Lio versus Calvin: Freudian Funnies

Posted by on December 1st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

There’s Corpses Everywhere: Yet Another Lio Collection; by Mark Tatulli; Andrews McMeel Publishing; 128 pp., $12.99; Color + B&W; Softcover, ISBN: 978-0-7407-9733-0

The cover of There’s Corpses Everywhere shows Lio, a cartoon little boy, waist-deep in a hole, shovel in hand.  In his other hand, he holds a freshly unearthed human skull, a shock of blond hair still attached.  A little striped shirt lies in the dirt off to one side, and Lio’s improbable pet squid holds a stuffed tiger.

The cover, the title, and even the author photo all parody an old Calvin and Hobbes collection.  Inside, there are other references to Calvin as well.  All of which sent me to the library to reread the original.

The comparison is not in Lio‘s favor.  Such are the hazards of parody, or even homage.  Either way, the work announces: “this ought to be read in light of that.”  It doesn’t just invite a comparison, it initiates it.  It places itself in (if also against) a tradition; it claims a lineage.  And so it sets itself something of a standard.

Harold Bloom suggested that the relationship of the new author to his canonical predecessors is essentially Oedipal: The young genius wants to bump off and replace the old masters, at least at the level of subconscious metaphor.  But he cannot admit this desire, even (or especially) to himself.  That’s why all poets are insane: it’s the anxiety of influence that does it.

As a kind of thought experiment, one can readily apply Bloom’s theory to the cover of Corpses.  Tatulli has killed Calvin, and replaced him with his own creation, Lio.

Here’s another possible reading:  The cover shows an excavation, a textual archaeology.  In the original story, Calvin digs up a bunch of junk — “a few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs” — and declares, “There’s treasure everywhere!”  In the new version, Lio does the same thing, only he finds dead bodies.  Specifically, he finds Calvin.

The changes in the scene reflect a difference in world-view.  And Lio‘s direct referencing of Calvin makes the difference a matter of one’s attitude toward the past, toward tradition — in this case, toward comics.  Calvin digs up trash, and calls it treasure; discovers, instead, that the tradition is dead and rotting.  The very symbol of the decay is Calvin.  But death, here, is not necessarily bad.  Lio is by disposition morbid — curious about the monsters under the bed, a friend to aliens and zombies.  So Lio is thrilled to find the dead boy, just as Calvin was thrilled to find some bugs.  Maybe corpses are treasure.  Lio’s is a gleeful nihilism.

Inside the book, the ambiguity continues.  On one page, Lio again finds Calvin’s corpse — this time in the woods, buried in the snow.  A newspaper with Calvin’s picture carries the headline: “Missing Since ’95: Last Seen Exploring With Stuffed Doll.”  A few pages later, Lio brings Calvin back to life, Frankenstein-style.  Calvin escapes; Lio chases him.  He eventually captures Calvin by pulling him into the pages of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

Tatulli makes frequent use of this sort of intertextual play.  Lio regularly refers to other comics, and incorporates characters from other strips.  In one story arc, Lio steals Dick Tracy’s hat, opens a detective agency, and discovers that Mark Trail has stolen Cathy’s swimwear, Mary Worth’s pantsuits, and Blondie’s shoes.  It’s as though they all live in one big newspaper-comics world.  On another level, though, the story suggests that all cartoonists steal from others, that all characters are dressed — if only secretly — in symbols looted from earlier strips.

At times — especially on Sundays, when the strip appears in color — Tatulli deliberately subverts the “reality” of the comic.  The strip reveals its own created-ness, depicting comics, simultaneously, on two levels — on stage and backstage, so to speak.  One Sunday strip takes us literally backstage, as Lio walks past a series of doors: “Stage Five: Marmaduke” (with a giant pooper-scooper), “Stage Six: The Family Circus” (with Billy taking a smoke break), and so on.  In another Sunday installment, Lio and his dad admire a sunset — which then tips over and crushes them, revealing that it is only a Hollywood backdrop: “Lio Set Piece 118: ‘Sunrise’ – 09B.”  A third has Lio shopping at the comic-strip supply store, where they sell such things as word balloons, idea light bulbs, dizzy squiggles, and foreground elements.  A sign by the counter reads:  “Sale: Recycled ‘Calvin’ and ‘Far Side’ Gags Upstairs” —

— which brings us back to the anxiety of influence.

The intertextual play, the references to other comics, the treatment of comic as comic, is not only subversive, but sometimes conservative as well.  It subverts the tradition through satire and revelation, but it also preserves the tradition.  It may mock at the canon, but for the jokes to succeed they must also maintain it.

We can see this ambivalence at work when Lio revives Calvin.  In terms of plot, Calvin’s actions are perfectly explicable.  In every frame, he is pursuing freedom:  Practically the first thing he does is break through a wall; then, he rescues Hobbes; he flees (and fights) Lio, etc.  But Lio’s motives are less clear:  His need to control Calvin seems out of character, since he, too, usually pursues freedom — rescuing animals from the zoo, scheming up ways to dodge school, freeing children from cannibalistic lunchroom cooks.

Why is he chasing Calvin?  (And why, for that matter, did he bring him back to life?)

Visually, the scene mimics Frankenstein, which suggests a kind of answer: Lio (and also, Tatulli) wants to be the creator; he wants to make Calvin his creature.  Victor Frankenstein wants to play God; Mark Tatulli just wants to play at being Bill Watterson.

But, as God, and Frankenstein and Lio all learn — our creations cannot be so easily controlled. Giving life means giving freedom, and our monsters inevitably rebel. Lio, then, becomes one of the forces of repression.  And it is only by changing narrative levels — going backstage, forcing Calvin back into his own book, insisting on his status as a fiction — that Lio can control him.  But in the epilogue, Lio reads the book, and Calvin escapes again.  The text cannot hold him; the reader, whether meaning to or not, brings him to life and sets him free.

So Calvin cannot be finally contained, or expelled.  He remains at large, threatening to re-emerge in Lio’s story.  For Lio, this is a problem: Lio needs Calvin to remain contained in the text.  Lio must both maintain and repress Calvin’s memory if Tatulli is going to (in Bloom’s terms) kill and replace his father, Watterson.

This sort of Freudian pseudo-analysis may be a fun game for literary critics, but it unfortunately tells us almost nothing about the quality of the work.  Here it should be said that Lio is one of the best strips to appear in a newspaper in quite a little while.  It’s quirky, it’s clever, and the art is both playful and distinctive.  However, while Lio works well as a serial, it loses something in a collection.  Placed together, one after another, the strips start to feel a bit formulaic.  The gag wears thin rather too quickly.

The problem is, where Calvin had a philosophy, Lio has a shtick.  It doesn’t hold up as well under close scrutiny, or with prolonged exposure.  It’s funny, sure.  But Lio is just not as good as Calvin and Hobbes.

Then again — what is?

all images ©2010 Mark Tatulli

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One Response to “Lio versus Calvin: Freudian Funnies”

  1. WLLilly says:

    …Calvin & Hobbes , I have thought , has rather become to-day , to strip artists , what the Beatles were in that mid-late 70s period between the Beatles’ break-up being finally in the past and a somewhat post-Beatles generation coming uop and John Lennon’s death….The eternally unfigureoutable
    ” Why did they go away ?
    Will they ever come back ?
    THOSE were the good old days !!!!! ” !
    I have noted , and even pointed out here , the occasional jokes in Lio regarding ” Dead strips ” .
    While people at an ” alternative “-oriened board such as this may see such strips as ” attacks on old things that won’t go away ” uncool ” strips , ” old farts ” , so to speak –
    I think that ther may be some abiguity there .