Travels with Ziggy

>> Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I don't get the newspaper. I mean, I don't receive the newspaper; I grok it just fine. It's just that The Charlotte Observer isn't a particularly good newspaper, and even if it was a better newspaper, there just doesn't seem much point in filling my home with wood pulp when I can get most of the news I care about via free pixels on the computer screen. And, sure, you're supposed to clear out all those piles of paper by dumping them in the recycling bin, but that's a pain in the ass. Plus, you get newsprint all over your hands reading the paper, which doesn't happen when you're getting your news from the Internet (basically, if you're getting electricity all over your hands from your computer, you have worse things to worry about than getting ink all over everything, though you might not have to worry about it very long).

But someone brings the newspaper to the office and leaves it out when they're done with it for anyone else to look at it, and sometimes when I'm walking by I'll stop and pick it up to look at the most important section in the thing: the funny pages.

I've always looked at the funnies first. Even when I was a kid, and I mean not just a little kid but even when I'd come home in junior high or high school and sit down at the dining room table before my parents came home and go through the whole newspaper front-to-back (skipping or skimming the sports section, because I pretty much have never cared). I don't know that this is unusual; I mean, the history of the funnies section in newspapers is that publishers started including them because they were the most consistently popular pages in their newspapers, and the Sunday funnies have long been the selling point for quite a lot of newspapers.

All of this is a long way of getting around to what I saw when I picked up the paper today on my way back from the restroom, turned to the back of the Living section, and saw this:

Huh. So they're still publishing Ziggy.

I think it was this past weekend I was talking to The ScatterKat about humor, specifically about a Halloween costume she'd seen that was one of those things where you laugh and then feel awful about laughing--I won't describe it to you, but let's just say it referenced a major world religion and rampant accusations of horrific behavior made against certain members of this faith's clergy--and it led to a conversation about humor and cruelty. Someone The ScatterKat had talked to thought it was unspeakably awful anybody would ever laugh at the costume in question, but humor is inherently cruel. It's Mel Brooks' old line about how tragedy is I prick my little finger and comedy is you falling down an open manhole and dying, it's Moe Howard hitting Curly in the head with a hammer. There's not really anything funny about falling ten or twenty feet, breaking your legs and drowning in a stream of human shit, or about actual traumatic brain damage. And yet horror and humor are inextricably bound; I don't mean that everything horrific is humorous or everything funny is awful, just that there's this long stretch where these two threads are wound tightly together. Which is why, if you'll forgive a quick tangent, you have things like the Crypt Keeper or Freddy Krueger on the one hand and jokes like The Aristocrats on the other.

But gods, that Ziggy strip is horrific and stupid.

Let's get this out of the way: I don't really find the strip offensive; I think if you're going to get offended by a scrawled, bald, pantsless zombie refugee from the 1970s, you really need to consider getting a hobby. Visit an art supply store on your way home, you might get some ideas there.

Indeed, while we're here, let's point out that the lack of offensiveness is part of the panel's essential stupidity: "very poor Third-World country" is hopelessly generic and could describe dozens of countries on several continents and various hemispheres. If the Ziggy had been more specific--"a very poor Third-World country in South America", for example--it would at least rise to the level of racist trolling instead of being nothing less than a cheap hip-shot fired randomly at nothing particular. Perhaps, if you were a racist, you could laugh at some specific bigoted inner caricature instead of projecting onto the panel whatever stereotype of a "Third-World country" leaps into your head when you read the panel. (Thinking about this, actually, it occurs to me the strip may exhibit a kind of crude genius, setting itself up as a sort of racist Rorschach test that immunizes itself from being called out for racism by merely being a blank slate upon which the audience projects their own prejudices: did you think Ziggy's luggage went to Africa? To Asia? To Latin America? Micronesia? The Caribbean? He didn't say, and shame on you for guessing. But I think this gives the panel to much credit, frankly; I don't think that much thought or effort went into it.)

But let's move on, shall we? Let's take it as far as, "Ziggy's luggage ended up in some benighted place where people of whatever sort--it doesn't matter who they are, because the panel didn't care enough to let us know who they might be--are so hungry, hopeless and/or ignorant that when they saw a suitcase they ate it." This really isn't funny, it's just awful. And I don't mean offensively awful, I just mean how desperate would someone have to be to eat a suitcase? Good grief, I hope it wasn't a hardshell Samsonite. And note, please, this is another element of the panel's essential and inherent dumbness: I mean, what kind of luggage does Ziggy carry, anyway? I don't think he's ever been presented as being the kind of guy who'd be carrying Zero Halliburton, that shit's kind of pricey and calls for a certain kind of sensibility (and let's be honest, it may also call for a certain level of douchiness unless you're a professional photographer, though they really are pretty nice suitcases). I imagine we're supposed to picture Ziggy carrying a bunch of fabric or soft-side bags, but who really knows?

(Oh, and if you were wondering: yes, I did work in a luggage store at one point. Back in high school. Why do you ask?)

It's just a horrible mental picture in context, really: somebody, somewhere, trying to chew on a plastic or perhaps even metal suitcase. The look of desperation and panic in their eyes as they realize what they're trying to consume isn't actually edible and yet they're somehow compelled to eat it anyway.

Looking back at the panel, it's hard to take in just how much vagueness permeates the entire gag. Okay, so Ziggy's mysterious luggage (whatever it might have been) was accidentally transported to some unknown and unspecified country that might have been anywhere in the world by "Airlines". This is what the front desk has emblazoned on it. Not "Airline", not a fictitious company, perhaps jokingly named, like "Earhart Air", say--no, Ziggy's unspecified baggage was evidently lost by all of them, by every company in the air-transit industry. (Does he have to sue all of them, or can he pick one out of a hat?) It's as if there's some kind of Heisenberg principle at work, or it would be if Ziggy knew where his luggage ended up (just not how it got there or where it was going to).

At some point in the preceding paragraphs, I suspect, you may have asked an obvious question: "Eric," you might have wondered aloud or in your head, "why are you wasting any time on this?"

It's actually not a very good question. Sorry. I'm not trying to be rude with that. It's just that this is important, not for any sort of sociological reason or cause for indignation or whatever, but because if you're anything like me and you care about writing or creating, and care at all about how a creative artifact works, this Ziggy actually does provide some food for thought. That thought might merely be, "How is it possible Tom Wilson gets paid shit-tons of money for so little effort on his part?" Which is a better question; well, no, actually it's a good question, not because it's unfair for Wilson to be paid so much for so little, but because the lack of effort evident in that strip perhaps tells us something about humor (and horror, and perhaps any artist-audience interaction).

Let's go back to that Rorschach thing for a moment: this Ziggy panel is stupid in large part because of its vagueness: what airline, what luggage, what country, what people, etc.? And what that vagueness does is put everything onto the audience. It happens to be quick and lazy, and if you're trying to write six comic panels and one Sunday strip a week, fifty-two weeks a year for forty years-and-counting, tossing off a panel like that may be a coping mechanism. The labor, anyway, gets shifted to the viewer: in the unlikely event you laughed at that panel (and I really hope you didn't laugh), you laughed because you projected everything into the panel--you imagined the time you or someone you knew lost a suitcase and imagined that suitcase winding up in some location your mind consciously or unconsciously picked, you even made a mental leap from "airlines" to whatever prejudices or experiences you've had while traveling by air and/or your impressions of the industry through the media or word-of-mouth or whatever. "Ah yes, those crooks in the aviation industry," you said to yourself, perhaps so quickly you might not have even known you were saying it, "always losing luggage and mine probably would end up getting eaten by starving Bongolians, ha-ha-ha", and then you finished your doughnut or turned the page to see how your team was doing or what happened in the Market yesterday.

It seems to me that that's a lot of work to shift onto an audience. Any kind of art (and I'm using the word broadly, not because there's anything particularly arty about Ziggy, for cryin' out loud) is a collaboration between the artist and the audience. But what we're talking about goes beyond leaving things to be interpreted; this is a comic panel that is, at its essence, completely abstract. Abstract or absent: there's nothing there and everything perceived there comes wholly from the viewer with little or no effort from the artist.

I put a lot of work into my creative efforts, sometimes more successfully than other times. Even a tossed-off, posted-without-much-editing blog piece is a project where I've tried to choose the right words in the right order. It seems to me that this is the kind of thing a creative person does. In that light, the above Ziggy panel is notably uncreative, isn't it? The creative part of the project comes down to Tom Wilson saying to himself, "Ziggy's luggage is lost and poor people ate it", then drawing that with the few loops and lines that are the hallmark of the Ziggy aesthetic. If art is a collaboration between audience and artist, he's fallen down on the job, he hasn't held up his end of the bargain; I put the effort in because I want this thing to somehow be an interaction between what I put on the screen and what your brain perceives there. Wilson evidently doesn't care all that much (perhaps he's just cashing checks at this point), and that seems terribly delinquent from my perspective.

His lack of effort is also inviting audience missteps (such as a lengthy digression on what kind of luggage a creature like Ziggy might own). When I go to the trouble of putting all these words together about an awful comic panel that otherwise wouldn't be worth the seconds it takes for the eyes to bounce off it, I'm hoping those words will trigger some kind of mental process in your head regarding art or creativity or meaning or somesuch, regardless of whether or not you comment on it below; if the only thing that happens in your head as you read this is something like, "Wow, he didn't care for that Ziggy cartoon," I've failed. The response I'm trying to elicit isn't necessarily predictable or pre-defined, but "Eric didn't like the cartoon" isn't what I was hoping for at all. Put another way, I'm not necessarily trying to guide you to a particular place in this piece, but I am trying to channel your thoughts in some directions more than others. You might think of the whole thing as a sort of verbal pachinko machine, wherein all the balls end up at the bottom eventually but their paths can vary in all sorts of ways. Well--that's at one level, at the widest zoom. At another level, I'm trying very specifically to choose words and phrases in a way that takes you to specific places at specific points within the piece: e.g. two sentences ago, I compared the bouncing around of thoughts to a specific kind of arcade game, including a helpful link to a Wikipedia article on the chance you didn't get the specific mental association I was trying to get you to, and I did this very deliberately with a very specific mental image in my brain that I was trying to create in yours. This is what writers try to do. If I wrote "pachinko machine" and you thought of Al Pacino or palomino horses or Palo Alto, the sentence was a failure; if you imagined a pachinko machine but didn't make the connection between your caroming thoughts as you read this and the metal ball rebounding down the machine's guts, I also failed.

Note that that much effort might go into a quickie gag designed to make you snort your coffee before you move on. I mean, the fact there's not really any difference, creatively speaking, between me trying to elicit a belly laugh and me trying to elicit a profound appreciation for the musical artistry of Pink Floyd and me trying to convince you the death penalty is wrong. The stakes are different: I'd rather persuade you about a serious topic than just get a cheap laugh; but in all those instances I'm trying to evoke something in your mind or heart. I might misfire in one or all cases, but that's something else.

Where is Tom Wilson trying to take you? Does he care whether you get there?

I think that's worth analyzing a Ziggy comic over. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you don't agree or don't even care enough to agree or disagree. But I hope you saw it when I pointed.


Phiala Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 2:19:00 PM EST  

I think it must have been a leather suitcase.

Because obviously that was the most important part of your essay, right?

Eric Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 11:23:00 AM EST  

Thanks for the link, Timb; I gotta say, that was the funniest Hi And Lois in several decades, but probably not for the reason the artist intended.

Micky-T Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 4:10:00 PM EST  

Maybe he was mindlessly stockpiling that day, so he could go for a shit-tons of money vacation with the wife and kids.

Your fun to read Eric! Your so fricken smart, I bet if we stood next to each other I'd be repelled like a magnet. I wouldn't want to be, but I'm just a trade high school graduate that likes to read the likes of you and Jim Wright.

Eric Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 5:18:00 PM EST  

Welcome, Micky, and thanks, though I think you're being hard on yourself: education has nothing to do with smart, amply demonstrated by some of the Ivy Leaguers we've sent to Washington over the years.

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