October 17, 2019
(++++) WHEN ART MATTERS, AND WHEN IT DOESN’T
Dilbert Turns 30. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The Little Red Pen. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
What a difference a decade makes. When Scott Adams’ Dilbert reached the 20-year mark, the event was celebrated with an expensive, oversize hardcover book – slipcased! – that included a 25-page introductory narrative by Adams and then was arranged chronologically, with considerable commentary by Adams on various strips’ themes and on the way in which Dilbert evolved, or failed to evolve, over the years. Now, for Dilbert Turns 30, we get a standard-size paperback with single-page Adams introduction akin to those in previous Dilbert collections, with standard numbering on the spine (this is Dilbert book No. 47), and with no real acknowledgment of the third-decade milestone except for inclusion at the end of “50 of the most popular Dilbert comic strips from the past decade.” Says who? Who knows? That information is not provided. In fact, precious little information is provided in Dilbert Turns 30, except for the knowingly snarky comment in Adams’ introduction, “I’m proud to say Dilbert is still poorly drawn, but at least it made me rich, and that takes a lot of the sting out of the insults. I call that progress.” Well, yes, there is that redeeming pecuniary quality. Still, Dilbert Turns 30 is not as celebratory as it could have been. The near-collapse of the newspaper business in the past decade may have something to do with the diminished acknowledgment of 10 more years of Dilbert, and perhaps Adams’ recent personal ventures into the political sphere are a factor as well – although politics has not invaded Dilbert’s cubicle world itself. Adams actually wrote, accurately, in the decade-ago book, “Every time I tried political humor, I regretted it,” and “I thought my calling might be in political commentary. Clearly it wasn’t.” What Adams’ calling turned out to be – and still is, as Dilbert Turns 30 makes clear – has to do with a super-sarcastic view of big-corporation mindlessness, mind-numbing bureaucracy, and other things that employees mind a great deal but are powerless to change. “I don’t see a path to victory here,” says one minor character, to which Wally comments, “Have you tried lowering your expectations?” That exchange can stand for a lot of what happens in Dilbert, even as Dilbert’s company adopts all possible fads and trends (such as casual dress, with everyone wearing ID badges) while never changing its approach to work or its contempt for its customers and employees. “Why can’t people just listen to my words???” a frustrated Dilbert asks Dogbert after a day in which everyone “believed I was privately thinking the opposite of what I was saying.” Dogbert, the voice of cynicism about pretty much anything, replies, “Have you tried not being boring?” And all Dilbert can say in response is, “Whenever I tell you I have one problem, I leave with two.” That is, in fact, pretty much what Dilbert is all about. Even the victories in Dilbert’s world are losses: he makes a sales video that offends the nation of Elbonia, which assigns ninjas to kill him in his sleep; he comments that that would be the best way to die; so the Elbonians “decided it was more cruel to keep you alive and working here.” Yup. Sounds about right – after 20 years or 30. And counting.
Being aimed at adults, Dilbert can get away with less-than-enthralling art and rely instead on topical humor and clever (and/or wry) writing. Kids have higher standards, or at least different ones: they expect to be grabbed by a book’s illustrations as well as captivated by its narrative. Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel are very much equal to this task in The Little Red Pen, a marvelous flight of fancy that was originally published in 2011 and is now available in paperback. The sisters’ narrative and Janet Stevens’ illustrations endow everyday classroom objects with fascinating and distinct personalities, turning a mundane story (test papers need to be graded) into one with apocalyptic sweep. The red pen of the title – her removable cap resting atop her head like a huge hat, her eyeglasses (yes, eyeglasses) perched on her nose as she calls on other school supplies for assistance – warns that if papers are not graded, students won’t learn, the school might close, the walls and floors could disintegrate, the sky might fall, and “It might be the end of the world!” But nobody else wants to help her save the world: the huge-toothed stapler has a bad back from being pounded all day, the scissors have been cutting up and are getting dull, the eraser forgets the question because “my head is shrinking,” and so on. The visualizations of these characters are absolutely superb, and the use of different typestyles and letter sizes to show their different communication styles adds to the strong visual appeal of the book. Everyone, it turns out, is worried about ending up in “the pit of no return,” the trash basket, so everyone tells the little red pen to look to the class hamster, Tank, for help – not to the other desk denizens. But Tank is so lazy that he does not even use his hamster wheel, and the little red pen decides she has no choice but to grade all the papers herself. But she can’t – the job is too big – and wonderfully conceived illustrations show her getting more and more exhausted until she topples off the desk into, yes, the trash. Hearing the noise of the pen falling into the trash can, the other implements fear the world really is coming to an end, and they emerge from the drawer where they have been hiding to check on things. Is it the end of the world, or not? Will the little red pen ever be rescued from the trash? Will the papers be corrected? Will anyone learn a lesson about helping out? Will Tank ever wake up? These and other questions are brilliantly posed (visually as well as in words) and delightfully answered in a way that is perfectly consistent with each character’s personality and with the overall setting of a classroom that just happens to harbor sentient pens, pencils, erasers, highlighters, and so on. Teamwork, including some help from a broken but still useful ruler, eventually wins the day, with some unwitting assistance from Tank after Señorita Chincheta the pushpin pushes herself into just the right place on Tank’s rear end. Tank emerges as Tankzilla, some of the desk accessories run around Tank’s wheel as the lettering revolves in circles, and there is an eventual triumphal parade that puts all the desktop characters on wonderful display. The Little Red Pen is a genuine tour de force in both writing and illustration, showing both the power of words and the potency of excellent art – an unbeatable combination.