January 08, 2015
(++++) THE UNBEATABLES GO ON
Go Add Value Someplace Else: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Breaking Stephan: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
You Can’t Fight Crazy: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrew McMeel. $14.99.
Year after year, certain comic-strip creators manage to produce work that sustains their strips and their readers, work that is at the same time familiar and new enough to keep fans interested – even though the newspapers in which comic strips have appeared for well over a century continue to fade. And interestingly enough, there are frequently strong professional and/or personal relationships among the creators of the top strips, to a point at which some of the cartoonists make fun of others and even reuse or abuse others’ characters. Of course, there is plenty of abuse to go around in a strip such as Dilbert, which continues to chronicle the big-company misadventures of the (usually) mouthless title character and his various compatriots and nemeses. Scott Adams’ strip is so successful that its latest collection, Go Add Value Someplace Else, appears as a hardcover book (in full color, too) rather than the more-traditional softcover collation of material. Adams’ drawing remains mundane, although it has improved significantly in recent years – but his characterizations of Dilbert, Dogbert, Alice, Wally, the Pointy-Haired Boss, and such newer characters as the company CEO are even better targeted and more pointed than they used to be. At one point in the new collection, Alice misinterprets as negative every remark made by a hapless co-worker, then explains that the “monster” vibe is what she is going for. Dilbert is abducted by the government and looks forward to being waterboarded. Ratbert clings to Wally’s neck so Wally can get the benefits of increased oxytocin levels without human contact. On the Dogbert News Network, Dogbert announces that “people all over the world continued to act like idiots.” The Pointy-Haired Boss injects Dilbert with job performance enhancing drugs – and Alice suddenly finds Dilbert attractive. The PHB gives Dilbert the task of building drones for an international terrorist – and when Dilbert finds out who the customer is and tells the CEO, the CEO considers responding by transferring Dilbert to a department with a poor safety record. And an evil genius replaces the entire marketing department and alters intern Asok’s preferences so he becomes “a gay anarchist who loves football and string cheese.” Thus do the absurdities continue and mount – but somehow seem just barely possible, not only in the world of Dilbert but also in the big bad outside world on which Adams’ strip is so clearly based.
Stephan Pastis credits the success of Pearls Before Swine to Adams, who recommended Pastis’ strip when it was new, and Pastis has shown his admiration for Adams through such heartfelt tributes as portraying him as an overweight Elvis Presley type and then killing him off (Pastis likes killing things in his strip). At this point, Pearls Before Swine is moving along quite well on its own, with Pastis more than breaking even on the strip – he is Breaking Stephan, as his new collection’s punning title has it (Pastis likes puns – really bad ones, if possible, and oh yes, they are possible). In this collection, :Pastis – a former lawyer – has Rat create “The Lawyer’s Book of Fairy Tales,” in which Humpty Dumpty sues the king’s men, the wall’s engineer, and the city where the wall was built, making Humpty rich and wall-sitting an activity requiring many warning signs, a helmet, an air cushion and a fee to pay for liability insurance. Elsewhere, Pig confuses the superstring theory of physics with Silly String in a can. Larry the croc’s sophisticated parents pay a visit and leave after becoming disillusioned with their jobless, uneducated failure of a son. Guard Duck gets a job giving etiquette advice on the radio – for instance, to mine your walkway to keep out unappreciative neighbors. Rat solves the energy crisis by harnessing the stupidity of people all around him. Smiling dolphins, chosen by the crocs for a once-in-a-lifetime swimming experience, devour the crocs but invite Zebra to “swim on our back while we whistle Enya songs.” And of course Pastis presents his usual array of truly awful puns – such as the one in which Pig calls his new friend melancholy and the friend turns out to be a collie with melons. Even Mahatma Gandhi hates the puns – he says so in a strip in which he suddenly appears for no reason except to make just that statement. Pearls Before Swine is so weird, so offbeat and so twisted that only weird, offbeat, twisted people could possibly enjoy it. Luckily for Pastis, there seem to be a lot of them out there.
A touch of the twisted is apt for fans of Get Fuzzy, too. Darby Conley has a tie-in of his own to Pearls Before Swine, having once appropriated some of Pastis’ characters and story lines and tried to pass them off as his own (not really, of course, but he created strips that seemed like bad attempts to rip Pastis off). Unlike Pastis’ animal-filled strip, Conley’s Get Fuzzy lies in a long tradition of talking-animal cartoons, for all that it is filled with twisted logic, bizarre plot elements, and just the sort of craziness that would be expected in a strip whose latest collection is called You Can’t Fight Crazy. Bucky Katt, one-fanged wonder and self-proclaimed master of the universe, is as usual central to all the bizarre happenings here. Bucky declares himself the highest-ranking member of Catsa, the feline version of humans’ Mensa, and soon produces books such as his own unauthorized autobiography and “The Book of Pain.” Meanwhile, naïve Satchel Pooch, so often the victim of Bucky’s machinations, plugs in a “dog aroma diffuser” that sickens not only Bucky but also Rob, the feckless human who goes into the working world each day to bring home enough money to keep the household more-or-less functioning (Satchel explains the horrible-smelling diffuser by saying that he is “trying to get in touch with my heart’s sensitive side”). Rob remains the weak point of Get Fuzzy, functioning purely as a not-very-intelligent-or-aware straight man. In a typical strip, Rob mentions that some of his friends are moving to Canada; Bucky asks if they are in the witness relocation program or are just fugitives; Rob asks if Bucky really cannot think of other reasons to move to Canada; and Bucky replies, “High-yield snow farming?” There is not enough personality to Rob to hold the strip together, but there is so much of it in the portrayals of Bucky and Satchel that it scarcely matters. Unlike strips such as Dilbert and Pearls Before Swine, which rely on a large cast of characters, Get Fuzzy really focuses on only its three central ones, although some of Conley’s bit players are a lot of fun – such as, in the latest collection, a cat name Astral Bob, a horoscope reader and fortune teller who uses a repurposed “Trouble” game board to cast Bucky’s horoscope. There are also half a dozen characters who appear in the strip who will never appear in the strip – that is, Conley creates a phony readers’ poll and announces the results of voting for “the first openly simian member of Congress” and an “unretriever” who is “the world’s most catlike dog.” Like Pastis and Adams – and few others – Conley has carved out a niche for himself in which readers can find new-but-familiar, almost-always-funny, reliably recognizable characters and situations day after day. Whether the continuing slow decay of newspapers will allow the entry of other cartoonists into the rarefied field of humor creators on whom readers can always count is by no means certain. Best to enjoy Dilbert, Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy, whether in newspapers or in book form, while we can and for as long as possible.