Reading the Comics, June 1, 2013


I’ve got a fresh batch of comics strips with mathematical themes. Actually, something I realized only as I was putting the list of them together, they’re word problem themes: there’s not any anthropomorphized numerals or puns on Wilhelm Leibniz’s name or anything like that. I can conjure easily reasons why word problems are good starting points for comic strip writers: they’re familiar to the reader, they don’t require any careful integration into character or storyline, and they can be designed to set up any punch line the cartoonist has in mind. Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs and Gary Brookins’ and Susie MacNelly’s Shoe have running jokes in which Ginger or Skyler are asked for the collective name for a group of things, and some appropriately pun-like construct is given, and this is accepted though I don’t know why anyone would suppose there to be a collective name for a group of grocery store clerks or DSL technicians or whatnot.

Mason Mastroianni’s B.C. (May 23) sets things off with the classic form of a high school algebra word problem. I have wondered how long train-leaving-the-station problems are going to linger as example algebra problems, given that people (in the United States) really don’t take the trains for long distances if they can help it. The service is there; I just don’t believe it’s part of the common experience of students, which makes it a bit baffling as a word problem source. But the problems can be rewritten easily as airplane travel or cars on highways, if you want to salvage the question. (I’d also like to mention I generally like how Mastroianni has revitalized B.C. since Johnny Hart’s death. Particularly, the strip’s doing more of the comic anachronism that built the strip up in the first place, and this particular example contains a demonstration of that.)

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow (May 23; rerun, though I don’t know the original publication date) has Neil, who you don’t need to know much about the strip to guess isn’t a particularly sharp thinker, answering immediately the sort of word problem that takes some scribbling to work out. The motif of a not-bright character calculating extremely well in the right context is a minor one that tickles me every time. Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was shown able to work out complex puzzles when he followed Murray Slaughter’s advice to “put a dollar sign in front of it”; and Kevin Malone on The Office (US edition) was a mediocre accountant except when he could think of the problem in terms of pies. I’m inclined to feel if you have a mental trick that makes difficult problems easier, by all means, use it; if you’re doing anything complicated as mental arithmetic, at least to an extent, you’re doing that because it’s more fun than using a calculator and who am I to argue with your thinking of a problem as pies and Sno Balls?

Anthony Blades’s Bewley (May 24) is a familiar old kids-dodging-schoolwork problem. Not much to say about this, really, although I’m amused.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (May 24) also gives us a word problem, of the classic train-leaving-the-station problem (did someone at Comic Strip Master Command take everybody back to middle school for a reunion night or something?), though as part of an honestly kind of involved joke for the caption’s pun.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue kicked off a week of snarky answers to word problems on May 27 with another train-leaving-the-station question (seriously, did the cartoonists hold their Reuben Awards ceremony at a middle school this year?) although not quite all of the questions were math setups. May 31’s was a geography question, for whatever reason.

Both Adrian Raeside’s The Other Coast (May 30) and Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (June 1, rerun) set up word problems along the way to their punch lines. The Mutt and Jeff looks initially like one of those problems where a complicated string of operations brings you to either the original number or a predetermined result which can be good for stage magic as well as simply insulting friends. The Other Coast is just a setup along the way to “yeah, dogs are like that”, though.

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