December 17, 2015


Optimism Sounds Exhausting: A “Dilbert” Collection. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

The Weed Whisperer: A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     Comic strips have clearly come of age when collections of them start appearing, on a regular basis, in handsome “library edition” volumes. Andrews McMeel has been leading the way to this new, higher status for cartoons for years. The late lamented Calvin and Hobbes got an enormous three-hardcover-volume set priced at $150. The late lamented FoxTrot got two oversized softcover volumes in a nicely designed slipcase. The late lamented Cul de Sac got a similar, equally attractive two-volume slipcased release. But thank goodness strips do not have to be late and lamented to receive high-quality treatment in their collections. Optimism Sounds Exhausting is the second Dilbert collection to appear as a full-color hardcover book with a color-coordinated cover and a silhouette of a major character on the front. The first of these, Go Add Value Someplace Else, was yellow and red with a Dilbert silhouette, while Optimism Sounds Exhausting is yellow and green and has a silhouette of Wally – the character who has raised laziness to an art form and does in fact make the comment that is the book’s title. The characters in Dilbert have become more snarky and disrespectful of authority in recent years, even to the point of insulting the company CEO (a character introduced only a few years ago); but nothing they say or do makes the slightest bit of difference in their Kafkaesque lives – which is exactly Scott Adams’ point. In the type of mind-numbing corporation in which Dilbert, Wally, Alice, Asok and the other characters work, all roads lead to the same dead end. Dilbert has stayed in the characters’ office building more and more in recent years, although occasionally there are futile interactions away from work to complement the ones during the workday. The fact is that Adams does not need to have the characters venture far from their cubicles to make his points about the demotivating and demoralizing dehumanization of the modern big-corporation workplace. Furthermore, the fact that Adams’ art is, at best, passable, is irrelevant, since he is good at giving characters just enough expressiveness to put his points across. The fact that Dilbert has no mouth (the vast majority of the time, anyway) is one perfect case in point; another is Dilbert’s tie, which almost always droops and then curves up at the end – meaning that when it does something different, that is significant. In Optimism Sounds Exhausting, for example, one unusually complex strip has Dilbert approaching the Pointy-Haired Boss with the news that “Bill Ackman just took a huge short position in our stock.” Even those who do not know who Ackman is will know from Dilbert’s fully upturned tie and standing-up-straight hair (another good visual cue to something upsetting) that this is a problem. The boss, though, can only think of the late lamented Bloom County, whose cat character, Bill, constantly said “ack!” So the boss says he is not worried about some cartoon cat. And of course that only makes Dilbert’s nervousness worse. This strip alone may not be hardcover-book quality, but there are plenty of others. In one, Dilbert points out that “marketing is only legal because it doesn’t work most of the time.” This is in the middle of a sequence about the company building emotionally manipulative robots that constantly guilt-trip their owners into buying upgrades – quite a business model there. Also here, Dilbert goes on several dates with a woman who wants a relationship that will lead to marriage – which, Dilbert tells her, is a financial contract, so how much money does she have? Then there are the strips in which Wally gets the CEO to be his mentor, which goes as badly as might be expected, except that the CEO insists Wally be made a vice president “so it looks as if my mentoring works.” Then, understandably, Wally gets demoted – after inventing a gigantic coffee cup that Asok the intern needs to carry on his back all day, while Wally hangs onto the rear of the cup and drinks. In another sequence, Wally becomes the firm’s chief economist “because nothing you say makes sense” – it is all “babble talk” using randomly strung-together words from economics and finance. None of this material is timeless humor, true, but enough of it rings true so that the solidity of the handsome hardcover volume seems justifiable: readers who keep the book for years will likely discover, over time, that much (if not all) of what passes for business-related humor here will promote as many wry chuckles in the future as it does now.

     The art is far better and far more integral to the quality of G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury than is the art of Dilbert to Adams’ strip. And a good thing, too, because the art itself is likely to be a strong reason for keeping Doonesbury collections year after year. Without it, far too many of the strips become dated far too quickly: Trudeau’s well-known political sermonizing (not that he would call it that) is actually the strip’s weak link. The Weed Whisperer is a very attractive-looking book, and although its title ties to a political event – the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado, and how that affects some of the strips’ characters – that particular element of this book probably will not grow old especially quickly. It has, after all, strong social relevance that is likely to resound for some time. It is the avowedly political material that soon becomes flat-out boring in Doonesbury, because Trudeau, for all his artistic skill, has only a single political point to make: all Democrats are, by definition, good, and all Republicans are, by definition, bad. Considering how nuanced the rest of the strip is, the juvenile quality of its politics is a real disappointment. But Trudeau revels in it, proclaiming Doonesbury in one strip to be “the most trusted name in Bushwhacking” (which, yes, is funny, but also telling); elsewhere, expecting readers to identify Donald Trump as a radio caller despite his name not being mentioned; still elsewhere, including a reference to “Leader McConnell” that readers are expected to understand immediately as integral to the punch line of a Sunday strip; and so on. This is thin stuff. The much better parts of Doonesbury are the ones in which the characters simply try to get on with their lives in the modern world – an interesting state of affairs, since Trudeau does not particularly care about his characters, selecting ones on which to focus based on what editorial point he hopes to make at any given time. Still, the relatable elements of Doonesbury are what keep it fresh: newlyweds Alex and Toggle have twins – they arrive during Alex’s graduation from MIT – but economic factors force Alex to take a job as a barista; perennial music icon Jimmy T. learns to make music directly for his fans and send it out to them on the Web, unfortunately also discovering that he can now only afford to live in his car; thoroughly un-self-aware correspondent Roland Hedley mercilessly grinds out an unending series of increasingly self-referential tweets; and, of course, Zonker Harris and nephew Zipper head for Colorado to produce artisanal marijuana as the new legality of pot arrives. Doonesbury is far less freewheeling and in many ways far less amusing than it was in its early days – it has, after all, been around for half a century. Once in a while, Trudeau seems almost to realize this. At one point, during a Walden College reunion, he shows Zonker sitting in a mud puddle, a famous and oft-repeated scene from much earlier times; but now Zonker is wondering, “What was I thinking?” In another strip, Trudeau brings back an actual black-and-white panel from early Doonesbury, in which a drug-sniffing dog points a paw at a protesting-his-innocence Zonker and says, “J’accuse!” Now, though, Trudeau has another character ask the Zonker of today, “The dog busted you in French?” And Zonker replies, “That doesn’t make sense, does it? I must’ve been on acid.” But it does make sense, or rather did, in early Doonesbury. In the glorious full-color splendor of a now-revered and influential strip, though, it does not. But it sure seems a lot funnier than the “Leader McConnell” line, which it is hard to imagine ever being revived in some other context. Doonesbury is a one-of-a-kind strip in its complexity, its huge cast of characters, its editorializing, its political savvy (no matter how one-sided and superficial that may be), and its unique blend of characters who look real with ones that most definitely do not: the alien sitting in a radio station, for instance, and the underground-comic-book-inspired talking cigarette, Mr. Butts. Doonesbury fans will be every bit as glad to have the hardcover The Weed Whisperer as Dilbert fans – with whom there is presumably very little overlap – will be to own Optimism Sounds Exhausting.

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