The Comic Strip Doctor: B.C.

in 500 years anthropologists are going to think this is what we thought of prehistoric times

Our examinations of The Wizard of Id and Crock lead naturally to Johnny Hart’s prehistoric masterwork, B.C. Amazingly, 2004 marks the forty-sixth year of the caveman-themed strip. Johnny Hart, co-creator of Id, has for the last twenty years been devoted to the zealous ideal of bringing the occasional vague Christian symbol to the comics page. In the following strip, originally published on 11/10/03, he has created the medium’s most ridiculous excuse for social commentary:

this took three panels
(Click the image to zoom in.)

In the first panel, a character (presumably the titular caveman B.C.) climbs a hill towards an outhouse precariously perched at the summit. It is night, and a crescent moon in the sky matches the moon cut-out on the outhouse door.

B.C. enters the outhouse, and decides to violently slam the door behind him: the word SLAM appears vertically between the first and second panel. In the second panel, the outhouse sits still beneath the moon as B.C. presumably struggles with his digestive efforts. In the third panel, B.C.’s voice rises from the outhouse: “Is it just me, or does it stink in here?”

At first glance, this strip seems to make little to no sense as a work of humor. This is the first indication that it may, instead, be intended as a work of social commentary; after all, political cartoons are rarely humorous.

This strip has elicited a fair amount of controversy, which I’ll touch on later. First, let’s try and figure out the joke. Hart doesn’t give us a lot of choices. The outhouse stinks; that much is clear. Does it stink because B.C. dropped a monster load, and therefore it’s funny (ironic) that he’s complaining about it? Or does it just stink in general, like outhouses do, and B.C. should have known that — why is he surprised, in other words?

Although Hart is not as lazy an artist as Mell Lazarus or the wizards behind Id and Crock, his idea of humor typically means setup-punchline, often in two panels, with little action and usually a fourth-wall expression at the end that implies a rimshot somewhere offstage.  There’s certainly precedent to argue that this strip is simply stupid. But the strip-as-bad-joke explanation leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Why is it night? Why does B.C. slam the door? Why do cavemen need outhouses?

The third of these concerns is the most easily addressed. B.C. is an anachronous strip. (For the last several weeks, the characters have been playing golf.) Although I have personally never seen an outhouse in a strip before, the characters do share a universe with archaic versions of telephones, dictionaries, unicycles and crucifixes, as well as references to power tools, white-out and X-rated movies (not all in the same strip). The presence of the outhouse is no more bizarre than a joke-dispensing rock with a foot-pedal.

The crescent moon, of course, is a common outhouse symbol — originally, apparently, a star was used for the male privy and a crescent for the ladies (back when not everyone was necessarily literate). The crescent and star are also symbols of Islam, dating to the 1453 conquering of Constantinople by the Turks, who adopted the ancient Sumerian symbols of night as their religious icons. It is this second interpretation of the crescent moon symbol that has thrust this rather stupid strip into a fierce debate.

Islamic groups accused the above strip of harboring an anti-Muslim message, claiming that the use of the crescent moon, coupled with the vertical (or “I”-shaped) arrangement of the word “SLAM”, indicated that Hart was referring to Islam as something that “stinks”. According to their interpretation, character B.C. was claiming that “something stinks” in the religion of Islam.

Since the 1980s, Hart has used his internationally syndicated comic strip as a vehicle to share his political and ideological viewpoint with the masses, as is his right, and as have many other comic artists before and since. Hart is particularly known in the fundamentalist Christian community as a standard-bearer, filling his Sunday strips in particular with Christian verse, iconography and thematic material.

Given that some fundamentalist Christian organizations have a history of thinking poorly of Islam, the “offensive” interpretation seems like it might hold water. It certainly explains the nighttime setting (which, requiring the application of halftones, takes more time to draw than daytime, so there must have been a reason) and the odd way that B.C. slammed the outhouse door.

In a Slate interview, Hart commented on one of his frequent gags, the character of Fat Broad beating a snake with a club:

I used to have her up in the air with her club always beating. And then after a while I figured probably by now everybody knew! Now I substitute a panel that says, Wham, wham, wham, wham! … A lot of times we draw more than we need to draw. It’s always really classy to let the reader in on it, let him do most of the work.

Hart explains here the concept of using sound effects instead of showing an action — this is a common device that he uses. He likes to show very little, and let the reader interpret the action (in the interview he likens it to using your imagination while listening to a radio show). While I understand and appreciate the technique, drawing the word “SLAM” or “WHAM” as a part of a joke seems lazy. As Hart says later in the interview, “I was tired of drawing her beating up on the snake!”

So it’s certainly possible that the “SLAM” in the above strip is not a slam on Islam, but rather sloppy storytelling. However. Hart has drawn a syndicated comic strip for nearly fifty years. He’s sold millions of books and presides over an empire. He’s gotten away with saying whatever he wants (and getting very, very celebrated by Christian groups who call him all sorts of nice things for being so brave) for a very long time, and even weathered the Los Angeles Times pulling him entirely after a controversial Easter strip featuring a menorah burning down into a crucifix. He still says whatever he wants in his strip, as is his right to do, even when it doesn’t jibe with what is generally acceptable in our culture. (Editors nationwide pulled a strip on January 19 that featured two cavemen discussing unseen Asian brothers who fail in their attempt to build a working airplane. The punchline: “Two Wongs don’t make a Wright.”) He is celebrated for taking a conservative, fundamentalist view of the world.  It has become his bread and butter — Christian audiences will defend him because of his message, not because of the quality of his product.

I think remembering not to fall asleep in his oatmeal is higher on Hart’s list of things to do than being subversive:

Talk about a lapse. We did the same [Wizard of Id] gag within a two-month period.  And nobody caught it! Well, see, it wasn’t like we wrote out the gag and then did it and forgot to throw it away, and then did it again—it wasn’t that at all. We rethought it up again, you know, and sent it to Brant [Parker] and Brant did it both times! … Because it was a short span of time, it was almost word for word.

But I think he drew up the above strip not thinking that there was anything wrong with it. After all, Muslim terrorists attacked our country a few years ago! Clearly, any reasonable person must agree that something stinks in Islam, right? We’re a solid, Christian nation, and my readers know that Islam is bad.

Asked about the outhouse strip this week, Hart denied that it was about Islam at all. He said that interpretation stunned him.

“My goodness. That’s incredible. That’s unbelievable!”

…According to Hart, the joke was about the ambiguous authorship of a bad smell. The SLAM, Hart said, was simply there to show that the caveman had walked into the outhouse. The crescent moons were there to indicate it was nighttime, and because outhouses have crescent moons.

“This comic was in no way intended to be a message against Islam — subliminal or otherwise,” he said. “It would be contradictory to my own faith as a Christian to insult other people’s beliefs. If you should have any further silly notions about malicious intent from this quarter, you can save yourself a phone call.”

Notice the subtle way he wove the mention of his Christianity in there? Isn’t it enough that it be against one’s ethics to insult other people’s beliefs? Mentioning Christianity certainly doesn’t clarify the issue — it muddles it, given fundamentalist Christianity’s uneven track record in respecting Islam.

But we’re here to talk about comic strips, not religion. Let’s fix this strip, shall we?

Panel 1: B.C. walks into outhouse. SLAM!
Panel 2: Silence in the outhouse.
Panel 3: B.C.: “Next time, unzip AFTER slamming the door.”

Until next time… I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— May, 2004

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: The Wizard of Id

that wizard, he's from id!

There’s a lot of history in the comic strip format, and a lot of good work being done. It’s a tough business to break into, but apparently it doesn’t take much to stick around, if Mell Lazarus is any indication. This column is about raising the bar of excellence, about driving tenured creators back to the cutting edge they once occupied before society moved the edge from them, leaving them idling in the plains.

The comic strip has seen its share of brilliance — Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson, to name a few who’re no longer with the medium — and its share of dreck. This column won’t pull any punches as we honor the good and eviscerate the bad in the newspaper today.

he may be your wizard but he's not my wizard
(Click the image to zoom in.)

Brant Parker’s The Wizard of Id, consistently one of the shoddiest-drawn strips in major syndication and lacking even the Down’s Syndrome charm of Ziggy, is a prime example of setting the bar at waist level. Rarely is there any depth to Id: the single joke is usually based on a broad cliché, and the drawings look like they were scratched out by a clubfooted chicken on the back of a vomit-stained napkin he found in the couch cushions of his paroled friend who owes him money because he spent his disability on Pabst Blue Ribbon instead of the light bill.

Today, Id‘s single joke revolves around “mess hall” food. (Insert “cafeteria”, or “school lunch”, or any sort of mass-produced meal providery you like.) In the first panel, Sir Rodney tells the King, seated on his magistrate’s bench, that “The jury wants to be fed.” Without any apparent malice, the King replies, rather straightforwardly, “Send them to the mess hall.”< The job of the first panel is to set the scene for the punch line. Some especially skillful writers like to weave an extra joke in, whether a simple non sequitur or some oddball dialogue line. Id effectively wastes 1/3 of the space on nothing humorous. In fact, we’re in a courtroom talking about a jury, so we’re actively retreating from the humor threshold. There’s a lot of ground to make up here; let’s watch.

In the second panel, Rodney says “Yes, Sire,” carrying his scribble-covered clipboard towards the room imaginatively marked “Jury”. By Rodney’s foot you’ll find an Id standby: vague motion lines, that in this case seem to indicate that Rodney is walking backwards. In the third panel, Rodney pokes his head out of the jury room and tells the King, “They just reached a verdict.” The King, nonplussed, seems to entreat the audience: Well, whatta ya gonna do?

The answer, of course, is respond. A good rule of thumb is that double punch lines make for funnier comic strips. It’s a big job to cram anything funny into three-by-nine inches of newsprint, and wasting any space is an indication that the writer is simply lazy. Most funny multi-panel strips will deliver a punch line in the last panel, and then follow it up with a counter-punch line, effectively doubling the comedy. This is a factor of timing, and the way that the layout on the page shapes the rhythm in which we read. A sharp retort to the punchline can be twice as funny, since it’s absurdity building upon previously established absurdity. The gain is logarithmic.

Id goes for the easy out: breaking the fourth wall. The King stares out, in effect raising his hands in mock surrender while the rimshot sounds off-screen. The only thing worse for comedy than drawing attention to the joke would be to laugh at it.

The first stumbling block to the strip is the fact that, at first glance, it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no logic connecting the jury being hungry with them reaching a verdict. Why would they reach a verdict when they’re about to break for lunch? Don’t they want a break from deliberation? Anyone who isn’t smart enough to get out of jury duty surely would welcome a chance for free food and less work. So what, then, drives their sudden unanimity?

Perhaps the jury is testing the King, first asking for a meal, then changing their mind. Perhaps they’ve seen that the King will grant them their request for lunch, so they feel comfortable turning their decision regarding the fate of an accused criminal over to his jurisprudence. The intended joke, I believe, is that the jury is so afraid of the concept of eating at the “mess hall” that they’d rather get out of deliberations as soon as possible.

This is a risky gambit for Brant Parker. First, it assumes that the audience both (a) knows that the jury reaching a verdict would get them out of there; and (b) know that “mess halls” have a reputation for featuring bad food. Jokes based on clichés like this, as Id and its compatriots often are, increasingly run the risk of failure because (a) the older the cliché gets, the stupider it is to the audience as the basis for a joke; and (b) the older the cliché gets, the more likely that a younger generation won’t be familiar with it. It’s like at AMC movie theatres, where an on-screen advertisement for their gift card uses the slogan “Our gift certificate is quite a card.” The ad copy visibly strains to make a pun, using an archaic definition of the word “card” that’s #7 in the dictionary. The strain is more distracting than the ad is enticing.

As we’ll see as we examine more of the worst in newspaper comic strips, even poorly-conceived or badly-written strips can be saved with a revision to the last panel. If we give Brant Parker the benefit of the doubt and agree that this particular joke is clearly the best possible concept for today’s strip (and I’d hate to see what it beat out), we can add a second, funnier punch line. This makes the dumb punch line essentially a setup line for the second one, so it’s forgiven for being so dumb. Adding a second punch line often works, but only if it’s got something to build on:

Rodney: The jury wants to be fed.
King: Take them to the mess hall.
Rodney: Yes, Sire.
Rodney: They just reached a verdict.
King: I’m not going to execute the chef!

More effective is to rewrite the entire last panel:

Rodney: The jury wants to be fed.
King: Take them to the mess hall.
Rodney: Yes, Sire.
Rodney: They say they’d rather starve.
King: Then lock the door and leave the bastards!

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— March, 2004

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Crock

what a ... oh, you know

Today’s column explores the Foreign Legion-themed strip Crock. What began as a parody of the 1939 adventure film Beau Geste has evolved into a haphazard collection of scribbles that matches The Wizard of Ids aching ineptitude scrawl-for-scrawl. Brant Parker, of Id, co-created the strip in 1975 with Bill Rechin and Don Wilder, but now Rechin & Wilder are the sole credited creative force. Keep in mind that it took two people, or possibly three, to come up with the following:

what's the point of setting this strip in the Sahara if the jokes are going to be about lockets and such?
(Click on the image to zoom in.)

In today’s strip, a stubbly and rather frazzled-looking legionnaire approaches the otherwise-occupied Captain Poulet with an entreaty: “Sir, I’ve lost my wife’s picture.” In Panel Two, Rechin and Wilder have accomplished the seemingly impossible: creating an image whose minimalist ugliness even surpasses the careless quality of the first panel. In it, Capt. Poulet responds: “I believe I vaguely remember seeing it on a chain around your neck.”

So far, Rechin & Wilder have done an admirable job of not giving away anything that would allow us to anticipate the punchline. Simply put, this dialogue doesn’t seem like it’s leading up to a joke. And, as it turns out, it isn’t, or at least not one that makes any sense.

In the third panel, the legionnaire answers: “Yeah, a framed 8×10.” Capt. Poulet apparently gets the joke, since he looks out at the audience, wordlessly saying “Can you believe what I have to deal with here?” Well, no, we can’t, since we don’t know what the joke is.

The legionnaire grins through his grief as he recalls the framed 8×10 of his wife. Is this wistfulness or merely wink-wink-nudge-nudge “It’s a joke, silly!” telegraphing? I’m not sure, since I still don’t get the intended joke.

I think the humor is supposed to reflect the stupidity of the legionnaire. According to one possible interpretation, anyone can be forgiven for losing a little locket, but how dumb do you have to be to lose something as big as a framed 8×10 dangling from your neck? Capt. Poulet is happy to help a soldier who’s lost a locket, but someone this stupid is beyond help.

Another interpretation, and one that I think rings more true to Rechin & Wilder’s intent, is that the concept of someone hanging a framed 8×10 from their neck is ostensibly funny in and of itself. The legionnaire losing the picture and the conversation of the first two panels is incidental to the reveal in the third panel. The humor tries to come from the absurdity of someone hanging such a cumbersome object from their neck, even this sad, lovesick legionnaire. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the devotion necessary to maintain a long distance relationship? Marching about in the sands of North Africa, our hero’s not content to gaze at a tiny, blurry locket; no, he’s willing to suffer the awkwardness of carrying a framed 8×10 of his beloved. In this light, the loss of his cherished keepsake rings even more bitterly.

But he’s smiling in the third panel, and I don’t know whether it’s a wistful expression or a jokey one. The dialogue is vague, which is death in a written medium. To more clearly convey the intended humor, we need to give the reveal to Capt. Poulet:

Legionnaire: Sir, I’ve lost my wife’s picture.
Capt. Poulet: I believe I vaguely remember seeing it on a chain around your neck.
Capt. Poulet: I don’t know how you lose a framed 8×10.

Remember, humor is based on the reversal of expectations. Instead of relying on assumed expectations — i.e., the picture of his wife is a locket –we should ourselves establish the expectations, and then reverse them. This also allows us to make more than one joke in the same amount of space. This practice takes a tiny bit more thought, which is why you’ll never see it in the pages of Crock.

Here, we’ll establish that the wife is ugly in order to set up a second joke independent of the locket/8×10 comparison, which isn’t funny alone, but which is tolerable if followed by something funnier.

Legionnaire: Sir, I’ve lost my wife’s picture.
Capt. Poulet: That ugly thing? Wasn’t it on a chain around your neck?
Capt. Poulet: I don’t know how you lose a framed 8×10.
Legionnaire: The hardest part was getting the camel to eat it.

And, to push the envelope of taste, which we might as well do since we’re not really being funny any other way:

Legionnaire: Sir, my wife’s boudoir picture is missing.
Capt. Poulet: Sorry, Bob, but I don’t think you want it back.
Legionnaire: What do you mean? Where is it?
Capt. Poulet: It’s been pinned up in the outhouse for a week now. It’s gotten a little sticky.
Legionnaire: Obviously, whoever stole it has never seen CSI.

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— March, 2004

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)