Tags: surgically attached hat

Snarky Candiru2

Billingsley, Johnston and their mutual empathy gap.

As you know, we're coming up to the first installment of a long-term plot involving Uncle Phil: his having to quit cigarette smoking. The generalized premise behind the whole thing was that Phil is a spoiled brat who won't listen to the older sister who knows best, a pathetic Neanderthal who confuses the benevolent guidance of the women in his life with being neutered and an anti-social jackass who thinks that his need to puff his brains out is the only consideration that needs to be taken into account. The problem is that she accidentally lets it slip from time to time that Phil is pretty much terrified of failure. Unlike Jim who thought that since he never died of cancer that there was no proven link, Phil joins Candace aware of the risks involved. He also shares with Candace the fear that taking on adult responsibilities means turning into an embittered, angry failure so when things get dicey, the two of them will always have the urge to backslide.

The interesting thing is that this reminds me of the constant hectoring about quitting smoking on the comic strip Curtis. The protagonist can't seem to get that when his dad talks about there's a stress in his life that can only be calmed by a pack of menthols, what would make Greg quit for good is if Curtis turned into the grinning drone who always agreed with authority figures and never bothered questioning what anyone older than he was said that Billingsley holds out as an ideal of childhood. In both cases, we're dealing with a child who should gleefully cast himself into a furnace if an adult told him to who needs to accept that he owes the stupid blind obedience.

Ah. well. At least the humorless granite block of moral absolutism calling himself Ray Billingsley has the courage of his grim, anti-human convictions. When he says that Greg is a fool, Curtis an annoyance and smoking as much a device of Satan as his main character, he means it. He's not like Lynn who only objects to cigarettes because she hates the smell. If she liked it, the Pattersons would be accompanied by their own personal smog cloud.
Snarky Candiru2

The Thanksgiving Litmus Test.

As I reminded you yesterday, Lynn's brain is made up of media stereotypes. Time and again, we see reminders that she honestly believes that her life was recorded live in front of a studio audience, That being said, I'd like to talk about a Very Special Sort of Episode that she, unlike most other artists, has not seen fit to put in her strip: the traditional Thanksgiving-equals-domestic-infighting episode. As Ebert reminds us, television and movies always use Turkey Day as a backdrop for families in conflict. What this means is that her unshakable belief that all Americans everywhere would get angry with her and stop reading her strip and demand military action should she reveal that Canadians don't celebrate the occasion on the same day God and Congress intended has translated into her missing out on a chance to show us who the Pattersons really are.

This is probably for the best, however. After all, the Pattersons are perfectly capable of looking at a life filled with blessings and simpering that they have nothing at all to be thankful for. I mean, the Pattersons like to admit that they have it pretty sweet almost as much as they like to lose face by apologizing for the harm that they do others. Not, of course, that this is a problem. After all, she has her fans well trained enough that she can get away with the whole "Woe is us, we have a life ninety-nice percent of the human race envies" bull-huckey.

Speaking of well-trained fans, most of her peers love to hammer on about the same damned thing every November. Most of them make a rather generic comment about how Long-Suffering Way-too-hot-for-HIM Mom gets her ass in an uproar because Unappreciative Fat Idiot Dad would rather watch football than help with cooking but there are three that stand out: "Curtis", "Sally Forth" and "Funky Winkerbean." Bear with me as I remind you of the standardized jackassery that they offer us.

First off, we must remind ourselves that every year, the Wilkins of the comic strip "Curtis" go all out to make a big show of how generous they are while not actually being generous. Every damned year, Greg and Diane put on a beatiful spread to impress their unappreciative families and every year, they fail to do anything but irritate the title character. What makes that really suck is the idea of inviting Chutney, a child whose only known family is her widowed father, would probably break Diane's brain. It would no more occur to her to be truly generous than it would to listen to people instead of rolling her empty freaking head and running her God-damned mouth about things she doesn't know crap-all about. Said example of cloddishness is always accompanied by a greeting-card moral about appreciating one's blessings.

To continue on with self-defeating behavior and its discontents, Sally Forth feels compelled to make herself crazy every November covering for her lazy, entitled drunk of a mother and entitled scatterbrain of a sister because she cannot and will not accept that she will never get a damned bit of praise or gratitude for anything she does. Just as Linus thinks that if he finds a sincere-enough pumpkin patch, the Great Pumpkin will appear, Sally thinks that this is the year that talking to her mother and sister will not be like talking to a radio or a block of granite. As Canadian essayist Stephen Leacock said a century or so ago, "If at first you don't succeed, quit, quit at once!!"

Of course, the granddaddy of all arcs that serve futility for the holidays is the subject of my next entry: Funky Winkerbean's annual band turkey sale idiocy.
Snarky Candiru2

Farewell to King Features, Part One: Curtis

As those of you who follow the Comics Casserole blog have learned, King Features Syndicate has taken the step of making the URLs of its strips next to impossible to predict in order to somehow save its bottom line from hemorrhaging because no one in a position of power is smart enough to figure out how to make money on the Internet without forcing people to deal with a pay wall. This couldn't have come at a better time because I'm getting heartily sick of the KFS strips I used to cover. If you'll indulge me, I'll explain why I no longer miss them.

I'll start by saying that I will not miss the strip Curtis by Ray Billingsley in the least. The creator touts his celebration of self-defeating behaviour as being the Thinking Man's comic strip; he is sort of right to do so but he makes me think things that he'd probably rather I didn't. The thing he makes me think that he'd rather I didn't is that Gunther the barber is the only character I'm going to miss. Sure, the guy never gets Curtis's name right and tells obvious lies about his celebrity connections but his funny signs are the only light in a world of darkness and stupidity.

I won't, on the other hand, much miss the principal character and his self-defeating need to not follow the rules because he thinks that being pointlessly, self-destructively rebellious makes him an individual. Sure, he's a product of his environment but it's hard to sympathize with someone who hasn't figured out that since he lives in a town filled with irrationally thin-skinned people who take offense at the least thing, it makes sense to tread lightly.

I also won't miss Gunk, his insane stories of his bizarre homeland and the amazingly dangerous plants and animals poor, dim Curtis thinks he can exploit for profit. I also won't miss the "Take Fredo Out To The Boathouse" vibe he gives off. Billingsley would rather I not think that Gunk is trying to kill Curtis for kicks but, well, that's what I see happening.

I'm not at all going to miss Mrs Nelson, her non-stop lectures about how Curtis has untapped potential and especially not the realization that she doesn't live in the same world he does. It seems to me that most of why Curtis was beset by hooligans was that they flattered the doughy old bat and since she shares the same mental failing as Diane, she thought they were good and Curtis bad because he stupidly told the truth.

Speaking of Derrick and Onion, I'll be in a position to not miss them post haste because I know that a rock-stupid woman I know of (hint: she always believes that Curtis is trying to hit Barry for no reason) will call for their reinstatement because of a lying promise of reform.

I won't miss Scary-Ass Stalker With A Crush Chutney or Mean Girl Michelle nor will I miss championing the former rather than the latter because the failures Curtis calls parents hate successful people.

I won't miss Greg, his crappy attitude, his stinginess, his ridiculous belief that cracking open his wallet will destroy Curtis's work ethic, his sullen hatred of the fact that he isn't allowed final say on whether things will change and especially his refusal to admit that his grousing about having to work for a living is what HAS destroyed Curtis's work ethic. One Elly Patterson is quite enough, thanks loads.

I won't miss that treacherous, malicious, gutless and annoying pain Barry, his non-stop insults, his habit of pushing buttons and his running to mother. What we see is what Red Green calls a fist-magnet; what the stupid women in this strip see is a victim of a bully that wants to pummel him for no reason because he says so.

That leads directly to a discussion of who I'll miss the least: the rock-stupid matriarch Diane. Most of what's wrong with Curtis is her angry refusal to admit that nice, sweet little Barry could be playing her like a damned Atari. In the veeeeeeeeeeeeery unlikely event that Barry boasts about fooling her where she can hear it, it'll be on Curtis because he isn't a lying piece of shit like Barry is. It's like she's a horrifying genetic experiment wherein some maniac combined that anger-prone, clueless oaf John Patterson with the mother from "Everybody Hates Chris" and her tendency to over-react to piddly crap because she's afraid of what the neighbors will say.
Snarky Candiru2

Of sliding time scales, fixed chronologies and lessons learned.

The real reason that Curtis never seems to learn from the past, of course, is that he's always going to be eleven years old. He's been eleven since 1988 and he'll still be eleven when Billingsley retires and either hands the strip off to an assistant or writes a strip of destiny. Since he has to be the local representative of the "This Loser Is You" franchise, he has to forget any lessons he might learn so that his failings might move the strip forward. The problem, of course, is that every so often, Billingsley introduces a story element that makes it difficult to believe that we're still frozen in some sort of late eighties-early nineties fantasy world; the most problematic element is Greg's disdain for rap and love of R and B. Since he's still in his late forties, it would make more sense if he were to start to tell Curtis to listen to real rappers instead of the lesser lights that dominate the charts.

The problems in chronology aren't as bad when you get to a strip wherein characters age; as an example, Luann DeGroot can remember things and refer to the past without introducing the sort of absurdities one would have to deal with in other strips. The problem with her universe is that characters age at varying rates to meet whatever need Evans has at any given time. This means that Luann is eventually going to end up being classmates with Toni's niece/cousin/daughter/whatever Shannon.

It's far easier for moral lessons to stick in strips wherein people age in real time; the characters in For Better or For Worse can pretty much pinpoint when John figured out that Elly wasn't simply talking to hear herself talk when she described how overwhelmed she felt. The trouble, of course, is that since the Pattersons can not admit to making mistakes, they miss the point of what happened to them and end up getting all their lessons wrong.
Snarky Candiru2

Gunk, Kwanzaa and Billingsley's love of the weird...

I did omit one of Curtis's impossibilities the other day; he cannot under any circumstances prove that his claims that the bizarre foods and animals his freaky friend Gunk brings from Flyspeck Island do what he says they do. This is so Billingsley can have him be introduced to an invasive species, see its bizarre power, figure out a means of abusing it, think he's beating the system, crash down to Earth hard and get punished for lying. The other reason is that the artist loves weird crap; this not only manifests itself in the myriad ways that Curtis has tried killing himself using the dangerous produce Gunk leaves sitting around for any fool to misuse, it also appears every Kwanzaa. During that period, the regular storyline is put on hold so that we may be treated to a fable of some sort; the result is heavy-handed moralizing accompanied by weird art.
Snarky Candiru2

The lesser impossibilities: Barry, Mrs Nelson and Gunther the barber

It's not just Curtis and his parents that can not do things; the minor characters also have things that they cannot do. For example, Barry can never seem to be able to keep Curtis from doing something stupid when both of their asses are on the line; this is, of course, because he's made it his job to annoy Curtis and see him get punished for kicks. We also have to deal with Mrs Nelson's inability to quite see how chaotic Curtis's life can get; she seems unaware of how crappy his neighborhood is and how he has to spend most of his time trying to avoid Derrick and Onion, the bullies. She also seems to not quite realize how afraid of her he is by times which sort of makes it trickier to achieve her stated goal of getting him to succeed in life. Next to those impossibilities, Gunther the barber's inability to quite remember his name is a trivial thing; we can explain that away as his messing with the kid.
Indignant Candiru

The many 'cannots' of Curtis's parents.

Let it not be said that Curtis is the only character who cannot do certain things and maintain the integrity he needs to have the strip continue. His parents are also hampered by the inability to do certain things and think certain thoughts. As an example, Curtis's mother cannot admit to herself the possibility that younger brother Barry might be lying about how Curtis is angry with him for no reason. We know that the title character is almost always reacting to an extreme provocation of some sort but the instant the Troll puts on the 'sweet, harmless kid' act, Diane's mind freezes in place and she goes off to pulverize her kid; what's more, she doubles the tanning she gives Curtis because he 'lied' about being goaded. This, of course, is because she suffers from a mental defect that a lot of adults in fiction do; she assumes that a child that is quiet, respectful and helpful to adults is a good child who has no reason to lie and a rude, noisy and stubborn child like Curtis is always bad. One should think that she wonders why Wally and the Beav are so nasty to their polite friend Eddy Haskell because he's always so respectful to adults because she cannot or will not see that she and June Cleaver are being played for suckers by their respective rat-bastard phonies; having to do that would mean having to admit to an imperfect knowledge of her children and she cannot do that and still be the Diane Wilkins Billingsley created. She has to be an ill-tempered stooge for the old 'wounded gazelle' ploy or the strip will end. Greg isn't nearly so bad; all he's got is a hatred for rap and a two-pack a day habit that he can't really quit without going nuts. If he'd married a woman for brains instead of looks and mad skillz on the dance floor, he wouldn't be as messed up as he is now. The jury is out on whether he believes Barry is a lying little fink but it's established that he doesn't care; like Ward Cleaver, he wants his older son to suck up the abuse he has to take like a man and quit pestering him for money he doesn't have.
Snarky Candiru2

Curtis: Master of the impossibilities.

I guess one of the most appealing things about Stone Soup is that it doesn't generally rely on the use of the words 'can not' as a source of humor; instead of having a situation in which Evie cannot leave to pursue her own interests lest Val's life fall apart, we have to deal with an extended story arc in which budding mean girl Holly will have to learn an Aesop about responsibility and humility. If we want to see a strip in which a character cannot do something without risking the end of the strip, we'd have to discuss Ray Billingsley's Curtis. Simply put, the sliding timescale and need for Status Quo to be God mean that if certain things happen, the strip will have to end. We might as well start by looking at the things characters cannot do by looking at the title character first and then proceed from there:

  1. Curtis cannot at any time realize that authority figures are not conspiring to ruin his life; were he to realize that his teacher is trying to help him live a better life, the cafeteria workers are trying to ensure his health and that his father would love to let him do things if he had the money, his default attitude of persecution would disappear and take the strip with it.
  2. Curtis cannot be made to see that Michelle hasn't got the sweet side he thinks is buried under the vanity and attitude; were he to spurn her and take up with Chutney, we'd have to kiss the strip good-bye.
  3. Curtis cannot be allowed to control his mischievous and antisocial impulses; his shtick is that he's a goofy kid who thinks he's smarter and cooler than he really is so if he got humble all of a sudden, he'd end up in the home for retired comic strip characters they keep trying to ship Walt Wallet off to.
  4. As more or less of a compliment to that last, he cannot seem to realize that Barry, although being a vindictive jerk who likes it when his big brother gets into trouble, is always right about things; if he heeded the warnings the Troll was trying to give him, he wouldn't wind up getting punished again.

Simply put, if he were to learn from his mistakes and not do stupid things, his ability to be the loser protagonist would take a direct hit and end his strip.