Speaking the Unspeakable

Posted by on February 16th, 2011 at 10:53 AM

Dan Piraro’s Bizarro provides a suitably apt introduction: yes, today’s subject is toilets. Toilets and the bodily functions that they imply. Once upon a time not too long ago, cartoonists in newspapers could not allude by word or picture to the bodily functions that toilets serve. But today, we have Greg Evans in Luann alluding all over the place.

I can’t remember ever seeing anything like the first Luann panel in any comic strip. Daring. Unprecedented. But natural. Supremely so.

The situation is profoundly real: two women friends conversing from adjoining stalls in the women’s lavatory. It is so real and so authentic, that it takes only a second to realize what is happening in the first panel. And then the women leave their separate stalls and wash their hands in adjoining basins. Very natural, very real—just the sort of thing Evans is so adept at.

But can we help but think, as we contemplate the first panel, of poop and pee? That, of course, is exactly why depicting toilets has been so long forbidden. For the longest time, toilets couldn’t even be mentioned. The word toilet didn’t exist in comic strip country.

The taboo, however, has disappeared. In J.P. Toomey’s strip, Sherman’s Lagoon, we have an overt reference to the porcelain appliance in everyone’s home. Even in the turtle’s shell, we assume.

Keith Knight carries on in this new tradition in The Knight Life, as we see here.

And Wiley Miller in his Non Sequitur immediately below Keef’s strip takes the next leap, from toilet to its frequent content. Here the repulsiveness of the topic acquires added revulsion because it involves dogs, who are well known in some parts for a particularly nauseating dietary preference.

Long ago in the first publication of the now-recycling For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston was a bit more subtle.

You need only a second of thought before you realize what John is doing in the bushes.

Then we have Wiley again, providing a suitable coda for today’s sermon. Dogs again, too.

But wait—one more time with the canine custom. This one showed up just this week (so you know it’s happening often):

Ours is a dog’s life after all. Sigh.

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5 Responses to “Speaking the Unspeakable”

  1. WLLilly says:

    …That said , there are some once-acceptable jokes that are certainly highly unlikely , anyway , to get printed in a syndicated strip to-day…I’ve often though of my childhood Bringing Up Father and Andy Capp strips making light of domestic violence , household brawls…
    Recently , those reprints of Al Smith Mutt & Jeff strips ( that go out under the name ” Pierre S D’Beaumont’s Repackaged M & J ” , or something like that . ) offerd , within a week’s time:
    A Joke revolving around Mutt’s child complaining to his father about receiving a spanking from the teacher , Mutt going to complain , but when he sees the buxom teacher , spanking Cicero again .
    A several day’s continuity about Jeff giving testimony in a case of a man accused of beating his wife , with jokes among the likes of ” I saw her backside was open , and I saw an oppurtunity ” .
    Mutt’s wife preparing to dump a vase on his head as reward for him emulating the Four Lads/Frank Loesser towards an attractive female going by the Mutts’ house .
    A joke revolving around Mrs. Mutt being angry at M&J for bringing back a massive amount of venison back from their hunting trip just as she’d finished off the last hunt’s result – which devoted a large panel to a pretty realistic-looking prepared and stripped (whatever) of dead deer being carried by M&J , one assumes that Al Smith must’ve hunted himself ! I think a modern-day strip , even one not disapproving of hunting , would think twice before fairly realistically depicting the result…
    MOres , as ever…change .

  2. WLLilly says:

    …Maybe not literally within a week , but anyway…When do these M&Js specifically date from , BTW ? Do they reprint every strip , day by day , or omit some ( Say , ones even more ” non-PC ” . ) ? THe Sundays , as printed on the WEb , have the panels awfully seperated from each other…
    And , didn’t the original Sundays carry ” Cicero’s Cat ” as a topper ? Not here .

  3. R.C. Harvey says:

    The Beaumont name is a leftover from Fisher’s celebrated marriage to a European titled woman; the divorce followed almost immediately, but apparently Fisher left his copyright on M&J to her and her descendants.
    Dunno from what era the current Web run of M&J comes; my guess is 1950s. Cicero was Mutt’s son; and the cat was, indeed, a topper for the Sunday page, but all toppers disappeared when full- and half-page strips disappeared.

  4. WLLilly says:

    …Al Smith started signing the strip in 1954 , and , he won an NCS award for CICERO’S CAT in 1968 , per Wikipedia ( Who have been prety prickly to me lately – including my additions to their M&J listing – , but anyway . ) .
    I think we actually ” conversed ” on whether such contemporary strips as WEE PALS and DICK TRACY have what can be called toppers , and I seem to recall MAW GREEN running in LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE into the 1970s .

  5. Mike Hunter says:

    Great article as always, R.C.!

    Speaking of “once acceptable” comic strip fare, are we ever likely to see again something like Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” schtick of a bullet going into the forehead, leaving a neat round hole, then shown popping out through the back?

    Even something like this March 13, 1938 scene – http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2008/03/dick-tracy.html – would hardly be acceptable…

    (Some Gould stuff at http://potrzebie.blogspot.com/2008/04/chester-goulds-girl-friends-1928.html , including the true story – in comics form – of Jay Lynch and R. Crumb’s visit to the great comic strip creator…)