Reading the Comics, November 23, 2016: Featuring A Betty Boop Cartoon Edition


I admit to padding this week’s collection of mathematically-themed comic strips. There’s just barely enough to justify my splitting this into a Sunday and a Tuesday installment. I’m including a follow-the-bouncing-ball cartoon to make up for that though. Enjoy!

Jimmy Hatlo’s Little Iodine from the 20th originally ran the 18th of September, 1955. It’s a cute enough bit riffing on realistic word problems. If the problems do reflect stuff ordinary people want to know, after all, then they’re going to be questions people in the relevant fields know how to solve. A limitation is that word problems will tend to pick numbers that make for reasonable calculations, which may be implausible for actual problems. None of the examples Iodine gives seem implausible to me, but what do I know about horses? But I do sometimes encounter problems which have the form but not content of a reasonable question, like an early 80s probability book asking about the chances of one or more defective transistors in a five-transistor radio set. (The problem surely began as one about burned-out vacuum tubes in a radio.)

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 21st is another use of Albert Einstein as iconic for superlative first-rate genius. I’m curious how long it did take for people to casually refer to genius as Einstein. The 1930 song Kitty From Kansas City (and its 1931 Screen Songs adaptation, starring Betty Boop) mention Einstein as one of those names any non-stupid person should know. But that isn’t quite the same as being the name for a genius.

My love asked if I’d include Stephen Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine of the 22nd. It has one of the impossibly stupid crocodiles say, poorly, that he was a mathematics major. I admitted it depended how busy the week was. On a slow week I’ll include more marginal stuff.

Is it plausible that the Croc is, for all his stupidity, a mathematics major? Well, sure. Perseverance makes it possible to get any degree. And given Croc’s spent twenty years trying to eat Zebra without getting close clearly perseverance is one of his traits. But are mathematics majors bad at communication?

Certainly we get the reputation for it. Part of that must be that any specialized field — whether mathematics, rocket science, music, or pasta-making — has its own vocabulary and grammar for that vocabulary that outsiders just don’t know. If it were easy to follow it wouldn’t be something people need to be trained in. And a lay audience starts scared of mathematics in a way they’re not afraid of pasta technology; you can’t communicate with people who’ve decided they can’t hear you. And many mathematical constructs just can’t be explained in a few sentences, the way vacuum extrusion of spaghetti noodles could be. And, must be said, it’s often the case a mathematics major (or a major in a similar science or engineering-related field) has English as a second (or third) language. Even a slight accent can make someone hard to follow, and build an undeserved reputation.

The Pearls crocodiles are idiots, though. The main ones, anyway; their wives and children are normal.

Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 23rd originally appeared the 23rd of November, 1949. It’s just a name-drop of mathematics, though, using it as the sort of problem that can be put on the blackboard easily. And it’s not the most important thing going on here, but I do notice Bushmiller drawing the blackboard as … er … not black. It makes the composition of the last panel easier to read, certainly. And makes the visual link between the paper in the second panel and the blackboard in the last stronger. It seems more common these days to draw a blackboard that’s black. I wonder if that’s so, or if it reflects modern technology making white-on-black-text easier to render. A Photoshop select-and-invert is instantaneous compared to what Bushmiller had to do.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

8 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, November 23, 2016: Featuring A Betty Boop Cartoon Edition”

    1. Nearly all the comics I read come from two sites. The first is Gocomics.com, and the other is ComicsKingdom.com. I’ve got paid subscriptions to both; the value is fantastic, especially given ComicsKingdom’s vintage selection.

      And yeah, I read nearly everything they offer. There’s some comics I don’t read because they’re in perpetual reruns and I’ve seen them all enough times (eg, Berekeley Breathead’s Academica Waltz or the Gocomics slice of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner). And there’s some I don’t read because they’ve irritated or offended me too often. Not many, though; it takes a special knack to be a truly objectionable comic strip.

      After that there’s a couple stragglers on Creators.com. Jumble and the various Joe Martin comics I get from the Houston Chronicle’s web site. Those don’t have subscriptions; I just have a tab group for them.

      And yeah, this does leave me spending quite some time reading comics each day. It makes a pleasant way to ease into putting off the rest of the morning’s tasks.

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  1. Thanks for that! You cover the mathematics but there’s also plenty of social history in there, which I also glean from your excellent posts. I’m 67 but I sometimes think I learned most – quickest, anyway – when I was reading comics on a regular basis. My favourite comic strip moment is described in this post, if I may be so bold as to provide a link to it …

    https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-kids-are-all-right/

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    1. I have always loved comic strips, and in maturity I’ve come to appreciate that I still love them, even if a lot of them are honesty pretty bad. Well, ‘bad’ overstates things, but there is a frightful sameness that very many of them have. I did a review of the Gocomics.com strips for a Usenet group a few years back and had no idea how many of them were “three generation and a dog”. Some were great, some were awful, but it’s amazing so many had the same setup.

      Anyway, though, thanks for the link. I’m quite ignorant of most non-US comic strips and glad to learn about them, especially comics that people like.

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    1. ‘Three Generations And A Dog’ is a setup, and one that’s surprisingly common. I noticed the pattern when I tried reviewing all the Gocomics.com comics for Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips, and if I ever get completely hard up for material for my humor blog I’ll start posting those there.

      But there’s quite a few comics that have as the central cast three generations of a family: grandparents, parents, and children. And the parents-and-children usually have a pet. Typically that’s a dog, but sometimes it’s a cat. I understand the logic behind this casting. It gives the cartoonist a natural cast of six or seven characters with different backgrounds who have good reason to keep interacting. The focus can shift between them as the story or the cartoonist’s interest varies.

      Some are quite good, like Stone Soup (recently gone to Sunday-only) or One Big Happy. Some are steady if not quite first-rate, like Pickles. Some I forget exist, but might be right for people with a different sense of humor than mine, such as Boomerangs or Grand Avenue.

      It’s a weird pattern to see once you see that it’s there.

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      1. Thanks for giving the benefits of your research. I can see why cartoonists would employ such a setting. I suppose it’s the same principle in use in sit-coms, where characters are forced to interact with one another – family, workplace, army, prison, etc.

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        1. You’re quite welcome. And yes, it is a lot like the process of picking the setup for a sitcom, or a regular drama, for that matter. You need characters who have a reasonable spread of personalities but something to keep them tied together. So families are good starting points. Offices or workplaces too, so it shouldn’t surprise those settings turn up so often. I guess there’s also the desire to have something that doesn’t demand your characters move away, since nobody wants to risk losing a good character, which is probably why there aren’t so many comic strips set in colleges; Watch Your Head is the only one of those that comes to mind. The ones that are set in schools are mostly ones like Frazz that don’t age the characters. (Well, there’s whatever deranged mess Funky Winkerbean is; I suppose that’s nominally set in a high school, but it’s about the faculty rather than the students, when it remembers to do high school stories.)

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