September 09, 2010


Problem Identified and You’re Probably Not Part of the Solution: A “Dilbert” Treasury. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garden of Classics. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Andrews McMeel’s “Treasury” volumes are essentially reprints of reprints: newspaper comic strips are reprinted by the publisher in small-size book collections, and then those collections are re-collected into larger-size books and given the “Treasury” label. But the publisher has in recent years enhanced its “Treasury” series in several ways that increase the books’ appeal; two of those ways are on display in these new releases.

     Problem Identified is a “theme” book, collecting individual strips from Scott Adams’ long-running Dilbert strip into a single volume built around the topic of incompetent bosses and co-workers. Since this is one of the foundations of Dilbert, Adams had a lot of leeway in choosing strips for this “Treasury,” and he picked ones from all different times of his career and all different levels of his drawing skill (which has never been the strip’s strongest point). The great thing about Dilbert is how it takes everyday workplace occurrences (including many real-life experiences of the strip’s readers) and twists them just a tiny bit, making them funnier and more absurd but keeping them immediately identifiable as infuriating elements of the corporate world. Given this approach, the art is almost an afterthought, which is why a “theme” book like Problem Identified works so well even though it exposes Adams’ past (and, some would add, current) artistic inelegance. “Do you ever just marvel at the fact we get paid to do this?” is a recurring element here. Dogbert, ever alert for exploiting human stupidity, creates a “seminar for management zombies” to teach attendees how to use such words as “paradigm,” “empowerment” and “proactive.” The company decides that employees are its ninth most valuable asset – carbon paper is eighth. The Pointy Haired Boss (PHB) tries out a new motivational technique by requiring each employee to eat a bug – “It’s way more motivational if I pick the bug.” The PHB also requires the department to create an internal Web page that will contain “enough information to be difficult to maintain, but not so much that it’s useful.” And the PHB agrees to cut short a motivational meeting “if you’ll all agree to feel worse in some way.” Throw in Wally’s usual work-avoidance expertise, Alice’s perpetually frustrated super-competence, and Dilbert’s unending bewilderment, and you have yet another collection – the 34th, actually – in which Adams proves that he has had his finger on the pulse of big-company ridiculousness for more than two decades.

     Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac is a much newer strip – only two small-size collections so far – and a much, much better-drawn one. Thompson’s observations, though, are just as trenchant as those of Adams. But they focus entirely on suburban family life, to which the workplace is (at least in this strip) quite incidental. Cul de Sac Golden Treasury, the first Thompson book in oversize format, adds value in a way that is different from that used in the latest Dilbert collection. Thompson’s volume re-collects the cartoons previously published in both his first book (Cul de Sac: This Exit) and his second (Children at Play). But it adds something valuable and often very amusing: Thompson’s comments on a number of his strips. He points out the salute to Family Circus in one Sunday entry, talks about “group tours” to the time-out corner in the strip’s preschool, explains that recurring character Dill “sometimes shows signs of having a dark side” because “he’s the smallest of five poorly socialized and semidiabolical brothers,” and repeatedly points out that cheese is funny. Cul de Sac is nominally focused on four-year-old Alice Otterloop (as in “outer loop,” a reference to the Beltway that surrounds Washington, D.C. – the area where Thompson lives and works). But her older brother, Petey, frequently steals the show with his very narrow comfort zone and manifest neuroses (he is proud to be on the list of world-champion picky eaters). Petey’s self-narration at an oboe recital – using a technique popularized by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury – is a highlight of this collection. But Alice’s brief ability to control bees – and, even more briefly, butterflies, which “in the right hands” are “surprisingly aggressive” – is equally enthralling. So are the strips featuring the well-spoken and perpetually put-upon preschool-class guinea pig, Mr. Danders. And Thompson’s parodies of children’s literature can be out-and-out hilarious: the “Fontanelle” books by “Oswaldo Twee” (modeled on Lemony Snicker’s productions) and the “Little Neuro” comic strip (not exactly “Little Nemo”) that Petey perpetually reads are just two examples. Thompson’s strip is quite literate without being in-your-face about it; his art is unusual in today’s cartooning world (more detailed and better designed, among other things); and his commentaries in Cul de Sac Golden Treasury are treasurable in themselves. The result is a thoroughly winning collection highlighting a thoroughly winning comic strip.

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