Sexiest, Most Suggestive Arlo and Janis

Posted by on February 10th, 2010 at 9:43 AM

Only once, by Pharos Books, has Jimmy Johnson’s excellent comic strip been collected and reprinted in a book: in 1989, Arlo and Janis–Bop ’til you Drop, with a cover picturing of Arlo and Janis bopping. Pharos Books is a Scripps Howard company; and NEA, the syndicate that distributes Arlo and Janis, is also a Scripps Howard company. So Pharos was promoting its own, a scarcely uncommon practice. But nothing since 1989.

When the book shows up in a web search, its price is likely to soar into the hundreds. I just looked via AddAll, and one copy was priced at $560; the cheapest, at $164. I’m glad I bought my copy several years ago when it cost only three bucks in a used book store.

But whatever status I may enjoy for owning the book (and for obtaining it at a bargain basement price) pales at the delight I feel upon reading the strips. The first one in book is the first one, July 29, 1985, and the rest of the content proceeds in chronological order up to April 6, 1986, when the book ends. And all the strips are dated: it is, in short, a great historical document.

Last night, I read through the strips on the first couple dozen pages. The comedy is easy-going. Nothing sudden. No startling moments (well, a few but you scarcely notice). The strip is as relaxed and mundane as ordinary life generally is. Much of Johnson’s comedy is achieved by timing—dribbling out the necessary setup ingredients at a leisurely pace until, finally, without drum roll or rim shot, we get to the punchline. It’s the comedy of everyday life with a husband and wife, father and mother, who used to bop but don’t much anymore. Except, probably, between the sheets.

And not much has changed in the 24 years the strip has been running. The comedy is still relaxed. And Johnson still achieves his hilarities by exercising an exquisite sense of timing. Here are a couple of strips from April 2008.

In the first strip, Janis finds a key on the floor in their bedroom and, somewhat crossly, returns it to Arlo. We don’t know why she seems angry; the bafflement is part of the timing. Then we learn that the key is a key to handcuffs. What have handcuffs been doing in their bedroom? When Arlo tells us “it was your idea,” we leap to the conclusion that the couple had been engaged ( the previous night perhaps) in a little bondage sex. Bedroom, handcuffs—where else could we go with this evidence? And Janis probably didn’t enjoy it as much as she thought she might when she first suggested it.

The humor arises as we realize what all of Johnson’s clues denote: the puzzle posed by the first two (perhaps three) panels is solved by the fourth, and we are so pleased at having solved it that we laugh partly in self-congratulation. And partly at having been given a glimpse of the Days sex life, a glimpse provided by ingenious and elliptical means. We laugh in appreciation of the cleverness of the maneuver.

The next strip Scott Shaw calls “the dirtiest Arlo and Janis ever,” and to show us how he came to that conclusion, he deconstructs the strip at his oddballcomics.com site. Here’s Scott:

Let’s work backwards; the only foreknowledge you need here is that Ludwig the cat sleeps on the foot of Arlo and Janis’ bed.

Panel 4: “And the dish ran away with the spoon.”

Panel 3: “The cat and the fiddle” (a visual allusion leading to “the cow jumped over the moon” but missing “the little dog laughed”)

Panel 2: A confusing one: at first I thought he was referring to another nursery rhyme (“the mouse ran up the clock”) but then I realized this was just a transition panel linking the first and the third.

Panel 1: “Hey, diddle, diddle.”

RCH again: So, to run through it in order—now with some insights collected as we went from the end to the beginning—the cat on the foot of the bed witnesses Arlo and Janis “diddling” (a slang term for sexual intercourse, remember?) and, inspired by that verbal prompt, the cat leaves to get his fiddle, presumably taking with him some dishes and spoons on his way to witness the cow jumping over the moon. All nonsense, of course—all designed to make us think “diddle diddle” at some point. And now we know that the lumpy bedcovers in the first panel were probably moving, waking up the cat.

And we wouldn’t have known without reading the strip a second time, this time from back to front. (I would never have guessed without Scott’s deconstruction.)

Johnson doesn’t do this sort of thing often. Too complicated and vague. But enough of the strip’s humor originates elliptically in the unspoken between speech balloons to suggest the kind of comic mind Johnson has—the kind I relish and savor.

Wikipedia tells us that another Arlo and Janis collection may yet appear. Hope so.

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