August 30, 2018
(++++) A LAUGH OR TWO A DAY
Calendars (page-a-day for 2019): The Little World of Liz Climo; The President Needs to Stop Tweeting—Pearls Before Swine; Non Sequitur. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
One of the more pleasant traditions of looking ahead to a new year, even months before it begins, is anticipating the enjoyment to be had from one’s favorite comic strips in calendar form. The page-a-day format with a focus on a single cartoonist’s work guarantees a daily dose of familiar amusement: if you already enjoy a comic creator’s work, it is loads of fun to discover new strips or panels that you missed, or revisit ones you may have seen before and especially enjoyed. Liz Climo’s recurring animal characters, for example, have sufficiently offbeat personalities to help counter the blues and negativity that seem to be built into every year, no matter how optimistic we are when a new one starts. On one day, for instance, a rabbit and bear are planning to order pizza and decide on “the usual,” which turns out to be “a large half carrot, half salmon and jellybean.” The same characters later discuss a treasure map that the bear has found, which the rabbit says “is just a drawing of my wallet” – and the bear asks to borrow 20 dollars. There are plenty of other characters here as well. A boy and his unicorn encounter a sign reading “No Unicorns Allowed” and change it with a simple comma to “No, Unicorns Allowed.” A fox tells a millipede to take life one step at a time, and the insect objects because “I have so many feet.” An Easter egg hunt ends quickly when it turns out that a chicken is simply sitting on all of them. A rabbit agrees to pick up candles for a turtle’s mom’s birthday cake, and the turtle asks for 118 of them. A young stork asks his father where babies come from, the father says “the stork,” then realizes what he just said and changes it to, “Go ask your mother.” Two fish in a bowl play “I spy” and can only spy something green – the one plant at the bowl’s bottom. A snake sees one of those road signs showing “S” curves coming up and interprets it as meaning, “Spontaneous dancing ahead.” A sloth reads his entire to-do list, which consists of “hang from a tree branch” and “relax.” Elsewhere, the sloth is on his phone saying he is “just hanging around” – to a penguin, who comments that he is “chillin.’” And then there is the blowfish that sneezes, expands into a big spiny ball, has no idea what he just did, and says, “I’m freaking out.” The animals’ verbal interplay in The Little World of Liz Climo is fun, but it is the drawings that really make this calendar a year-round source of enjoyment: Climo’s simple but telling art uses the characters’ almost-realistic appearance to heighten the amusement of their entirely anthropomorphic concerns and interests.
There is nothing the slightest bit realistic-looking about the animals around whom Stephan Pastis builds Pearls Before Swine, and that is just fine: this sarcastic and often dark strip, with its abundant self-references (including Pasts himself as an untalented and often distinctly unpleasant self-parody), reserves its real-world focus for what Pig, Rat, Goat, Zebra and the other denizens of the strip say and do. The 2019 page-a-day calendar opens with President Rat in the Oval Office, asking an aide, “Is ‘shut your face’ presidential?” The reference to President Trump is obvious, but Pearls Before Swine is not usually this involved in politics: Pastis is an equal-opportunity sarcasm dispenser, and most of his real-world-oriented remarks are on topics other than the overtly political. For instance, Goat comments about getting sick and going to a hospital, where he had an eight-hour wait in the emergency room; Rat says that is a risk of traveling to poor countries; and Goat explains that it happened in the United States. Pig goes to visit his storage unit, where he keeps “all the happy memories from my life,” and it turns out to be a tiny box. Rat borrows money from Pig to contribute to a conservation effort for the phrase “you’re welcome,” since everyone (including Pig) now says “no worries” instead. And then there are the crocs, incompetent as always, as when Larry goes out to get coffee for his wife, comes home, explains in detail how he had it made exactly the way she likes it, then adds, “Me left it on top of car and drove off.” As for cartoon Pastis, he is insulted, among other times, when he says he is going to “party like it’s 1999” and Rat tells him that “when the futuristic references in your favorite songs are 17 years old, you’re old.” As for Zebra, he often has communication-with-others issues, as when he speaks with his father, who is having trouble reading something on a tablet – not a tablet computer, as Zebra thinks, but an aspirin tablet that says something on it that his dad is trying to figure out. There are also plenty of the Pearls Before Swine puns, bad ones, scattered throughout the year of strips. For instance, Little Bo Peep writes down the names of all her sheep on a piece of paper, which she then loses, leading Goat to remark that “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheet” – after which the sheep tell cartoon Pastis, “Ewe offend us.” Pastis’ humor is offensive, or nearly so, a lot of the time, but it is clever and offbeat enough, also a lot of the time, to guarantee that fans of his strip will enjoy seeing a sample of it each day during 2019.
However, not all cartoonists rely on presenting the same characters again and again to draw on (and draw) known sources of humor. Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur deliberately undermines the notion of a strip with continuity: the title translates as “it does not follow,” and that gives Wiley (who uses only his first name professionally) the license to find humor just about anywhere, in just about anything, using just about any sort of characters he feels like creating. Sometimes his single-panel drawings update old stories, as when he has a man approach the little Dutch boy whose finger in a dike is holding back a devastating flood – and tell the boy, “I’m here to negotiate the rights to a reality show.” Sometimes Wiley does get political, as in a panel called “The Government Vetting Process” that has a committee declaring, “Unfortunately, a background check showed you’re actually qualified for the Cabinet post, so we’ll have to pass.” But politics makes only occasional appearances. Wiley is as likely to produce a panel featuring a recently deceased man propped up in his coffin, grimacing at a handheld screen, as his relatives explain that it seemed suitable “to keep him in his natural state of a perpetual Twitter rant.” There is also the “Requiem for a Budget Director” panel, set in Hell, where the devil escorts a man to “eternal dining pleasure” on cat food. And there is a look at two cavemen, one showing a cave-wall drawing of a wheel while the other brings in a non-rolling stone triangle and explains that “the focus group says this looks cuter.” Despite all the one-off panels, Wiley does have some characters who appear repeatedly, although they do so at irregular and unpredictable intervals, in line with the whole concept of Non Sequitur. Chief among these are the smart, pessimistic and highly manipulative little girl named Danae, and Lucy, her pet pygmy Clydesdale horse and best friend. In one sequence of strips, Danae declares a snow day even though there is no snow, presenting the idea as an “alternative fact,” tweeting about it on Twitter, and getting all her friends to retweet, thereby turning it into reality; her less-cynical sister, Kate, then explains, “You made Daddy’s head explode again, so you have to clean it up.” Elsewhere, in a school sequence, Danae declares the English language “fake news” because of all the exceptions to the rule of “i” coming before “e” except after “c.” She then tells her teacher that the Earth is flat and forces the teacher to spend so much time explaining that it isn’t that the lunch bell rings “and my work is done.” Wiley’s work, however, is certainly not done yet, and the heaping helping of it offered in the 2019 Non Sequitur page-a-day calendar shows how many byways of humor Wiley has explored recently – and will suggest how many others are out there awaiting Non Sequitur treatment in coming years.