you think management is?” Ah yes, this is reality – filtered and refined and perhaps skewed just a little bit, but consistently skewed, so that any relationship between Dilbert and the real working world is purely intentional.
The world in which Get Fuzzy takes place is a little harder to pinpoint. On the surface, it is the workaday (rather than working) world, with the activities of Bucky Katt, Satchel Pooch and hapless human Rob Wilco taking place in an ordinary Boston apartment. But there is something consistently skewed here, too, and it is not just the fact that the cat and dog converse with the feckless Rob and every other human who shows up in the strip. Darby Conley has solidified the odd relationships among his characters at this point and now turns his strip into an ongoing series of puns (some of them barely comprehensible) and riffs on peculiar interactions. In The Birth of Canis, for example, the longstanding dispute between Bucky and Fungo Squiggly, the ferret in a neighboring apartment, advances to the point at which Bucky creates his own reality TV show – which is a predictable mess – while Fungo manages to set up a genuine reality show on the Ferret Television Network by planting tiny cameras in the walls of Rob’s apartment and letting viewers (other ferrets) observe the goings-on. This results in Bucky getting fan mail, which makes him happy, until he finds out it is from ferrets, which makes him ill. And Rob’s role in all this is to act as dumb as usual, with lines such as, “Shhhh! Man, the walls will hear you!” and “We have to get out of here!” Rob is supposedly an advertising executive, but given the fact that his intelligence and creativity are well below those of Bucky (even though Bucky’s abilities are always misused), there is room for a role reversal here. It won’t happen, though, because Conley has settled the characters so comfortably into their roles and their appearances. When there are personality changes, they are invariably incremental: Satchel talks back (and talks smack) to Bucky more often now, although Bucky still gets the better (or worse) of him more often than not. Conley enlivens the strip these days with a series of subsidiary characters, the most notable being Mac Manc McManx, a scene-stealing British feline and distant Bucky relative who talks a nearly incomprehensible blend of Cockney rhyming slang and Manchester idioms. The Birth of Canis introduces Ibid Q. (that is, I.Q.) Muttly, a strange little dog who speaks more intellectually than all the other characters put together, calling Bucky “a textbook delusional egotist with anger management issues,” which pretty much nails it, especially when I.Q. adds, “You exhibit symptoms of being what is colloquially known as a ‘jerk,’” which nails it even more strongly. Throw in some Bucky-designed composites – mixed-genre movies such as “Freaky Friday the 13th” and mixed-use inventions such as a fork attached to a lamp cord so you can plug in the sofa and drive it around the house – and you have consistently offbeat and consistently entertaining silliness occurring in a world very much like ours, and very foolish indeed.
The world of Pearls Before Swine is a lot like ours, too, but even darker and simultaneously funnier for anyone who enjoys the frequent death of cute comic-strip characters, god-awful puns, lots of beer drinking, herbivore-carnivore conflict, homicidal gingerbread men, homicidal sea anemones, and….hmm. This seems like one comic strip that is emphatically not for kids, which makes it somewhat odd to discover Beginning Pearls, an entry in Andrews McMeel’s “amp! Comics for Kids” series for middle-grade readers. What will the kids introduced to Pearls Before Swine through this book be reading and/or doing by the time they reach high school? (Shudder.) Well, Stephan Pastis (who includes the middle initial “T.” in his name here, but not in his regular collections – presumably looking for some sort of deniability) does manage to select some of his more kid-friendly offerings for this book (in fact, he selects one twice and another out of order, repeats a panel within one strip, and omits some of Zebra’s introductory words – does he think kids don’t pay attention, or do his editors think that?). Anyway, among the child-safe strips here are ones about Rat’s “temper-prone sock puppet, Pepito,” one in which Death announces that the strip is not “dark and grim,” one in which Danny Donkey steals a Game Boy, ones in which Zebra’s relatives are devoured by crocodiles and lions, one in which one croc kills another and makes him into boots, and….wow. What will kids who read this book be doing in a few, a very few, years? Best not to think too much about that – best just to enjoy the book’s layout in five sections (focused on Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra and the crocs), the introductory material for each section “written by” the relevant characters, and the generally skewed and sometimes overtly weird worldview that Pastis, with or without the T., creates and disseminates day after day. Pearls Before Swine remains a love-it-or-hate-it strip – it’s difficult to be indifferent to Pastis’ and the strip’s oddities – and presumably Beginning Pearls is intended to capture a whole new audience that will allow Pastis to continue creating the strip and not have to return to his former work as a lawyer. In fact, parents really ought to think seriously about buying more than one copy of the book, at least one per child – because would you really want someone like Pastis to go back to practicing law?