Saturday, August 1, 2009

Notes From The Wasteland: Corporate Comix

Cartoon about Corporate Life By Hugh McLeod
(Note "Being Poor Sucks", in the upper-right corner)
(Image: via The Big Picture)

There are segments of the cartoon and art markets which relate to the corporate experience as a drone, and as an 'executive'.

The Drone Zone is defined by Dilbert, and any comics or Daily Calendars like it. Ironically, Scott Adams (who carefully describes himself as a 'Humorist') once cheerfully admitted he did the strip -- not as an artist or to stretch the medium (as Bill Watterson did, with Calvin & Hobbes) -- but because he saw it as a product he could market. For him, the business of Dilbert was its raison d'etre, and it's popularity could become a brand.

Yeah. Ironic. Eeeeww.

Drone Zone material is "cubicle art", a way of expressing frrustration with the bureaucracy, the Doublespeak and tribal politics and lies which corporate America cultivates -- and as a Drone in A Very Big American Corporation, I too live and labor in a cubicle, like a Veal. But -- while I see 'cubicle art' all around me, I don't have a single piece of it posted that I didn't draw myself. I can't stand it.

Okay. I have one exception. But putting up cartoons which lampoon Your Life As A Slave... It's like those posters from the go-go Reagan 80's, with kittens dangling from the bottom end of a rope, and the legend Hang In There! Or, the image of a little guy in a straitjacket, with the caption You Don't Have To Be Crazy To Work Here, But It Sure Helps!. If I was required to put anything like them in my workspace, thirty seconds later I would be tearing my own face off with a fork.

There Are, Of Course, The Anti-Cubicle Art Posters,
Which Hang In Our Cubicles To Show What Rebels We Are.

On the other hand, 'Executive' art is all about struggle and building consensus and the competition with your peers for... something. It's just the thing to decorate a private office, or to be used in a corporate 'gifting' program. They include such things as sculptures of men or women in suits, climbing ladders, going Sisyphus-like up a steep grade, pushing a heavy burden; or having a tug-of-war. Then, there are Executive cartoons -- with the same sort of humor as Cubicle Art, just a bit more tastefully expressed. Because the Bosses deal with the same Bullshit -- and feel, unbelievably, like they're Workin' For Da Man too.

Hugh McLeod is one of those people whose cartooning -- not quite a kid's work; not quite Jules Feiffer -- could stand as Cubicle or Executive art, and I offer it without comment as a sign of our times, and of how much Corporate Commerce is part of the fabric of the culture -- everywhere.

His site is here.

UPDATE: Let's Do The Cultural Taste Test
(All Images: © Bill Watterson / Universal Press Syndicate)

"There is not enough time to do all the nothing we want to do."
--Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson's prolific and colorful imagination made Calvin and Hobbes an instant classic in the history of Comic strip art. It seemed to appear out of nowhere -- as if Winsor McKay had been reincarnated, and given the opportunity to tell a story: About a tow-haired little Kid (shades of Dennis The Menace and Bart Simpson) and his friend, a Tiger only he could see.

Watterson's story wasn't about the irony of the workplace
-- it was about imagination, and the real reasons we get
up and put on our slave badges every morning.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Watterson was more concerned with the quality and content of his work than in making a buck. When his distributors, Universal Press Syndicate ('The Business That Doonesbury Made') pressured him to do a full-court merchandizing press to, uh, "capitalize" on C & H's almost overnight popularity, Watterson said no.

And, while Watterson understood that space in a newspaper meant money, he had always argued that they should give more of it to comics -- that they were an art form worth the investment. In his view, Editors say they don't have room for strips with detail and design; that the strips they receive are simply drawn and don't need space. But they're drawn that way because strips aren't given the space to be anything else!

Universal's pressure on Watterson was constant, and intense enough that he took two 'sabbatical' breaks from the strip of eight months each in 1991 and 1994 (which may have amounted to sit-down strikes). Universal marketed previously-published, older daily strips to its clients as filler, yet continued to charge newspaper editors full price as though they were new content.

The editors weren't happy -- but C and H was so popular, they had little choice and accepted Universal's explanation that the break was temporary, and Watterson had stopped for "health reasons" (Business. What a world).

They also forced newspapers to run the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes strips in a format that would take up an "unbreakable" half of a page -- forcing editors to design their traditional color Sunday funnies around Watterson's work. Watterson had been sold on the move by Universal -- but editors only saw him as a prima donna, unwilling to compromise his 'art' for the realities of publishing.

Eventually, Watterson was forced to compromise -- and one wonders if Universal didn't set him up for failure, so that a 'difficult content creator' would finally 'see reason' over the lucrative merchandizing of his characters. There's no way to know, but Watterson announced not long after that C and H would be coming to an end.

Current strips in the remaining print newspapers compete for space, and generally (with few exceptions) are poorly drawn, with predictable uses of humor. There is -- literally -- no room for the Far Sides, the Bloom Countys, or Little Nemo In Slumberland; no room for unpredictability and imagination. And Watterson understood that in comic strips, like the rest of human affairs, without respect for Imagination and its power, our lives are drab, spiritless... a little like a Corporate Cartoon.

In a classic strip, Calvin is given Ritalin to control his active
imagination -- without which, Hobbes is only a stuffed toy.

Even with Watterson's two 'sabbatical' breaks, Calvin and Hobbes appeared in newspapers for ten years -- November, 1985, through December, 1995. Given the Long Goodbye of newspapers since then, C and H was probably the last American Comic Strip in the classic tradition to appear in that medium, and I miss it.

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