November 14, 2013
(++++) THE SNARKY SIDE
Unsportsmanlike Conduct: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Rat’s Wars: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
The Fuzzy Bunch: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants. By Matthew Inman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Awkward Family Holiday Photos. By Mike Bender and Doug Chernack. Three Rivers Press. $15.
There is edgy, and then there is edgy. One of the most highly regarded comics of recent decades was The Far Side, in which Gary Larson created a surrealistic world where social situations became decidedly weird and logic was often turned on its head. That was edgy – but Larson stopped doing his panels in 1995. Since then, cartoonists have pushed more for edgy, which means testing the limits of what syndicators and newspapers will allow, creating ever-more-bizarre characters and circumstances, and producing surrealistic scenes that make Larson’s seem almost, well, normal. In the forefront of this trend are Stephan Pastis and Darby Conley, whose strips are so filled with attitude that they practically overflow – it is no coincidence that Pastis and Conley have even parodied each other’s work. Pastis’ two most recent collections, Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Rat’s Wars, take absurdity to new heights – or depths, depending on your point of view. The cover of Unsportsmanlike Conduct actually shows Rat kicking Pastis (the cartoon version, a regular character in the strip) in what the strip refers to as the “oompa-loompas” during a boxing match – a scene unimaginable outside the world of underground comics until Pastis not only imagined it but also got his publisher to accept it. And the whole book pushes things just far enough and then a little too far. For example, Rat calls for the overthrow of the government, knowing nothing can be done about him because he is, after all, only a cartoon character; so government goons show up and arrest Pastis (the cartoon version), releasing him only when he pledges to turn Pearls Before Swine into a “gentle family strip”; so Pastis introduces his cartoon mother, since family strips always have moms in them, and she spends her time cursing, drinking beer and shooting pigeons. Pearls Before Swine is like that. Meanwhile, Pig’s girlfriend, Pigita, stops going out with him and ends up dating a dung beetle, while Pig dates a mop and, later, a lamp; one of the crocs dresses up as the Pillsbury dough boy and delivers buns to Zebra, thinking that is what is meant by the phrase “crocodile death roll”; and there are the usual awful puns (especially in Sunday strips) and the mayhem that results as the characters attack Pastis for creating them. There are also some instances of genuinely clever drawing, even though the strip is not noted for its art. For instance, one Sunday sequence reuses a previous Sunday’s in black and white in the background, with color overlays in which cartoon Pastis and his characters debate the reuse of old comics.
Rat’s Wars continues along the same lines – starting with the best title yet for a Pearls Before Swine collection, since the “Star” in “Star Wars” is indeed, when spelled backwards, “Rats,” and Rat is indeed at war with practically everyone and everything, as the cover makes clear. Here we find cartoon Pastis disassembling his body to prove to Rat that he can’t be killed – even though Rat has done just that because, in an earlier sequence, Pastis shipped Rat to Yakutsk, Siberia. Larry the crocodile gets into big trouble here for rubbing his “badonkadonk” against that of a zebra, being too drunk at the time to know what he is doing. Elly Elephant, a recurring character always in search of love and never finding it, tries to assemble a basket of avocados, each symbolizing a trait she wants in a man – but when she puts “dependable” in, “adventurous” falls out, and when she includes “non-superficial,” she loses “handsome.” Rat launches an “Occupy Sesame Street” protest, which ends when he is offered the job of replacing Mr. Rogers, which leads to a takeover of the neighborhood by Jihad Jerry. There is also a war between East Coast and West Coast cartoonists, with cameo appearances by Cathy, Beetle Bailey and others. And, again, there are some disturbingly good (and disturbing) drawings, such as Sunday panels in which Rat becomes Jeremy from Zits and Pig turns into Jeremy’s dad. Pastis has clearly grasped the concept of edgy and is wringing every bit of humor out of it. Or, perhaps, wringing its neck.
Conley handles edgy differently but no less, well, edgily. The setting of Get Fuzzy is more traditional than Pastis’, with a couple of talking animals living with a mild-mannered human (whose lack of personality and unattractive appearance are not the strip’s strong points). But the way these animals talk – and the way the many other animals in the strip talk – is what sets Conley’s work apart and brings it well into the realm of edgy. In The Fuzzy Bunch, Bucky, the one-fanged Siamese with an unkind word for everybody, proposes a variety of ways to “improve” soccer, such as putting a forward’s grandmother into a dunking booth that dumps her into ice water whenever the team takes a shot that misses an open goal. He also warns the sweet and ever-naïve Satchel Pooch about “Checkpoint Charlie the Tuna,” creates an army of monkey soldiers from potatoes, and convinces Satchel of a previously unknown menace, with this result: “I assume your dog clogged the toilet with garlic bread to deter the vampires that live in the sewer.” (These, by the way, are alligator vampires.) The absurdity of language and illogic never ends in this world. Bucky disproves the notion of an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs by explaining his theory that “science is bunk” and “that I, Bucky Katt, am Shiny-Po, the sun god.” In fact, Bucky develops the theory of “the big bonk” to explain, well, everything, later deciding that Satchel is a witch, which leads to both animals making head signs at each other. And then there is Bucky’s CD, with tracks such as “You Make Me Wiggle Like a Flea Infestation.” Rob Wilco, the feckless human in the strip, insists on talking logically and patiently to both Bucky and Satchel, with the result that Bucky constantly misunderstands and gets angry and violent, while Satchel constantly misunderstands and gets weepy and upset. You would think that Rob would eventually learn, but in this particular grouping of mammals, it is hard to escape the notion that he is the one with the smallest amount of grey matter. And that, of course, is part of what makes the strip edgy.
One thing clearly driving the profusion of edgy is the Internet, where humor and everything else sprawls all over the place and frequently becomes more foul-mouthed and unkind than it ever did in the days when newspapers ruled the information universe. Some comics created specifically for the Internet have a kind of fiendish intensity that even the edgiest newspaper strips lack – a prime example being the creations of Matthew Inman, who goes by the designation “The Oatmeal” and whose latest non-Internet production is Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants. Inman’s cartoons do not work as well in print as online, which is why the book gets a (+++) rating: the jokes and almost-jokes go on and on and on, which is fine on the Web (where space for producing material is essentially infinite) but less effective in print, where Inman’s productions take up more pages that are strictly necessary to make his points. The title sequence in the new book, for instance, has plenty of funny (and edgy) moments as the bear is related to human bullies and self-important boobs – the idea being that if he wore underpants he might learn that “compromise is the best way to endure this bumpy-yet-awesome journey we call LIFE,” for instance by accepting a carcass-flavored smoothie instead of insisting on an actual deer carcass. Also here is a paean to accidental punching: “The airplanes we fly/ soar high up in the sky/ and when I remove my coat/ I punch you in the throat.” One sequence on E-mail (“the more work I put into it the more work comes back”) shows how to create a new filter to lighten the load – and how the filter is likely to backfire. The love-hate relationship with smartphones is here, too. Inman’s drawings are more like sketches, and indeed tend to be rather sketchy, showing characters with completely round heads (though these figures are nothing at all like the famous round head of Charlie Brown in Peanuts) and sometimes no characters at all (one six-page sequence is all text about how to use E-mail and how not to use it). Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants is uneven in a way that would matter not at all online, where people can and do click through quickly from one experience to the next and where anything that does not instantly grab one’s attention is rapidly bypassed in favor of something that does. In a book, though, Inman’s humor falls a bit short – even though it hits the edgy mark as often as it hits the tasteless one.
Awkward Family Holiday Photos desperately wants to be edgy, but this (+++) book mostly manages to be tasteless, albeit not in the manner of Inman’s humor. The fun here – when there is any – comes from the juxtaposition of awful or inappropriate photos with the occasions they are supposed to celebrate. Unfortunately, a lot of the pictures are simply sad, having obviously been taken by people in far-from-ideal circumstances or ones with no idea of how to compose a good photo. There is a mocking tone to Mike Bender and Doug Chernack’s book that is rather unseemly (“unseemly” admittedly being a quaint concept in the Internet age). The occasions here range from Thanksgiving and Christmas to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Grandparents’ Day. One photo shows a baby peeing into his mother’s face as she cuddles him for the camera. One features a mom with sky-high hair in the vein of The Bride of Frankenstein. One has circus acrobats climbing a tall pole – as one of them holds a baby by the hair. One shows four clearly disaffected, sullen people clustered around a barbecue grill; on the opposite page is a scene in which one person’s face is entirely obscured by magenta smoke. A photo of seven people shows six sitting next to each other while the seventh is isolated and alone to the side and behind everybody. Another shows a man apparently about to slit his wife’s throat with a kitchen knife as she pretends to scream (presumably she was pretending). Some photos come with comments from the people involved: “It’s hard to look scary as a werewolf [for Halloween] when your parents look like they’re starring in the musical Cats,” for example. The strangest photos are the most disturbing ones, such as a picture of a naked man squatting next to a clothed child (presumably his) as the two of them light sparklers for Independence Day. In these Internet-focused days, very little is now deemed in bad taste, and certainly some of the pictures in Awkward Family Holiday Photos are merely unfortunate, poorly composed, or funny for all the wrong reasons – and, indeed, many of them are funny. The problem is that Bender and Chernack are trying too hard to be edgy with what is essentially a book of embarrassment – to be truly edgy, one needs to have a point to make, perhaps crudely, but still, there needs to be some point. Too many photos in this book, far from being pointed, are merely dull.