May 09, 2019
(++++) THE BRITISH ARE COMIC-ING
Safely Endangered Comics. By Chris McCoy. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Oh No. By Alex Norris. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The Internet may interconnect nearly the entire world, but it does not interconnect the world’s social norms. That means that humor, among other things, does not always translate particularly well across borders, even electronic ones. And there is a longstanding difficulty between the United States and Great Britain when it comes to what is funny: neither society tends to “get” what the other one does. This is why, for example, British TV humor programs (or programmes) are generally adapted by American TV producers instead of simply being brought “across the pond” in their original form. There are certainly exceptions, such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but those tend to prove the rule, becoming cult favorites for those “in the know” rather than sources of amusement for a more-general audience. So it is interesting that some cartoonists from Great Britain, operating strictly online, have found ways to bridge the British-American humor gap – the evidence coming in the form of their book collections. While not every offering in Safely Endangered Comics and Oh No will be equally funny for Americans (or for Canadians, for that matter), most of the content of both books arrives from the British side of the Atlantic with humor unimpaired.
This works largely because Chris McCoy and Alex Norris do “human-condition” comics, of the wry and sometimes sarcastic sort, rather than satirical ones requiring readers to understand culturally specific references to whatever is being satirized. The panels in McCoy’s Safely Endangered Comics have no recurring characters and no predictability of topic – but McCoy manages, again and again, to find amusement in things that transcend national boundaries. One strip, set at “Passport Control,” has a skeptical officer looking at a passport photo of a caterpillar and telling another officer, “I think this guy’s a terrorist.” The final panel shows that the traveler is a butterfly, who is left to protest that it is just an old picture. On another page, a character is seen consuming numbers and lamenting that they never seem to end. The final panel shows that he is in a pi (not pie) eating contest. That is subtle as well as transnational. Then there is McCoy’s version of a happy dog fetching a thrown ball: the dog’s thinking shows him promising to get the ball and lamenting that “humans are so clumsy.” And there is a sequence in which a Godzilla-like monster decides to do a “trust fall,” but there is no one to catch him, so he collapses backward and crushes a building. Also, there is a genie-paradox page, with a genie offering to grant the wishes of the person who rubs his lamp – who promptly says, “I wish you can’t grant wishes.” That is an unexpected variation on the old “I wish for more wishes” line. In fact, a great deal of Safely Endangered Comics is unexpected, and that is why McCoy’s work amuse across borders. His drawings are nothing special, but their simplicity of outline and careful use of detail to highlight various elements of each comic work well – and fit the Internet origin of the comics aptly, since the Internet is not known to reward subtlety of artistic expression. It sometimes does, however, reward subtlety of verbal expression, and that is an area in which McCoy’s work stands up well.
Norris’ Oh No has a far more limited palette and features even simpler drawing that borders on the nondescript. It is a set of variations on a single theme – many, many variations – and it is no surprise that the words Oh No have taken on something of a life of their own online. This is a comic that is all about disappointments – big ones, small ones, and every size in between. The featured character is barely a character at all: it is a pink blob of varying shape with dots for eyes, a line for a mouth, and no other features. And almost every three-panel comic ends with the same punch line: the blob (or sometimes other, equally blobbish characters) saying, “Oh no.” This sounds like a recipe for repetitiveness, and it is, but that does not mean the same thing as boredom. The key here is the many ways Norris uses the “Oh no” phrase and the many situations to which he applies it. Each strip has a title reflecting its particular disappointing situation. “Impossible” starts with the blob wanting to be successful. The second panel shows success at the top of a hill labeled “effort.” The third panel has the blob just standing there saying, “Oh no.” In “Experience,” the blob checks a diary after commenting, “They say to write from real experiences.” The diary, shown in the second panel, says “did nothing” on every day. The third panel has the blob saying, inevitably, “Oh no.” The “genie” variant here is called “Wish” and features a genie emerging from a lamp in the first panel; in the second, the blob wishes the world were a better place; and in the third there is a tombstone, showing that the blob is dead and buried – and saying, from underground, “Oh no.” That is darker humor than the norm in Oh No, but really, there is no specific “norm” here. Oh No is sometimes self-referential and sometimes Internet-referential. A strip called “Social Media” starts with a panel showing the blob smiling on a sunny beach, with the label “#carefree.”” The second panel starts to widen out to show where the picture has been cropped. The third panel is much wider, showing the pink blob surrounded and almost buried by big purple blobs labeled “worry.” The pink blob is, naturally, saying “Oh no,” and at the same time commenting on the way in which always-edited social-media posts paint a false picture of people (and blobs) and their world. In a similar vein, a trip called “Fad” starts with three orange blobs telling the pink blob, “We are into this new thing,” while each holds a rectangle labeled “Fad.” In the second panel, the pink blob decides to join in and reaches for a similar rectangle. But in the third panel, the three orange blobs are holding rectangles labeled “New Fad” and saying, “We are into something else now,” leaving the pink blob to remark, of course, “Oh no.” The over-simplification of Norris’ art often seems to reflect the over-simplification of the Internet world and, by extension, the world away from the Internet (yes, there is such a thing). It is precisely because the world online crosses so many boundaries, national and otherwise, that books such as Oh No and Safely Endangered Comics have the opportunity to reach out well beyond their points of origin and find kindred spirits, or kindred worriers, thousands of miles away.