Friday, June 21, 2013

Reprint Heaven: Notes From The Wasteland

(From August, 2009. BTW -- four years on, I still work in a cubicle farm, penned like a Veal.)

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.


  1. i was just reading a book by James Tate (given me by the proprietor of and was reminded of your post here by the following:

    "The Promotion" by James Tate

    I was a dog in my former life, a very good
    dog, and, thus, I was promoted to a human being.
    I liked being a dog. I worked for a poor farmer
    guarding and herding his sheep. Wolves and coyotes
    tried to get past me almost every night, and not
    once did I lose a sheep. the farmer rewarded me
    with good food, food from his table. He may have
    been poor, but he ate well. and his children
    played with me, when they weren’t in school or
    working in the field. I had all the love any dog
    could hope for. When I got old, they got a new
    dog, and I trained him in the tricks of the trade.
    He quickly learned, and the farmer brought me into
    the house to live with them. I brought the farmer
    his slippers in the morning, as he was getting
    old, too. I was dying slowly, a little bit at a
    time. The farmer knew this and would bring the
    new dog in to visit me from time to time. The
    new dog would entertain me with his flips and
    flops and nuzzles. And then one morning I just
    didn’t get up. They gave me a fine burial down
    by the stream under a shade tree. That was the
    end of my being a dog. Sometimes I miss it so
    I sit by the window and cry. I live in a high-rise
    that looks out at a bunch of other high-rises.
    At my job I work in a cubicle and barely speak
    to anyone all day. This is my reward for being
    a good dog. The human wolves don’t even see me.
    They fear me not.

  2. “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” – Marshall McLuhan

    to which i would add - the willingness to contemplate has as a prerequisite the awareness of the possibility of contemplation

    i was thinking again about my cyberfriend Mongo, at the Moment, still in his cubicle like a Veal, and the Promotion poem of James Tate which I attached as a comment to his thoughtful illustrated essay about Calvin and Hobbes

    i conclude that the cubicle dweller of Tate's poem is worse off in his current incarnation - his "promotion" to a human life has not gone well - for two reasons, one made explicit by the poem, the other pointed to by McLuhan's aphorism

    1)his emotional needs were much better met in his life as a dog - Tate evokes this beautifully, and anyone who has loved a dog must be moved by this

    2)contrariwise, Tate's protagonist, looking backwards at his former happiness, has not yet grasped his current opportunity and responsibility for "the development of his soul", to use old-fashioned language which nevertheless may still resonate for a few of those who may read these words

    see the Monty Python creed - movie excerpt

    my exegesis of the above:

    Tate's protagonist is "reborn" into human circumstances, but he is still in the egg of reacting, rather than responding to, his current place in the universe -

    he needs to be reminded of the possibility he has to "shine"

    may the Creative Forces of the Universe be with us all

  3. Mongo has not been in a cubicle for a while; from the end of June I became fairly ill and in bed for nearly a month. Took the medical system some time to find out exactly what the issue was (not the kind of serious that leads to extensive existential stuff), and I still have a routine "procedure" in the next week, but after recovery am hoping it will be an upswing of the pendulum, and a happier Dog.

  4. may your routine procedure be truly routine, and may you be well, happy, and at peace


Add a comment Here. Play Nice, Kids.