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

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