Ask not for whom the reaper scythes

Two Grim Reaper memic cartoons: today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collab, and a Harry Bliss cartoon in the current (12/24&31) New Yorker, both requiring signficant background information for understanding (beyond recognizing the figure of Death with his scythe):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)


Death merchant of Venice. The GR as a gondolier, on a canal in Venice. If you don’t have the title, you’ll need to recognize the trappings of the gondolier’s trade and the background, together putting the scene in Venice; then you can appreciate having the figure of Death in Venice, because that gives you the pleasure of the allusion to Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Der Tod in Venedig and Visconti’s 1971 film  treatment of it. (If you have the title of the cartoon — “Death in Venice” — then you have the allusion on a platter.)

In any case, you’ll appreciate the further allusion in having the GR as a boatman, evoking Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

On the gondola, from Wikipedia:

The gondola … is a traditional, flat-bottomed Venetian rowing boat, well suited to the conditions of the Venetian lagoon. It is similar to a canoe, except it is narrower. It is propelled by a gondolier, who uses a rowing oar, which is not fastened to the hull, in a sculling manner and acts as the rudder.

(#3) A very modern Venetian gondola scene

… Every detail of the gondola has its own symbolism. The iron prow-head of the gondola, called “fero da prorà” [or “ferro di prua”, depending on the variety of Italian: the ‘grapnel at the prow/bow’] or “dolfin”, is needed to balance the weight of the gondolier at the stern and has an “Ƨ” shape symbolic of the twists in the Canal Grande. Under the main blade there is a kind of comb with six teeth or prongs (“rebbi”) pointing forward standing for the six districts or “sestieri” of Venice. A kind of tooth juts out backwards toward the centre of the gondola symbolises the island of Giudecca. The curved top signifies the Doge’s cap. The semi-circular break between the curved top and the six teeth is said to represent the Rialto Bridge. Sometimes three friezes can be seen in-between the six prongs, indicating the three main islands of the city: Murano, Burano and Torcello.

(#4) Details of the prow-head

On Death in Venice on this blog, a 7/26/10 posting “Notes: euphemisms 7/26/10”:

I moved on to … watching Visconti’s Death in Venice, eventually posting a note on Facebook about it:

Downer: watching Visconti’s “Death in Venice” (with Dirk Bogarde as Gustav Aschenbach/Gustav Mahler). It ends badly, as you will recall. And not far from the end, there’s a nasty summary of what Aschenbach-Mahler’s life has come to:

“In all the world there is no impurity so impure as old age.

And then the boatman of death, from Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology, Charon or Kharon … is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Everything’s more elegant in Europe, even that final voyage to the underworld.

Death has clean hands. Here to understand why the cartoon is funny, you need to recognize a feature of American life in recent decades, the wall dispenser supplying hand sanitizer — in particular, the Purell brand. From Wikipedia:

(#5) Purell wall dispenser

Purell is an instant hand sanitizer made of ethyl alcohol which claims to kill 99.99% of common germs that may cause illness in as little as 15 seconds. [Yes, there’s an entertaining attachment ambiguity in that sentence.] Its active ingredient is ethanol (70% w/w). It is used by wetting one’s hands thoroughly with the product, then briskly rubbing one’s hands together until dry. … Purell was introduced to the market in 1996.

In #2, it’s too late for Purell to be of any help in warding off illness.

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