Once more on background knowledge in the comics

Two of today’s cartoons — a Bizarro and a Zippy — bring us back to recurring questions on this blog: what do need to know to make sense out of what’s going on in a cartoon, and then what do you need to know to see why it might be funny? It’s all about background knowledge.



#1 brings back the clowns from an earlier posting on background knowledge. #2 is more intricate.

Bizarro. From a 9/14/14 posting on background knowledge, with clowns:

Every so often, I post about how much background information can be required to make sense of what’s going on in a cartoon (and then to see why it’s funny); see, for example, “Bizarro followup” of 8/29. Now, through several Facebook friends, this wonderful New Yorker cartoon by Nick Downes …
… [for cartoon #1 in that posting, in addition to knowing how to recognize clowns and what they are] you need to supply a very particular bit of sociocultural knowledge. You need to know a specific song, or at least its title. That would be “Send in the Clowns”.

(with a link to an excellent, detailed Wikipedia article on the song).

Zippy. Well, you need to know something about Franz Kafka and his writings. Specifically, you need to know about one work. From Wikipedia:

The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung, also sometimes translated as The Transformation) is a novella by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915. It has been cited as one of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century and is studied in colleges and universities across the Western world. The story begins with a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, waking to find himself transformed (metamorphosed) into a large, monstrous insect-like creature.

Digression on the translation of the material in the German original, still from the Wikipedia article:

Kafka’s sentences often deliver an unexpected impact just before the period — that being the finalizing meaning and focus. This is achieved from the construction of sentences in the original German, where the verbs of subordinate clauses are put at the end. For example, in the opening sentence, it is the final word, verwandelt, that indicates transformation:

Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheuren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.

These constructions are not directly replicable in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the effect of the original text.

English translators have often sought to render the word Ungeziefer as “insect”, but this is not strictly accurate. In Middle High German, Ungeziefer literally means “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice” and is sometimes used colloquially to mean “bug” – a very general term, unlike the scientific sounding “insect”. Kafka had no intention of labeling Gregor as any specific thing, but instead wanted to convey Gregor’s disgust at his transformation.

Ungeziefer has sometimes been translated as “cockroach”, “dung beetle”, “beetle”, and other highly specific terms. The term “dung beetle” or Mistkäfer is, in fact, used in the novella by the cleaning lady near the end of the story, but it is not used in the narration.
… Vladimir Nabokov, who was a lepidopterist as well as writer and literary critic, insisted that Gregor was not a cockroach, but a beetle with wings under his shell, and capable of flight. Nabokov left a sketch annotated, “just over three feet long”, on the opening page of his (heavily corrected) English teaching copy. In his accompanying lecture notes, Nabokov discusses the type of insect Gregor has been transformed into, concluding that Gregor “is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle”.

To understand #2, you need to know about the novella, and to know that the creature Gregor Samsa is transformed into is often referred to as a beetle. That gets us to beetles, in the last panel of #2. But then there’s the title of the piece, “John, Paul, George & Franz”, which you need to recognize as the names of the four musical Beatles (pun on beetle), but with Franz [Kafka] standing in for Ringo. That’s a lot of sociocultural knowledge, from both high culture and pop culture.

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