August 25, 2022


Calendars (page-a-day for 2023): The Argyle Sweater; Non Sequitur; Pearls Before Swine. Andrews McMeel. $16.99 each.

     There are all sorts of sweet, wholesome comic strips that celebrate life, disseminate good news, are emotionally uplifting, and produce a daily feeling akin to euphoria. None of the ones included in this batch of 2023 page-a-day calendars qualifies. In fact, in the days before social media deteriorated into “all outrage, all the time” (there were apparently two or three such days in the dim past), strips such as Scott Wilburn’s The Argyle Sweater, Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur, and Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine were the place to go for a daily helping of cynicism and a generalized (if often soft-pedaled) level of despair about all things human. Nowadays, even though these strips may not be as extreme in their negativity as the heaping helpings of nonsense perpetuated in the social-media sphere (and, for that matter, on many so-called “news” sites), the pithy illustrated observations of Wilburn, Wiley and Pastis all remain just wry enough to be worth a glance or three on every day of the year – making them ideal candidates for page-a-day calendars for people who join these cartoonists in seeing the world through a jaundiced eye. Or two jaundiced eyes.

     Just how jaundiced one’s vision of humanity is can be a determining factor regarding which of these comic-panel calendars fits your particular level of stoicism, sarcasm and dismay. The Argyle Sweater favors the pun-and-bear-it approach to everyday life, looking for the absurd rather than the enraging. One panel has a receptionist answering the phone as follows: “Thank you for calling Acme Midwifery and Plumbing. If your water breaks, we’ve got you covered.” Another has a student awarded an A+ after saying his dog ate his homework – it turns out he attends a School of Culinary Arts. Another shows a maternity ward in which one of the babies is inside a filled aquarium, with the proud father beaming at the water-covered infant – the father is Aquaman. Another has two people looking out a window at an umbrella-carrying bivalve on their home’s front walk, and observing that it is going to rain because they see “the clam before the storm.” Another has those famous giant stone figures familiar from so many photos and studies lying prone on the sand and snoring – because they are on “Ether Island.” And then there is the scene of fast-moving runners closing in on a finish line marked by a table containing ham and bacon – because this is “The Race for the Cured.” True, nothing here involves great wit or profound observation, but neither does anything in The Argyle Sweater come across as mean-spirited or just plain nasty. It may be just the right counterbalance if you want something each day that is funny without being perpetually on the attack against something-or-other. (And every now and then, something turns up that is surely unintentionally funny, such as the fact that the box in which the 2023 calendar is packed refers to the comic as The Argyle Seater.)

     If your sense of humor takes things up a notch (or maybe that should be “down a notch”) on the sarcasm scale, the 2023 Non Sequitur calendar may be more to your liking (or at least acceptance). This long-running comic’s title means “it does not follow,” and it is true that as a general rule, one day’s panel has nothing to do with the ones before and after – but that is the case with numerous other comics, including, for one, The Argyle Sweater. What sets Non Sequitur apart is the trenchant wit with which Wiley views society’s foibles – even when, as has been increasingly the case in recent years, some of the comics do follow each other, with recurring characters and ongoing story lines. Most of the time, Wiley continues to offer standalone panels. One, for instance, contrasts the “pre-civilization rationale” of harming someone (“It’s not personal. I’m just hungry and want your food”) with the “civilized rationale” for harm (“It’s not personal. Your job has been eliminated to hit our quarterly projections so I can get my bonus”). Another shows dogs immediately scampering into Heaven, while St. Peter explains to a human waiting outside, “Because they put up with people their entire life, that’s why they get a free pass.” And speaking of Heaven, another panel is filled with residents of the clouds playing golf as one character, screaming, gets dropped through a cloud, presumably to the nether regions of the afterlife – while a golfer explains, “It’s a yin and yang kind of thing. Down there, they have to watch golf for all eternity.” Back on Earth, there is a desert scene featuring a rundown building with water equipment stacked outside, labeled “Barry Surf Shop,” and there is a character telling Barry, “Your faith in climatology notwithstanding, I still say there’s such a thing as being too far ahead of the market.” And there is an urban scene featuring a cap-and-gown-clad graduate standing forlornly on the street, holding up a sign that says, “Got B.A. Will B.S. for $.” As for some of the continuing-character strips, they generally revolve around cynical pre-adolescent Danae, who has a habit of using modern technology strictly for her own purposes – as when she helpfully tells Wikipedia that the capital of Maine is Portland, only to be sidetracked by her long-suffering father with the information that the state capital is actually Augusta. And there are some entries in this calendar that combine technology with old-fashioned Pearly Gates material, such as one in which St. Peter tells the assembled multitude that the line will move faster “now that I’ve learned how to search your browser histories,” which results in every single soul in line simultaneously thinking, “Uh-oh.” Indeed, there are plenty of uh-oh moments here – another shows “the American Common Ground Regatta,” featuring a rowboat with half the people facing one way and half the other – but there is nothing genuinely mean-spirited about Non Sequitur. Wiley’s work is more of the face-plant type than the punch-someone-in-the-face type.

     If your tastes do run to punch-in-the-face humor, though, you can try the 2023 Pearls Before Swine calendar for a daily helping of punchable moments. The calendar’s title page and box say it all: this is the “Rainbows-and-Unicorns-All-Will-Be-Better-This-Year” calendar, featuring Rat and Pig riding a unicorn in front of a rainbow as Pig happily exclaims, “Because it can’t be worse!” But oh yes, it can, and if-and-when it is, Pearls Before Swine will be there to say “we told you so.” This is just about the darkest comic strip around. It shares elements of other comics, but twists them. For instance, the puns of The Argyle Sweater here become groaners, as in a strip about a new library wing featuring books written by authors in India plus Bollywood films featuring Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Salman Khan – Pig tells Goat that the arrangement has “prose and Khans,” leading Rat to tell the cartoon version of creator Pastis, “Now you can be hated on two continents.” Then there is the strip in which Pig is depressed because his life is so lousy compared to the lives of everyone else, and it turns out he has spent 10 hours on Instagram: “I was happy with my life until others showed me I wasn’t.” And there are several strips in which Rat becomes a therapist: in one, he asks the patient if it is ok just to laugh at him for a minute, and in another, his session notes say “he can’t be helped” and “I just made $200.” And the depths of despair are barely plumbed by those strips. Rat takes everyone further into them by saying he wants to make Mondays more upbeat with “an optimistic thought,” which goes as follows: “Even if our country’s debt one day overwhelms us, or the world becomes too warm, or we simply have too many people and not enough drinkable water, we can always just flee to the woods and fight to the death for survival.” Now, if your taste runs to that level of deep-down doomsaying despair, Pearls Before Swine is definitely the comic strip for you – and the 2023 version of its calendar is sure to make you smile every day of the year. Or bang your head against the wall. Or scream. Or all of those – at least it will make you, you know, react. All year. Day in and day out. Week after week after week…

No comments:

Post a Comment