Tag Archives: humor

Newspaper Comics and their Enemies

The comic strip as a medium has produced some genuinely great art, but for every Calvin & Hobbes or Krazy Kat there are a dozen bland strips that have seemingly been on autopilot since time immemorial. While the Web has opened up avenues for some great comics that are too cerebral, too crude, too dark or too Dada for the mainstream press, for the most part the comics page of the newspaper has been coasting steadily downhill for more than a decade.

But the bland safety of the modern newspaper comic, combined with the ready availability of image editing software, has opened up another avenue for comic strip expression: messing with boring people’s work.

Garfield has been a particularly popular target lately. As “Sticherbeast” writes on Metafilter, the strip was intentionally designed to serve as a marketing vehicle, and in its blandness it doesn’t radiate the sense of innocence that can give one a twinge of guilt for upsetting a fictional world’s order. A message board thread started the trend by testing the strip’s nominal assumption that Jon (the human) cannot hear the animals’ dialogue, deleting it from every panel. This led to things like Garfield Minus Garfield, which takes the strip’s loser bachelor humor down to a Waiting for Godot level. For the most part, the parodies are rather lazily done, not attempting to match the strip’s style when they do involve new drawings, and some are even generated mechanically – a newcomer, Garkov, uses Markov chains (a method for generating random text) to create new and sometimes improved Garfield dialogue. But some people put quite a lot of effort into the project. Lasagna Cat, a completely bizarre video “tribute” to the strip which goes uncomfortably far in deconstructing, if you will, the finer points of Jim Davis’s work, must take a lot longer to produce than the strips themselves. This is the best one, by the way.

I’m not sure what the first comic to be hacked like this was (of course it was going on before computers, though it required more work back then), but messing with the Family Circus (a comic that is both very coy and very conservative, making it a particularly ripe target for this sort of thing) has a particularly long tradition. The classic seems to be The Dysfunctional Family Circus, which doesn’t push the right buttons for me (it reminds me of Crazy Magazine’s tasteless parody of Casper the Friendly Ghost), but there’s also The Nietzsche Family Circus, which is wonderful:

Of course, as that Crazy Magazine feature shows, this sort of thing can easily end up being too mean-spirited in attempting to “subvert” the source material, or at least too blunt in its mean-spiritedness. Fatal Farm, the group that did Lasagna Cat, also did a series of hacked sitcom title-sequences most of which end up guilty of this crime. As an art form, the subversion of someone else’s art is limited in scope, and it can never avoid being about the original, if it’s going to have anything to say at all. Even the most Beckettian of the Garfield parodies wouldn’t stand on their feet without the reference to their model – an original comic about a lonely man talking to himself would be held to higher standards. Its comment is ultimately directed at Garfield, and that comment is almost unavoidably critical. That’s why it’s no surprise that best subversions go for baffling instead of blunt. The funniest title-sequence parodies are the ones for The Golden Girls and Designing Women – rather than just splicing disturbing images into the Baywatch credits, which is stupid, they almost manage to pass for genuine attempts to improve the titles. Especially in the Designing Women one, I’m laughing at an imaginary director who thinks that the titles he’s come up with are perfectly good, not at the show itself. I’m guessing the people who really made the video don’t think too highly of the show. (I have no opinion myself – I barely remember it.) Perhaps there’s always some maliciousness to things like deconstruction, some ill will towards the target, but it’s not maliciousness that drives the video, it’s goofiness. Goofiness is easy to like.


Ends in Tragedy

In “The Frames of Comic ‘Freedom,'” Umberto Eco discusses three broad genres of literature: tragedy, comedy, and humor. The distinction he makes between comedy and humor is a topic for another post, but I want to comment on what he says about tragedy: that because it embodies society’s standards, it always supports those standards. I think that, rather, tragedies tend to be equivocal about society.

In a tragedy, as Eco describes it, a character meets with misfortune because he or she breaks the rules of society. Such a story is conservative, he claims, because its resolution is reached when the rules reassert themselves in the character’s punishment, which would imply that there is something wrong with the character’s transgression. The story, simply put, warns the reader against doing something similar to what the character has done.

I don’t see this warning as inherent to the form. Eco uses the example of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which, he writes, “Madame Bovary is first of all a long and passionate argument against adultery, or, at least, about the impossibility of adultery in nineteenth-century bourgeois society.” If it is the latter, then why couldn’t the novel be read as criticizing a society that created a woman who is unable to conform to the rules it imposes on her? That is not the only reading, but I think a reading like it is possible for almost any tragedy.

It is rather, I think, stories with happy endings that unilaterally uphold laws. The (fairly bad but extremely successful) Victorian novel Lady Audley’s Secret, which has an eminently happy ending for every single character except the transgressor, Lady Audley, whose sad fate no one regrets, serves as a good example – in that novel, it is clear that we are meant to be happy at the end, and we cannot sympathize with Lady Audley if we want to do that. The normative claim is clear: the return to order that occurs when Lady Audley is punished for her misdeeds is a good thing, and thus that order is good.

At the end of tragedy, on the other hand, we are left wondering who is to blame. It is not often obvious; the ending of a tragedy usually has a sense of inevitability to it which precludes simple judgments. Is the tragedy of Madame Bovary Emma’s fault for her moral weakness? Her husband’s for his failure to recognize her unhappiness? Society’s for failing to create a place for her? Society’s for creating her? Or is it merely an accident of circumstances that leads to her fall? Ambiguities like this lie at the end of every tragedy. It is only the story with the happy ending, which requires a specific reaction from the reader in order to be appreciated, that makes unilateral decrees.