all the old paintings and things will show you just how common this affliction used to be. thank goodness modern medicine has made it rare

all the old paintings and things will show you just how common this affliction used to be. thank goodness modern medicine has made it rare

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The Comic Strip Doctor: Marmaduke

big dog, big bone

In a recent interview, Marmaduke‘s Brad Anderson dropped hints as to his legacy:

“Hank Ketcham died a couple years ago, but he had two guys in training, and you can’t tell the difference. And he always had writers. He had quite a big staff. I don’t have any staff, except my wife, who takes care of the office.”

Anderson, born in 1924, started cartooning at the age of 15. In 1954 Marmaduke began appearing in newspapers. The mischievous Great Dane has sold over 10 million copies of his over two dozen books. It’s currently featured in 500 newspapers in over 20 countries.

Anderson must awake each morning terrified. There’s no one else. There’s no Marmaduke heir. The dog will die with him.

He must keep living — if only to keep Marmaduke alive. Because that dog is all that brings meaning to his life.  It’s all the success he has ever known.

In my local newspaper, the crappy square strips — Marmaduke, Heathcliff, Dennis the Menace, and Family Circus — all appear together, in a sort of matrix of suckitude. Occasionally they synergize; one may inadvertently comment on another, or illuminate an unseen facet of an issue raised by another.  Each of the four consistently deals subtextually with deep-seated social neuroses — with Dennis it’s the fear of abandonment; Heathcliff addresses post-violent-victimhood paranoia; and Family Circus is racist.  (More on these in future articles.)

But Marmaduke is uniquely psychosexual; the dog is a huge, lumbering id waving its monster lipstick-phallus throughout the tightly-buttoned Winslow household while tension simmers just below the surface:

why are they in a spa in the middle of the day?

Marmaduke the dog is the rape fantasy taken flesh; he is the overpowering force that conquers your will and thus leaves you inculpable. You physically cannot resist; therefore you are absolved of responsibility. It is not your fault. (The tacit implication is that you are then free to enjoy it guiltlessly.)

However, brutalizing rape is socially unacceptable behavior.  It’s excused because he’s a dog, but it’s not condoned.  He is a force that can only be vectored, not contained, but civil society must at least do their best to try and harness his surging energy.  Thus the Winslows and their hapless neighbors must discourage Marmaduke’s advances whenever possible:

not again!

However, there is a clear difference between what society must openly condemn and what may be illicitly enjoyed behind closed doors. Anderson delights in dancing across this line with the character of Dottie Winslow (the wife and mother). Marmaduke is several times larger than her husband, Phil; in terms of testosterone energy per pound Marmaduke is a pure dynamo:

forget it, marm.

And so Anderson explores this relationship between the unfulfilled housewife and the sexual beast that lives with her family. When Phil is at work, and the children at school, she is alone with him  Are her needs as a woman being met by her husband? Did she marry for love, or for convenience? Did she, in fact, settle down too early? Anderson hints at a longing buried deep in her psyche.

look at that bitch prancing around outside like nothing even happened

But whatever she feels, she is part of society. She cannot act. Anderson has filled Dottie’s world with people to whom her desires are monstrous. Each day, she walks a tenuous balancing act between propriety and fulfillment; a razor-thin line separates her fragile doll’s house and a cathartic loosening of every inhibition that would allow her to feel, even just once, what it would be like to live.

It is a line she must not cross.

lucky you!

In his comic strip, Anderson has created a model of the human condition. The Marmaduke-id and the Phil/society-superego combat each other in the person of the Dottie-ego. To function perfectly in the artifice of society, Anderson asserts, we must become a neutral party to our own desires; conversely, to give in to our innate selves is to reject the mores and codes of the constructed world that sustains our shallow life.

Cruelly, Marmaduke himself is not party to Dottie’s torment. He is ever present, ever willing, should she ever decide to give in and fall into her own infinity.  He’s ready to go anytime; however, human society in the aggregate — Phil, for example, personifying the “rules” — cannot allow humans in the singular to experience the depths of all that they might.

This is the joke that mankind has pulled on itself.

but he's ready to go, man, read-y-to-go.

To Anderson’s credit, when his contemporaries have all passed on their mantles and died, he clings to his creation, his mankind-in-microcosm, and tempts us with the challenging possibilities of what man might someday become. In the same interview cited above, Anderson describes his creative process:

“I think like a dog, and that helps a lot.”

Anderson has opened himself to that id, that release to instinct and desire and carnal pleasure. Anderson beckons us temptingly from the other side of the rainbow. But Anderson knows that the “rules” are what keep us together. Maximal individual fulfillment on a global scale would lead to chaos, depriving us of infrastructural elements we need to survive. So it’s a trade-off: to live, to be able to buy food and homes and blankets and trinkets, we must die a little. We must shut away our ravenous base natures and contribute to the homogeneous general good. No matter how painful on a personal level, for the sake of society, we must not allow the Marmaduke-id primacy:

forget it.

The problem is, while Marmaduke lends itself readily to textual analysis, it’s never very funny, and it is, after all, a comic strip. It’s always about a big dog climbing on things or being awkward or being annoying, and there are about three jokes in that concept, and Anderson’s been doing them over and over for fifty-one years. From the same interview:

“And, of course, dogs do the same thing over and over, but if you follow them around, they do it a little bit differently every time. So that’s what I try to do.”

This is great for little-old-lady-with-her-morning-tea comicstrippery (while the coal-black spark in her inmost being is fanned, perhaps, into a wan but unrecognized flame) but bad for our hip, ironic, post-postmodern cynical times.

The problem is that the flaw lies not as much in the writing of each individual strip as it does in the underlying concept.  But, in keeping with the spirit, I will rewrite the above strip (Marmaduke on the throne) for today’s audience:

Caption: “Children, you won’t believe me now, but you’ll thank me later — no matter what’s he’s told you, all authority on heaven and earth has not been given unto him.”

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

— July, 2005

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Making of Wondermark, Part III

XII. DISTRIBUTION

The strip is complete, but before it goes out into the world, it must be approved by the Distribution Chief.  It’s Chief’s job to know how the strip will play in various markets.  Some strips are held back in various regions; others have alternate wording substituted to avoid (or correctly translate) regional slurs.

About 25% of all completed strips are outright rejected at this stage, whether due to Standards & Practices violations (the infamous “commythumpers” episode) or the fact that their moment has simply past (recently, an entire Yasser Arafat story arc was scrapped at the last moment at great expense to the company).

Once approved, the finished strip is taken to a studio and photographed with a medium-format lithography camera using Kodak 120 ISO high-resolution color film.  One print is sent to Marketing, while the negative is scanned at 9600 dpi with an Agfa scanner for archival purposes.  Dust on the scanner lens is our constant nemesis.

The original illustration board is now carefully antiqued.  A full three-sevenths of Wondermark’s charm is its ‘vintage’ look, and that’s thanks to a team of freelance antiquers who are brought in to age the illustration board.  Using authentic 19th-century engraving tools and patinas, they brush and carve the board to resemble a Victorian woodcut engraving.  The lettering, safe on the acetate overlay, is unaffected by the antiquing.

sucker
Detail: panel before antiquing

this was funnier back when the comics on the main page were all lo-res and pixely
Detail: panel after antiquing

This painstaking process normally takes around six weeks.

XIII. FINAL EFFECTING

The antiquing process culminates in the board being allowed to age in a cool, dark cellar for up to six weeks.  Once completely cured, the piece undergoes digital compression that results in the carefully-modulated pixeling that is Wondermark’s unique stylistic fingerprint.

This comprehensive process coalesces into a final product that is surely the best in every respect.  The diversity of voices, each with their own insistence on meaningless revisions and belief in the inerrant supremacy of focus-grouped pabulum, combine to produce a comic strip that is equally appealing to everyone, everywhere:

see, bonus comics!  who loves ya
The final product, after testing-driven revisions (click for bigger)

This time-tested process is what produces all of the top-notch comic-strippery that fills two hilarious pages in the newspapers each day.  The only difference is that Wondermark’s creator is still alive.

back to wondermark main page

The Making of Wondermark, Part II

VI. LAYOUTS

The envelope is opened, its lightly-scented contents revealed, and the approved Script is on its way to becoming a fully-fledged, print-ready Strip.

At this point the paste-up composite of the approved script is carefully reviewed for composition, panel layout, balloon placement, and sprite ratio. Each of these factors has been carefully and precisely set by the creative personnel upstairs, and every detail must be retained as exactly as possible in the finished product.

Typically, the paste-up will be enlarged and projected onto a sheet of 32” x 40” illustration board (our liners use Crescent #200, extra heavy weight, hot press). The forms and gestures are lightly traced with a 5H or 6H pencil, and a digital photograph of the board is sent to the ballooner. The ballooner lays in rough dialogue balloons for reference, so that the penciller will know to leave space for the final balloons in the composition.

The paste-up is useful early on for giving the layout artists a vague indication of the preferred composition, but then it’s archived. The pencillers have found that they produce more evocative work when the Marvin or Jump Start or La Cucaracha panels that’ve been used in the paste-up are out of view.

VII. ROUGHS

The layouts complete, a high-resolution backup clone is made of the illustration board while the board itself is overnighted to the roughing studio in Korea. There, talented artists work from the existing layouts to rough in each panel’s shapes and forms, freeing the pencillers to concentrate on detail and expression rather than the technical minutiae of proportion and perspective. This process usually takes about two days per strip.

he likes it rough, I can tell
Roughs in Korean studio

VIII. PENCILS

Having seen the paste-up, the research team has already begun compiling reference material — photographs of needed props, Muybridge motion stills, or actual objects or models for the pencillers to draw from. A typical panel requires anywhere from six to ten reference items; some of the more exotic strips have required (as you will no doubt recognize) a bicycle-riding elephant, which was procured and brought into the studio; a seafaring schooner; two cows on a seesaw (actually one cow drawn twice); and a dead man.

When the roughs return from Korea, the pencillers begin the tedious job of creating images where before there were only vague images. They are a fastidious group, often working late into the night, and they have a powerful union, which means they take a lot of breaks. A typical comic panel may take two to four days to pencil, with up to six pencillers trading off in shifts.

The completed pencils are once again subject to the approval of the Creative Director before any ink is applied. This late approval is mostly a formality, as by now it’s relatively late in the game to switch gears, but some minor changes can be made if necessary.

IX. BALLOONS

Before the inking, the balloonist makes light sketches on the actual illustration board to indicate the size and placement of all word balloons. While many comic strips now use computers to add the word balloons and text over the finished art, Wondermark still employs the traditional balloonist and letterer, both artisans who were grandfathered in under the current union contract and neither of whom can be legally fired.

Their placement finalized, the balloonist begins crafting the balloons on a sheet of acetate that will overlay the inked board. This process is normally completed at the same time as the inking.

X. INKING

Perhaps the most exacting step in the creation of the finished strip is the inking process. Using Winsor & Newton Series 707 pure sable brushes (sizes 00 through 3), Rapidograph technical lining pens, and croquill nib pens with Pelikan india ink (below), the inkers interpret the precise pencils into bold black and white. This ensures the art’s archival quality and makes for easy and sharp reproduction.

pelikan is also the preferred tattoo ink: TRUE FACT
Pelikan india ink

Fine artists in their own respect, a close-knit team of three inkers working in shifts can complete an entire strip in four days.

XI. LETTERING

Once the ink is dry, the letterer uses registration marks to lay the acetate sheet containing the opaque white balloons over the inked illustration board. A second acetate sheet containing the dialogue, written with fine-point dry-erase pens, is then laid over the balloon layer.

The entire creative crew, including the Creative Director and the Executive V. P., traditionally gather around an easel in the lunchroom to eat bagel chips and discuss the dialogue. At this stage alternate verbiage can easily be substituted in and evaluated with the finished artwork. The balloonist usually petitions against major changes, since it would mean re-painting the balloons. Minor changes he’s all for, however, and some of our best punch lines (“I hate cracker children!”) have been the balloonist’s.

When the best possible dialogue copy has been created by this committee, the letterer will use an Ames lettering guide and Rapidograph technical pens to transcribe it precisely onto a matte acetate sheet.

Now, so the world can see it: Click here for Part III (of III)

The Making of Wondermark, Part I

The creation of a comic strip is an arduous and seldom-rewarding task. Sweat, blood, tears, ink and occasionally urine must combine in a subtle alchemy on the illustrative page, by necessity ripping creative gashes in the artist’s soul that only sting more greatly with the acrid tang of exposure to the public consciousness.

The creators of The Wizard of Id, comic-strip greybeards Peter Parker and Bret “Hitman” Hart, once stated that the creative process “…is a [mistress]…with [cruel proclivities]…and a [sadistic streak]…that [only] sometimes leads to [the expected release; that of] an [attentive readership]…much less [widespread commercial appeal].” It’s a harsh world for a newbie to come to terms with; however, here at Wondermark we have streamlined this delicate and psychically dangerous process into a slick, successful art.

This does not mean that the processes described below are not difficult or torturous. They are both, in roughly equal quantities, sprinkled liberally with despair and occasionally garnished with a dash of coppery, nutmeg Hate. The following account will be by nature incomplete and imprecise, but it is our devout hope that some if not both of Wondermark’s devout readers will forgive the omissions, fill in the gaps, sit back, and learn a little something about comedy.

I. THE CONCEPT

Every step in the process is difficult, but coming up with the concept is by far the most emotionally taxing. Our creative staff reads several newspapers every day, staying abreast of current events both domestic and international, momentous and mundane, searching for those small items that — to the trained eye — represent the ever-changing character of the culture.

For example, recently in Italy a love-struck lunatic stole an ambulance and careened through city streets, wailing the siren to serenade his (hopefully impressed) bella. While this might rapidly become fodder for an E! Original Movie, it has to pass through a much more rigorous gauntlet of inquiry before being considered to be potential Wondermark material:

Is the subject riding the Zeitgeist like a tidal wave?

Our research department took an informal survey of 10,032 Americans and Western Europeans, asking them a variety of questions including their emotional reaction to this news item. The survey also included “dummy” questions designed to disguise the true nature of the survey, so as to weed out “prampters”, or respondents who concoct bogus answers for sport (“prampting”).

The dummy questions included such irrelevant gems as “What criteria do you use when deciding which brand of mung beans to purchase?” and “Did ‘moral values’ play a role in deciding who you would vote for in the Presidential election?”

The survey clearly indicated that the public would be highly receptive to us shining our blinding cultural spotlight on the Italian incident. This is the preeminent criterion for subject selection.

Is there sufficient material to inform a one-to-seven-panel, 3” x 9” sequential illustration?

Drawn out to its full potential, the paramour-turned-paramedic scenario could probably fill at least three panels (assuming the conventional setup-reinforcement-reversal paradigm), or, failing that, could possibly work as an extended single-panel non sequitur.

Would the proposed subject provide an opportunity for side-splitting humor, wry irony, clever witticism, or at the very least a Ziggyesque rhetorical observation?

This is the toughest question to answer.  Sure, the material’s there, but is it worth doing? The reality was no, but for this exclusive look behind the scenes at the Internet’s first and only comic strip, we’ve made a special exception. For the sake of this article, we’ll be expending all the normal resources in the service of a doomed concept. This only differs from the norm in that we usually don’t recognize a concept’s stupidity until much later in the process, after it’s far too late (and too embarrassing, not to mention expensive) to turn back.

II. THE PROPOSALS

Once the concept is decided upon, a battery of scripts are written to create a comprehensive campaign.  The writing staff, under the guidance of the Creative Director, will each write several “spec” scripts for consideration, approaching the concept from many different angles.  For example:

WONDERMARK SPEC SCRIPT - “MAMMA MIA”
PANEL 1: A dapper YOUNG MAN kneels in front of
a LOVELY LASS.
                  YOUNG MAN
       There is nothing new under the sun,
       save thy tender mercies.  I shall
       issue a dulcet cry to the heavens
       befitting thee, o goddess of beauty!
PANEL 2: The Young Man leaps into a passing
ambulance, knocking the previous occupant
(a NECK-BRACED HOBO) into a canal.
                  YOUNG MAN
       For thee, my dearest, there is
       no muting the song of the swan...
PANEL 3: The Lovely Lass throws a hand to her
forehead.
                  LOVELY LASS
       Your promises are promising, my
       promised one, but only by hearing
       them amplified by the life-van’s
       golden throat shall I be truly
       convinced of your sincerity!
                  NECK-BRACED HOBO
      Agkkk.

This script has a lot going for it; it’s got romance, passion, and the clever last-word-in-the-last-panel twist that always tickles the kids.  But it’s a little heavy-handed for Middle America.  In contrast, the script on the following page has our most discerning demographic firmly in mind:

WONDERMARK SPEC SCRIPT - “SNOWBOARD MONKEYS”
PANEL 1: A PIZZA CHEF tosses a disk of dough
into the air. Suddenly, the WALL BREAKS IN!
                  PIZZA CHEF
      Holy a-baloney!
PANEL 2: Three HIP BLACK CHICKS burst through
the hole in the wall!
                  AFROED CHICK
      What’s shaking, white meat?
                  HOOP-EARRINGED SISTA
      Looks like his belly!
                  RESPECTABLE AFRICAN-
                  AMERICAN PROFESSIONAL
      Bwah, ha, ha!
PANEL 3: The Pizza Chef juggles meatballs.
An AMBULANCE races to the scene.
                  PIZZA CHEF
      Looks a-like you a-gotta my number, eh!
                  HOOP-EARRINGED SISTA
      Mm-hmm!

The writers and the Creative Director will further refine the campaign of scripts, finally sending a package proposal to the Executive Vice-President. The Executive V. P. will mull over the proposal, considering the resarch numbers and survey results and determining the best course of action. After much tinkering based on her own preferences and those assumed for the target demographic, she will approve a handful of scripts to be produced.

III. SPEC STRIPS

The compositing team will take the approved scripts and create rough evaluation versions, or “paste-ups”, of each.  At this stage, there may be as many as six or as few as eight scripts approved.

Using stock imagery, similar panels from other comic strips, or existing footage of known characters, the compositors will assemble the paste-ups with tape and Glu-Stic so that the creative team can have a rough vision of what the final product will look like.

usually they're bigger, this was a slow week

Paste-up (click for bigger)

Only one strip will go to press, but as many as four may be focus-grouped in the final stage of selection.  The process of focus-group studies, in which quantity values are assigned to every possible facet of every reaction expressed by a generally unopinionated group of otherwise-engaged mall patrons, helps the creative team cull the inferior concepts.  Focus-group testing produces a matrix of numerical scores, determining empirically which homogenized product seems to be marginally better than the others.

IV. REVISIONS

Once the spec scripts have been turned into paste-ups, the process enters the long and soul-sucking process known as “executive revisions”.  Every image is scrutinized; every line of dialogue is tweaked and double-tweaked; every element is examined until all involved have lost every shred of objectivity.

you should see some of the other dialogue

Detail from paste-up

When this occurs, the “marking” process begins: each link in the chain of command, from Executive V. P. to Line Cook, will make a small, insignificant and possibly detrimental change to the product, thereby “marking their territory”, much like a dog does.  Since this process by definition requires the input of each person, everyone’s job is secured.

When the strips are satisfactory to all involved, they go “to test.”  This is the aforementioned process by which otherwise-unemployed individuals will stand in a shopping mall in an otherwise-ignored region of the country and accost passers-by, soliciting their everyman opinion.  Experience has proven that this practice is the only possible way to determine the reaction of humans to the product, and therefore its quality or lack thereof.

V. THE DECISION

Finally, the Moment arrives. A specially-certified auditing agency compiles the testing results and delivers the scores to the Executive V. P., who makes the Decision of which strip to produce. Creating a kinda-weekly comic strip is a time-consuming and expensive process, so once the Decision is made and the actual strip finishing has begun, there’s No Going Back. For a strip with such a high standard of quality, the finishing process is very intensive. Its success is dependent largely on instinct borne from years of experience judging the temerity of the public consciousness.

The Decision arrives at the finishing campus in a sealed envelope. The above-the-line team, by virtue of this envelope, have symbolically passed the baton to the below-the-line craftsmen, having done everything possible to pave the way to artistic magnificence (and its close, burly cousin, commercial success).

The creation of the approved strip begins. Click here for Part II (of III)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Momma

maybe YOUR momma

(Click any of the images to zoom in on them.)

Dr. Hibbert: Welcome to Mensa! You join such luminaries as cartoonist Mell Lazarus, Geena Davis, and Parade Magazine’s Marilyn vos Savant.

Prof. Frink: Each the tops in his or her field.  Err, except for Mell Lazarus.

— “The Simpsons”

and a-clogging we will go

Following in the quirky Dik Browne-Bil Keane-Jimmm Davis tradition of alternative name spelling, Reuben Award winner Mell Lazarus is one of comicstripdom’s more prolific creators.  From 1957 to 2002, he wrote and drew the daily strip Miss Peach, and Momma has been around since 1970.

Longtime readers of Momma, which relates the dysfunctional relationship between shrewish septogenarian Sonja Hobbs and her three good-for-nothing children, may be surprised to learn that Momma is the villain of her strip.  She’s always been the nagging harpy, of course, but since her name is in the title I always figured that she was supposed to be the hero and her worthless spawn were the villains.  Not so, says Lazarus; Momma is purposefully overbearing; she’s supposed to be the personification of everyone’s nagging mother.  Lazarus adds that he initially launched the strip “out of boredom… and [in homage to] my mother, who was driving me happily crazy, bless her soul.”

In an article about his comic strip Edge City, which features a Jewish family, artist Terry LaBan says of Momma that “[Momma is] an example of a character that everyone knew was Jewish, although it has never been mentioned.”  Lazarus’ view on the subject is evident in the following exchange:

Q: Since Momma appears to be the quintessential Jewish mother, do you ever get criticized for propagating the stereotype?

Lazarus: Oddly enough, no. I’ve heard that she suggests the stereotype, but I’ve never been criticized for it. A lot of readers have suggested she represent the universal mother figure. [italics added]

Accused of being “ageist, sexist and anti-Semitic”, Lazarus laughs: “That’s a remarkable thing to accuse me of since I am an aging Jew who loves women.”

One perhaps wouldn’t mind if Lazarus were a bit ageist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, since a little edge might make his strips funny, or at least pitiable.  As it stands, Momma is bland — that’s not a crime, of course, but it’s also occasionally incomprehensible, which is when it leaps off the comics page and into the realm of my jurisdiction.  Let’s take a closer look at the above comic.

In Momma‘s defense, the selected strip is a departure from the norm.  Typically, Momma is berating her worthless offspring, dreaming of their ruin or spurning their ridiculous attempts at filial affection.  Today, she’s got a gentleman caller, and her children are nowhere to be seen.  Is Sonja preparing to move on with her life and rediscover the romantic spark of her youth?

Panel 1: A well-dressed man (or perhaps a potato salesman) stands at Momma’s front door, two strands of hair peeking from beneath the hat he has discourteously allowed to remain on his head.  He has the portly small stature common to adults in Momma’s world, but otherwise there is nothing in the way of physical attributes to distinguish him from an infant.  “Hello, Mrs. Hobbs,” he says.  “Are you ready to go on our dinner date?”

Even before Momma replies, we can infer something about their relationship.  This man is taking her on a date, but sees fit to remind her of that fact, as if he didn’t dare count on her remembering who he is and why he’s there.  Perhaps he’s reminding her about their date as a way of confirming that the date exists, that they’d made plans, that it was something she had agreed to.  “Our” dinner date probably refers to a mutually agreed-upon appointment; either that or he’s using the plural possessive pronoun on purpose to endow the date with a sense of mutuality it may not actually have.

Say, for instance, that it’s taken a fair amount of wheedling for this man (we’ll call him “Nermy” for lack of a name) to get Momma to agree to the date.  By calling it “our dinner date” it implies that it’s an event that will be shared between them; compare this to saying “Are you ready for me to take you out tonight?”

Notice, however, the lack of genialities.  “Hello, Mrs. Hobbs,” Nermy says.  No “how are you,” no “you look lovely,” and certainly no flowers or other token gifts.  This doesn’t mesh with the profile of a man who’s been trying for a while to get Momma out of the house — so perhaps that’s not the case at all.

What if Momma and Nermy were set up?  It’s certainly reasonable that Momma’s good-fer-nuthin kids would try and hook their midget mother up with a homeboy in order to lighten her spirits and deflect her attention from their own shortcomings.  But who would do such a thing?  Certainly not lazy Francis, and probably not the gawky Marylou, whose only interaction with the male of the species is inebriated and with her holes all filled.  No, the likely culprit is Thomas, the happily-married-closeted-gay whose wife has never met Momma’s muster.  “You see,” Thomas is saying, “it’s not that easy to find a soul mate.  I’ve done just fine.  Now if only she had a penis.”

Hands drooping at his side, harelip curling in disgust, straw-hair posing a poking hazard, Nermy slouches at the front door and dutifully engages the enemy.  In this light, “our dinner date” is a deflection of responsibility: we’re in this mess together.  Similarly dispossessed, Momma slouches right back.  “One moment,” she says, with the squinty glare she uses to advertise Francis’ shortcomings to the world.

Panel 2: Nermy, either mentally retarded or stoned out of his gourd, slowly sways on Momma’s front porch, not noticing that she’s walking away from him.  His hair starts to wilt, and what may be clouds of marijuana smoke drift above his head.  Momma, her jaw set, is determined to see the night through, and Thomas will have a tongue-lashing later.  Probably not the kind he’d like, either.

Panel 3: Momma’s back, wearing her trademark two-by-four hat, clutching a handbag and stumbling in a set of clogs six sizes too big.  She looks for all the world like a girl playing dress-up, if the girl were an angry wrinkled dwarf with no torso.   Nermy’s expression seems to have changed, though from what to what I couldn’t tell you.  “Let’s go,” Momma says, and looks as if she’s going to linebacker right through Nermy if he doesn’t move his doughy ass out of the way.

And that’s the end of the strip, Lazarus’ signature adorning the east wall with a flourish, his pride seeping through the lazily-applied halftone.  Where’s the joke?  What’s the punch line?  What the hell is this?

There may be some humor in the determination with which Momma takes to the date, her eyes glazed with smoldering fury, as if angry that her sad life has turned to this low pursuit — dinner with a fattie!  But the more likely explanation is that the strip is a wry comment on females and their preoccupation with preparation.

See, Momma’s wearing her typical watermelon dress when she opens the door.  She’s not ready to go out just yet.  But when Nermy arrives, all that it takes for her to get ready is her hat, handbag and shoes.  There’s no hour-long makeup session; there’s no perm or curlers; there’s no bikini wax.  Old people are sensible, says Lazarus; they’re simple, down-to-earth and serious.

But how do we know that Nermy hasn’t been standing there for an hour while Momma whittled those clogs from scrap lumber?  He doesn’t seem like the assertive type that’ll call her on it; he barely seems like he’s seen the evening past the carefully rehearsed speech in Panel 1.  Panel 3 could be Six Hours Later for all we know.  Look at the shading on the wall: it could be daytime in Panel 2, and night in Panel 3.  (And, logically, before sunrise in Panel 1.)  The strip might be a commentary on how slowly old people do everything.

Again, if this is the intended joke, it hinges dangerously on the public’s understanding of the preconception about women and the time they take getting ready for a date.  Wasn’t that prime Donna Reed Show material?  Nowadays, getting ready for a date means putting in your diaphragm.

Here’s the original again:

and a-clogging we will go

So, if I’m going to fix this to retain what I presume is the original punch line, I’ll do it thusly:

Panel 1:
Nermy: “Hello, Mrs. Hobbs.  Are you ready to go on our dinner date?”
Momma: “Just about.  One second.”

Panel 2: Momma walks away.
Nermy: “Take your…”

Panel 3: Momma’s back already!
Nermy: “…time.”
Momma: “Outta my way.  We’re late for the buffet.”

As I look over the strip again, another possibility creeps into my head: is it possible that Nermy’s shocked expression in Panel 3 is a reaction to the silly shoes that staid, homely Sonja Hobbs is wearing?  I’d attributed the clunky clogs to Lazarus’ inability to draw dress shoes on a dwarf, but it’s possible that she’s wearing something so outlandish that it’s meant to be the punch line.  Look at her!  She actually wants to go outside in those things!  On a date, no less!

Historically it’s been unwise to attribute a joke to what is more likely poor draftsmanship, but I’ll make it work:

Panel 1:
Nermy: “Hello, Mrs. Hobbs.  Are you ready to go on our dinner date?”
Momma: “One moment…”

Panel 2: Momma walks away.

Panel 3: Momma’s back, wearing clogs.
Nermy: “Are we going clogging?”
Momma: “Any cracks about my hat and they’re going right up your ass.”

I think it’s best, in this case, to make a clean break from whatever the addled Lazarus may have initially conceived and make this funny at all costs.

Panel 1:
Nermy: “Hello, Mrs. Hobbs.  I’m here from the colon therapy clinic.”
Momma: “Let me just get my things.”

Panel 2: Momma stalks off.

Panel 3:
Momma’s back.
Nermy: “We can do the flush here if you prefer –”
Momma: “This is the closest I get to a date anymore, so don’t get fresh.”

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

— August, 2004

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