Reading the Comics, January 11, 2015: Standard Genres And Bloom County Edition
I’m still getting back to normal after the Christmas and New Year’s disruption of, well, everything, which is why I’m taking it easy and just doing another comics review. I have to suppose Comic Strip Master Command was also taking it easy over the holidays since most of the subjects are routine genres — word answer problems, mathematics-connected puns, and the like — with the Bloom County reruns the cartoons that give me most to write about. It’s all part of the wondrous cycle of nature; I’m sure there’ll be a really meaty collection of topics along soon.
Gordon Bess’s Redeye (January 8, originally run August 21, 1968) is an example of the student giving a mischievous answer to a word problem. I feel like I should have a catchy name for this genre, given how much it turns up, but I haven’t got anything good that comes to mind. (I don’t tend to talk about the drawing much in these strips — most of the time it isn’t that important, and comic strips have been growing surprisingly indifferent to drawing — but I did notice while uploading this that Pokey’s stance and expression in the first panel is really quite good. You should be able to open the image in a new tab and see it at its fullest-available 1440-by-431 pixel size and that shows off well the crafting that went into the figure.)
Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (January 8, rerun) begins a sequence in which a bit of cypher substitution is done to sneak “unprintable” words into the comics. This kind of substitution is an ancient scheme, and it’s mostly practical as a way to send a message you can’t read by accident, for example, if you want to discuss a plot twist without necessarily spoiling it for people. Rot13 is a particularly popular example of this — it’ll change the letters a-b-c into n-o-p, and vice-versa — but it’s not a good way to hide messages from all prying eyes. You can work out what the original message was just because, for example, English is much more likely to have the three-letter sequence ‘t-h-e’ turn up in a message than it is to have the sequence ‘g-u-r’, and that’s why cryptograms are decent and reasonably popular word puzzles.
Unfortunately, Breathed’s scheme — which was also used for funny effects on the 9th and then on the 10th — wouldn’t really work, even allowing for the fact that one might not offhand know what is Jon Bon Jovi’s shorts size. (I’d guess around 32 or 34, myself, but it would need to be at most 31 for the letter ‘a’ to get translated to any number at all.) The trouble is that Breathed used the popular “make up some stuff and it’ll come out sounding wild” scheme for making stuff look random, and that never works. In particular, adding 100 to the number corresponding to each letter, dividing by pi, and subtracting 32 (or so) results in the letters a, b, and c all being encoded as the same letter (let’s say a); d, e, and f similarly all turning into another letter (to be consistent with the above, b); g, h, and i into their own common letter (similarly, c); and so on. If you only wanted to send messages using the first eight letters of the alphabet, this might be workable, but I don’t buy that’s what he wanted to do. He was just making a joke, particularly, with Bon Jovi and pi serving as recognizable celebrity names from the worlds of music and mathematics.
Of course, if he’d figured out a workable scheme he would have had to put some actual text in his obscured cuss words, which could produce tedious fights among him, his syndicate, and newspaper editors. But he could also have slipped in words like “snugglebunnies” instead of what we’re to imagine Opus was on the 11th.
John Deering’s Strange Brew (January 8) is a caveman-math comics panel, this one showing the moments when it was just being worked out what one plus one might be. It seems obvious that addition has to be something invented (or discovered) by conscious thought, except that animals do seem to understand at least the addition (and subtraction) of smaller numbers. If a raven can work out that one and one has to be two then surely cavemen did. It’s the higher numbers that seem to pass beyond instinct and require logic; but there’s a much more confused panel to be made of cavemen working on the breakthrough of the sum of 7 and 6. And yet also, somehow, there’s an instinctive knowledge that one plus one equals two: isn’t that amazing?
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (January 9) is a quick little pun strip, based on the lowest common denominator, which causes me to wonder why some folks say “least common denominator” instead. Probably it just reflects whatever the instructor or the textbook-writer remembers hearing in childhood.
Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo (January 9) is the old joke about not understanding 5/4-ths of what the teacher says about fractions, cast into a percentages joke.
Of this set I think the Bloom County reruns are the strongest, because there’s this wonderful comic mayhem attached to them. I can’t swear that isn’t just because, like everybody else in the 80s, I was way into Bloom County and the strip has this nostalgic glaze that obscures many of its flaws.