Two comics explained

First came the Frazz strip from yesterday, sent to me by John Baker because he thought it would be of special interest to me (for reasons that will quickly become clear):

(#1) Frazz, the school janitor who’s also a Renaissance man, copes with the puzzlement of one of the students

And then a visual composition with what is obviously a Magrittean disavowal — a visuoverbal humor form realized variously in (at least) paintings, drawings, cartoons, and web graphics (there’s a Page on this blog about it) — that appeared in numerous slightly different versions on Facebook recently, baffling me:

(#2) Ok, it’s not a moon, but what, I wondered, is it? And what does it have to do with the Magritte original?

Magritte first. The Magritte original:


Playful paradox hangs over this painting, and over some of the its variants. But if the image in the painting were of a cigar, with the same caption, then the paradox vanishes, and the caption, taken to be an assertion about the image, would simply be true.

Which was my initial response to #2. The image in #2 is of some spherical object, possibly celestial, so conceivably an unusually shaped moon revolving around some distant planet. In which case, the caption is straightforwardly either true (if that’s not actually a moon but is something else that looks kind of moon-like) or false (if it’s indeed a moon). Either way, the value of the image would be merely its superficial magrittité.

Obviously, the image in #2 is significant in some way that eluded me, if so many people were playing with its magrittité. Eventually I noted #starwars tags for some of the postings, and I asked a friend about the image, and so discovered that the thing is the Death Star — strictly speaking, the first Death Star — from the Star Wars movies. That is, a celestial object but not a moon. From Wikipedia:


The Death Star is a type of fictional mobile space station and galactic superweapon featured in the Star Wars space-opera franchise. The first Death Star, introduced in the original Star Wars film [1977], is stated to be more than 100 km in diameter, and is crewed by an estimated 1.7 million military personnel and 400,000 droids. The second Death Star, which appears in Return of the Jedi is significantly larger, between 160 km to 900 km in diameter, and technologically more powerful than its predecessor. Both versions of these moon-sized fortresses are designed for massive power-projection capabilities, each capable of destroying an entire planet with a blast from its superlasers.

I saw the original Star Wars back in 1977 and enjoyed it, but that was 42 years ago and I never became a follower of the movies that followed, so I’d simply forgotten what the Death Star looked like.

Frazz on gasoline and petrol. I didn’t appreciate a lot of the complexity in #1, but right away I got the gasoline on the right side of the road vs. petrol on the left side thing: gasoline is the fuel term in the US, where people drive on the right side of the road, while petrol is the term in the UK, where they drive on the left side.

Then I saw that the strip in #1 was the second in a series, so that #1 waseasier to interpret in light of its predecessor:

(#5) The 6/18/19 Frazz

And, most important, I realized that John Baker hadn’t sent me to the June 19th Frazz directly, but had referred me instead to a “Falling Further Down the Right/Left Gasoline/Petrol Rabbit Hole” piece on the Comics I Don’t Understand site (“Explaining the comics with as much civility as is conveniently possible”), where the June 19th Frazz had special significance for me.

A reader asked, about #1, “What do bicycles have to do with gas tanks?”, and got two excellent replies from commenters.

A comment from Kilby:

This one works fine in conjunction with the previous day’s strip. The girl’s hypothesis is that car drivers are unwilling to pass a bicycle properly (by moving across the median into the opposite, oncoming lane) because then the “magic fuel condition” from the previous strip will cause the engine to fail. Frazz doesn’t want to refute her theory with the facts, because his own opinions of such drivers can only be properly expressed with words that are NSFW.

And an extended exegetical comment from Usual John:

There are really a lot of steps needed to appreciate this strip; it asks a lot of the reader. I am reminded of the discussions on Arnold Zwicky’s Blog,, [where] Professor Zwicky sometimes talks about all of the background knowledge that is needed to appreciate a strip.

1. The reader must remember that in the previous day’s strip, Nameless Child asked about the difference between gas and petrol and was told that gasoline works on the right side of the road, petrol works on the left side of the road.

2. The reader must know that gasoline is the preferred term in the United States, where drivers use the right side of the road, and petrol is the preferred term in the United Kingdom, where drivers use the left side of the road.

3. The reader must realize that Frazz has given a joke explanation that Nameless Child does not fully understand (although she does get that it’s a joke explanation).

4. The reader must recognize the child’s theory about bicycles as an example of child logic, flowing from an overly literal interpretation of yesterday’s joke. (Since Nameless Child knows that Frazz was joking, even though she doesn’t understand the joke, she does not mean her theory to be taken seriously.) Obviously it would not actually be functional if cars would work on only one side of the road.

5. The reader must have the background knowledge that Frazz is an avid cyclist.

6. The reader must know that cyclists get upset and may swear when cars fail to pull over, and that the swearing may involve terms that could be taken as an explanation of why the cars didn’t pull over. These would be along the lines of “you’re a jerk,” but in stronger terms that I don’t need to go into.

My thanks to Usual John for doing this analysis in even greater detail than I probably would have myself.

3 Responses to “Two comics explained”

  1. RF Says:

    The Magritte reference is specifically playing on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s line from A New Hope: “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.” This moment is significant in the movie because it is the first time they (and we) understand the immense size of the Death Star.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Similarly, there are various Magritte parodies on t-shirts, etc.:“pas+un+couteau”&tbm=isch

    These refer to a memorable Crocodile Dundee scene belittling a switchblade knife:
    Sue Charlton : [cautiously] He’s got a knife.
    Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee : [chuckles] That’s not a knife.
    [he pulls out a large bowie knife]
    Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee : THAT’s a knife.
    [Dundee slashes the teen mugger’s jacket and maintains eyeball to eyeball stare]

    Personally, I think it sounds more like “THERE’s a knife” but with his non-rhotic accent I’m not sure:

    IMDB lists many parodies, with “not a” in 27 of them, but “This is” 17 times:

    Google results give only about 6 instances of “There’s a knife” as apparent Dundee lines, but 2 are “Now there’s a knife” and 1 is “Now there, there’s a knife”:

    The original quote clearly has a contraction (“THERE’s” or “THAT’s”), parallel to the earlier line (“That’s not”). Normally, speakers would contrast “That” with “This” but contractions of “This is” don’t seem as natural (especially with the emphasis on “THIS”).

    I guess, like anything that’s widely quoted, it’s no longer the original that’s being quoted or remembered.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: