July 27, 2017
(++++) PUNS AND OTHER WORDPLAY
Pearls Hogs the Road: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
I’m Gluten Furious! A “Get Fuzzy” Treasury. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.
Although comic strips are, by their nature, a visual medium, they are also a verbal one – and the verbal elements have become increasingly important as newspapers, the traditional milieu of comic strips, have declined in circulation and importance and have downsized strips accordingly. With so little space now allocated to comics as a whole, much less to any single strip, the ability to use the art itself as a major communicative element has declined dramatically. The days of a strip in which art and words combined to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts, as in Walt Kelly’s Pogo, are gone forever – in newspapers, anyway. So this is the age of the verbal strip, whether the words are simple and predictable to match the art (as in Garfield) or are the strip’s only real point, with the art being almost unnecessary (as in Dilbert). A few cartoonists have forged a way through this jungle of communications limitations by building their strips around wordplay, notably puns; and as Oscar Levant once trenchantly observed, “A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.” Stephan Pastis has made puns one of the backbones of Pearls Before Swine, using them and other forms of wordplay continually and often torturing the language and the humor to such a degree that the strip’s denizens end the “pun” sequences by attacking Pastis himself – or rather Pastis-as-cartoon-character, himself a member of this ensemble. The oversize “Treasury” volume called Pearls Hogs the Road, which includes all the cartoons originally published in I’m Only in This for Me and Stephan’s Web, is packed with puns and other memorable (or perhaps not so memorable) verbal assaults and insults. A typical example has Goat, the strip’s intellectual, telling naïve and sweet Pig that he, Goat, wrote the City Council twice about trash in an empty lot, including a ladder lying there, then asking Pig to bring him “the latter ladder litter letter.” That is a four-panel weekday strip. Longer Sunday strips have room for more-elaborate setups. One includes the don of a local crime family, who owns a custom-built flashlight shaped like actress Elizabeth Hurley that he lends to former Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey, giving Pig the chance to ask, “Oh, Cey, can you see by the don’s Hurley light?” You either get these or you don’t; you like their tortuous and tortured setups and payoffs or you don’t. If you don’t, there is plenty of other Pearls madness to enjoy here – or at least tolerate. There is a shark that encourages climate change because a warming world will cause oceans to rise and give him more prey. There are chickens that attack the Easter bunny for distributing eggs and becoming “world famous for handing out someone else’s stolen kids.” There is a Wheel of Fortune sequence in which two of the contestants are Andy Capp and a Christianity-promoting B.C. character. And there is a genuine big deal in several strips from 2014, which were drawn collaboratively by Pastis and Bill Watterson, the first comics from Watterson since his retirement from Calvin and Hobbes in 1985. (But the funniest Watterson-related strip is one by Pastis in which his cartoon alter ego claims to be Watterson in order to pick up a woman – the final panel shows the two in bed, an unthinkable comic-strip scene not so long ago, with the woman smiling happily in her sleep and Pastis thinking, “That was wrong.”) Pastis does more than use words as the driving force of Pearls Before Swine: he uses them in profusion in this “Treasury” volume itself to connect the strips with real life, explain which ones worked and which ones did not, provide insights into his creativity, and sometimes just make self-deprecating remarks: “I showed a butt crack on the comics page. That’s the kind of thing that makes me a pioneer of the medium.” Even fans of this strip who already have the two smaller-size collections included in this “Treasury” may want this book for Pastis’ many comments – and for covers (front, back, inside front and inside back) that are hilarious sendups of the “biker mystique.”
The cover of the latest Get Fuzzy “Treasury” collection is a good one, too, featuring Bucky Katt glaring from inside a dresser drawer as inept Satchel Pooch – dressed in colors that appear to celebrate both the U.S.A. and the LGBTQ movement – spills food all over himself. But it is harder to argue for acquiring this book if you already have the two smaller collections whose strips it contains, You Can’t Fight Crazy and Cleanup on Aisle Stupid! The strips themselves are absolutely packed with bizarre and often delightful wordplay – indeed, Get Fuzzy is even more word-focused than Pearls Before Swine – but Conley, unlike Pastis, provides no remarks or commentary of any kind with the comics. So this is simply a collection of two earlier collections – great to have if you do not own the earlier books, but not especially necessary if you do have them. Of course, if you have read and re-read the smaller collections so often that they are falling apart, this “Treasury” will be a must-have. And it is indeed tempting to read and re-read Get Fuzzy, because a lot of the verbal byplay requires some thinking to get the point, or all the points. In one strip, self-proclaimed genius Bucky is studying the lives of “other” geniuses to find out how they handled “creative blocks,” which Satchel thinks are Legos, a word that Bucky thinks refers to a Greek philosopher. Elsewhere, Satchel tells Bucky, “I suspect you’re wrong, but I’m unable to wordify my why.” And Bucky writes a book containing a character called “the Catcher of the Dead” because “he is a collector of soles,” which leads Satchel to ask what he does with the rest of the shoe, which leads Bucky to comment on the character’s dominance over life, so Satchel says the word is “souls,” so Bucky explains “not just soles: tunas, flounders, crappies – any dead fish, really.” Also, Bucky proclaims himself king of a new club and tells Satchel, “Neil before me,” so Satchel does kneel (under protest), until Bucky notices that another cat – named Neil – is actually behind him. Elsewhere, Rob Wilco, the resident human of the strip and still far and away its weakest and least interesting character, tells Satchel he is listening to “a seminal jazz piece,” which is “some of the earliest truly American music,” and Satchel comments that they “beat Colombo [to America] by a million years or something” to “make music without using rock” and produce “Seminole jazz, rubber for chew toys, popcorn, Apache cell-phone coverage.” And Bucky then chimes in to remind Satchel and Rob about “kayak.com.” There is so much verbal byplay in Get Fuzzy, and indeed so much verbal play, that this is almost one of the comic strips that can be enjoyed without any pictures at all. But the character drawings, except those of the expendable Rob, do add to the humor of the wordplay: Bucky and Satchel have uniquely expressive facial expressions and body language. For example, Satchel’s trademark wide-eyed, vacantly bewildered look as he dons a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat to search for the missing toy that he himself hid and now cannot locate – and that turns out to be stuck in his own skin folds – is a perfect complement to Bucky’s description of Satchel as being “not Miss Marple” but “Miss Lost-Her-Marples.” That’s “complement,” not “compliment.” Or maybe, more likely, it’s both.