Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
What exactly keeps the newspaper business going these days can be rather hard to fathom, but part of the answer must be, “the comics pages.” These collections of daily bits of amusement and/or visual commentary and/or drama help balance the generalized awfulness found pretty much everywhere else in the traditional newspaper. And although it is certainly possible to read most newspaper comics online – and to read some comics that are actually created online, for Internet-only dissemination – the comic-strip medium originated in print and still seems to fit most comfortably there. To be sure, the reduction in comics’ printed size in recent years has made life extremely difficult for artists whose work shows painstaking detail, and the long tradition of four-panel daily strips has given way in many cases to three-panel ones to allow a smidgen of additional space per panel. Yet some strips have emerged that thrive under these far-less-than-ideal circumstances, and Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which appears in a remarkable 2,000 newspapers worldwide as well as online, is a kind of poster child for modern-strip success.
Adams has drawn Dilbert for almost 30 years and, it can be argued, scarcely draws it better now than he did when he started the strip in 1989. But the quality of the art did not matter in the 1980s and matters very little now. The strip’s backgrounds may be blank most of the time and barely sketched the rest of the time, the characters’ poses may often be virtually identical from panel to panel, and the characters’ facial expressions may range from simple to nonexistent, but that too does not matter – because the strip, not long after its inception, found a perfect focus for Adams’ abilities: the workplace, specifically the Kafkaesque large-corporate workplace. It does not matter that Dilbert has no mouth (except in occasional times of more-extreme-than-usual stress) and that his eyes are invisible behind glasses, because his very facelessness reflects his role as a smart but soul-crushed member of the unappreciated workforce. It does not matter that Wally’s mouth usually consists of pursed lips and that he too has eyes invisible behind glasses, because he represents another common corporate type: the competent but useless employee whose main skill is work avoidance and who keeps his job because firing him would reduce the empire of his boss. And it does not matter that that boss, although he does have visible eyes and mouth, has no name and sports two tufts of hair that look suspiciously like devil’s horns – because a nameless boss just seems to go with faceless characters, and the boss does in fact bedevil his subordinates in a wide variety of soul-stealing ways (and, as longtime readers know, is in fact the brother of a sort-of-actual devil known as Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light).
The consistency with which these typecast characters stand up to scrutiny is shown anew with every Dilbert collection, including Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead, the 46th numbered volume. Much of the genuinely wry commentary on office life and the world that encourages it comes at Dilbert rather than from him. Dogbert, Dilbert’s dog (who also has no mouth and eyes hidden behind glasses), is a frequent source, as when Dilbert is falsely accused of lying at work and Dogbert tells him, “I know you aren’t a liar” – which makes Dilbert feel better until Dogbert adds, “I see you as more of an idiot.” Short-time or infrequently seen characters also become commentary repositories, as when a new company app has “triggered a zombie apocalypse” by being so addictive – and when tested on Zimbu the monkey, leads Zimbu to say that he gets “a strong dopamine hit every time I click on it. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” (Parallels to social-media apps are very much intentional.) And at one point in the latest collection, the boss hires “a story-telling mothman,” who really does have an insect body, complete with wings and with antennae that look suspiciously like boss-style horns. The boss explains that the mothman “identifies the employees with the greatest workloads and wastes their time telling long stories,” and when Dilbert protests that the firm does not need a story-telling mothman, the boss asks, unarguably if you have any familiarity with big-company workforces, “Then why does every company have one?”
And that is what has kept Dilbert in the front rank of comic strips for so many years: not the art, which is “suboptimal,” as Dilbert would (and sometimes does) say, but the way Adams taps into corporate culture day after day, creating characters who (objectively) cannot possibly exist in terms of appearance but who (also objectively) do exist in terms of how they think and what they do. Whether big-corporate life has gotten better since Dilbert started is purely a matter of opinion. What is a matter of certainty is that it has not gotten sufficiently better to stop Adams from continuing to mine what appears to be an unending lode (or load) of soul-crushing mediocrity and everyday dehumanizing behavior that is somehow just shy of preventing all productive work from stopping altogether.