Words, Words, Words

Posted by on February 17th, 2010 at 1:53 PM

The best examples of the cartoonist’s art blend words and pictures to achieve a meaning neither words nor pictures can achieve alone without the other. That’s been the liturgy around here since the veritable yawn of time, as you are doubtless weary of hearing. But that criteria doesn’t prevent some cartoonists from creating comedy by words alone—with a well-turned phrase, a sequence of sentences, or just hilarious verbal gush.

In Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury recently, for instance, Mel, the female soldier who was assaulted by a male comrade last year, is back in Iraq, and as she walks through the mess hall, she murmurs to the female soldier at her side: “See all the rack recon? It’s unrelenting now!! Guys don’t even try to be subtle anymore!” “Rack recon.” Nice phrase. And it captures her self-conscious insecurity now that her rape has made her more than usually aware of the male-female constituency in the service.

The conversations between Jef Mallett’s eponymous Frazz, school janitor and rock lyricist millionaire, and the pupils of his school are often strangely, wonderfully—hilariously—insightful about the conventions of life and society that we have grown so accustomed to that we no longer question their internal logic. Here’s one of them:

Girl to Frazz: “How old would Abraham Lincoln be today if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t shot him?”

Frazz: “201.”

Girl: “Oh, so he’d probably be dead anyway … I bet Booth feels like an idiot now.”

Frazz: “I’m feeling a little awkward myself.”

It adds to the comedy when we see Frazz in this last panel staring like a deer caught in the headlights.

Here’s another, from February 15, Presidents Day:

Kid to teacher: “How come we have to come to school on a holiday?”

Teacher: “We’ve always had school today.”

Kid, walking down the hall encounters Frazz and says: “Happy precedents day.”

Frazz: “Happy what?”

It’s beaut of a pun, and it could not exist except in print.

The champion of all talky strips, however, is Tony Cochran’s Agnes, whose title character—a precocious girl about seven or eight years old with big feet, square head, no eyes and no mouth to speak of—is, ironically, a long-distance gabber without peer. The comedy of the strip arises entirely from Agnes’ tendency to devise elaborately verbal plans or constructs that subsequently crash and burn when they encounter reality. Her exaggerated sense of her own importance and inherent brilliance is conveyed entirely by her language and her fanciful verbal constructions—all of which, as I said, come to naught. Here she is writing about Valentine’s Day (we almost never need the pictures to get the jokes in Agnes):

“Saint Valentine was not always a saint,” she scrawls. “In his youth, he was just Paulie Valentine, another stinky boy. Paulie was far from saintly. He had a potty mouth, teased his mother about her odd hip-to-waist ratio, and tormented songbirds with his slingshot. One day, he was knocked off his horse by a blinding light while traveling to Damascus.”

Agnes interrupts her scribbling to comment: “I think I read that somewhere holy.”

To which her friend, the androgynous Trout, says: “it’s good to have your facts backed with vague memories.”

Nothing daunted, Agnes continues her essay the next day: “After he was knocked off his horse, Paulie Valentine tried to be more saintly. He flossed and tried to pick up after himself. One day, he was being mocked by men who mock saintly men, and God smote the mockers dead as a door nail. This,” Agnes continues blithely on, “is called the Valentine’s Day massacre because they were smote in the daytime.”

Says the ever vigilant Trout: “Smote sounds holy.”

On the last day of this series, Agnes is in school reading her completed “report” on Saint Valentine to her class: “Saint Valentine breathed his last on February fourteenth in the year two hundred and sixty-nine. He died of very heavily clogged arteries. This is why we remember him with those cute symbols used to make the heart-smart selections on menus. If he had died from drinking, we would all be passing out liver cards tomorrow [February 14].”

The pictures contribute very little to this comedy—except the vital function of identifying the speaker as a little girl.

Here’s one more, this one from Richard Thompson’s delightful Cul De Sac. The humor is in the verse, but you need the pictures to understand where Alice throws the ice cube—and for the comical contrast offered by a curse in verse being formulated by a little girl.

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