August 22, 2013

(++++) FUN TIME, 2014 STYLE

2014 Calendars: 365-Day—Dilbert; Pearls Before Swine; Non Sequitur; Big Nate; Signspotting. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     The box cover for the 2014 Dilbert page-a-day calendar features Dilbert telling the Pointy-Haired Boss, “There no kill switch on awesome,” and certainly fans of Scott Adams’ workplace-skewering comic strip will have an awesome time throughout the coming year with this full-color compendium featuring all the strip’s instantly recognizable characters. Adams’ art has never been the main point of the strip, and as a result it actually looks better on small calendar pages than does the more-elaborate work of other cartoonists. Shrinking Dilbert panels may not make them better, but it doesn’t hurt them all that much. Besides, the writing matters more than the art here. In one strip, Dogbert creates “fake press releases for imaginary new green energy technologies,” leading Dilbert to ask how he will know which of those technologies are real, leading Dogbert to reply, “Seriously? You think there are real ones?” And there you have social commentary, Dogbert style. In another strip, the boss refuses to send Dilbert to a class to make him more efficient because “you’re working on a government contract and billing by the hour.” And that is just about all you need to know about government contracting. In still another strip, Dogbert asks the CEO for inside information that Dogbert can use in his hedge fund, telling the big boss, “Think of it as a tax on people you don’t know.” The boss says, “That’s the best kind!” And that is about all you need to know about senior management of big companies. In fact, a year with this Dilbert calendar may teach you so much about corporate America that you’ll end up determined never to have any dealings with it again. And good luck with that.

     Another artist whose strips shrink well to the size of the pages of a tear-off calendar is Stephan Pastis, whose Pearls Before Swine owes its original success to Adams’ endorsement and has often been used to show Pastis’ gratitude through a series of insults and demeaning drawings. Yes, that is how Pastis shows he is grateful. Witness the title of his 2014 calendar: “Please move. I don’t want to catch your stupid.” In one series, Larry the croc gets drunk and rubs his behind against that of a zebra, the photo is posted online, and – well, this sort of thing happens to enough human beings nowadays so you can probably guess what comes next, although Pastis certainly gives the situation his own twists. Elsewhere, a new and incidental character, Tina Turtle, is introduced just so Pastis can show the dark side of her apparently devoted behavior: she carries her deceased husband’s shell around on her back, but only so she can store beer in it. Pastis also chronicles a war between East Coast and West Coast cartoonists and their creations, in which Pastis is kidnaped by Mutts characters and Rat refuses to ransom him because he doesn’t want him back. And then there is the strip in which Guard Duck turns a flamethrower on The New York Times because the paper does not have a comics section. Throw in some awful puns and the occasional tongue-twister, plus a strip whose punchline is, “Hey! You try coming up with 365 ideas a year!!” – and you have a year’s worth of dark, death-pervaded, often nasty and definitely not-for-children pages to take you through 2014 in, um, style…of some sort.

     Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur is more stylish and more complex in its art than the work of Adams and Pastis, but it still works well in page-a-day format, because most of the time Non Sequitur is a single-panel strip. Miller goes for intellectual and esoteric comments some of the time, as in the “Libertarian Ice Fishing” panel showing that someone has fallen through the ice and drowned, with one man telling another, “I told you the free market could determine if it’s safe or not.” Then there is the panel in which a monk is carefully lettering an illuminated manuscript with the words, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away,” while another monk looks heavenward and exclaims, “Forgive him – he’s from California.” Also here is “The Job Market for Philosophy Majors,” with a waiter telling diners that “entrées come with a choice of quotes by Nietzsche, Chomsky or Goethe.” Non Sequitur means “it does not follow,” which allows Wiley to take his work in any direction he chooses without connecting one day to the next. But sometimes he likes to make connections, as in mini-stories featuring super-cynical Danae – for which Wiley generally divides each of his single panels into four, allowing him to explore the little girl’s frequent proclamations of outrage, including outrage at her father for “not taking my outrage seriously.” A lot of the Non Sequitur punchiness comes from its passing social commentary, as in the panel in which a man using a metal detector on the beach explains, “It’s not a hobby. It’s my pension plan.” Or, in another beach scene, “The Free Market Celebration of Labor Day,” the lifeguard station has a sign on it: “Lifeguard on duty somewhere in India.” The full-color Non Sequitur panels in this calendar are perfect for a year in which – guaranteed – the days will follow each other, but what happens during them will not necessarily follow at all.

     Also in full color, but more traditional in approach and less sophisticated – and still a lot of fun – the Big Nate 2014 calendar by Lincoln Peirce celebrates the ups and downs of 12-year-old Nate Wright, genius (he says) and super-popular man-about-town (he also says) and, for that matter, a budding cartoonist himself. Nate’s lack of self-awareness, his slovenliness, and his general cluelessness about his effect on other people are among the ongoing themes of Peirce’s strip, and they come through quite well in page-a-day-calendar form. In one strip, Nate comes up with a new school motto: “Sucking the life out of students for almost a century.” In a series, Nate tries to find a store to sponsor his baseball team, and ends up asking mall kiosks to do so. In another, Nate finds out how much money romance novels bring in annually and decides to write one. And then there are the mashed potatoes in the faculty lounge for “prank day.” And the series in which Nate pulls out his eyelashes to try to get wishes to come true. And Nate’s pride in getting kept after school so often: “I like to think of all my detentions as outstanding.” Nate is quite a character – and his antics provide a full year of fun for everyone who knows him or is just getting a chance to make his acquaintance.

     Of course, comic-strip-based calendars are only for people who know the strips and enjoy them. But they are scarcely the only amusing page-a-day offerings out there for 2014. If you want amusement but are not a comic-strip fan, you can always try Signspotting, whose subtitle makes the calendar’s topic abundantly clear: “Absurd & Amusing Signs from Around the World.” Absurd they certainly are. In Ghana, there is a barber shop called “Rely on God Hair Cut.” In Colorado, an “Information” sign points to a tree – wood you expect to learn a lot that way? A sign in Ireland offers “Washed Rooster.” At a Minnesota zoo, the main sign says “open 365 days a year” and the smaller one underneath says “building closed.” A British restaurant offers “bugers.” In Vermont, a labeled emergency exit bears a second sign: “Open door slowly.” In Spokane, Washington, a highway sign proclaims, “End Future 395.” A Belgian nightspot is labeled “Delicious Floor.” A food special in Monroe, Washington, proclaims, “Buy one Fish & Chips for the price of two and receive a second Fish & Chips absolutely free!” Compiled by Doug Lansky, these signs are sometimes hilarious, sometimes silly, sometimes obvious, sometimes appropriate in a goofy way – and always amusing enough to brighten your day when you tear off one page and move on to the next. And sometimes they really do make you wonder what the sign-posters were thinking, as in the Mill Valley, California photo of two signs on the same post – the top one saying “Not a Through Street” and the bottom one pointing straight ahead and indicating “Evacuation Route.” Just the sort of daily touch of absurdity you can use to help you get through everyday foibles – day after day throughout the year to come.

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