Metalico Cat

The 2/7 Wayno/Piraro Bizarro strip offers the complex portmanteau Metalico Cat = Metallico + Calico Cat (plus a cute title from Wayno: “The Shredder”):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

The portmanteau. In pronunciation, the portmanteau is a bit complex, involving the intrusion of the first /k/ from /kǽlɪkò kǽt/ CALICO CAT into the middle of /mǝtǽlɪkò/ METALLICO, replacing the /t/ there: your standard portmanteau is of the form XYZ = XY + YZ, which would be fine for a portmanteau /mǝtǽlɪkò kǽt/ METALICO CAT, if the name of the cat variety were TALICO CAT; or for a portmanteau /mǝkǽlɪkò kǽt/  MECALICO CAT, if the name of the rock band were MECALLICO. Things are even more complex in spelling, since METALLICO has two Ls in the middle, while CALICO CAT has only one, so no matter which spelling for /mǝtǽlɪkò kǽt/ you chose — METALLICO CAT or METALICO CAT — it fails to be be faithful to the spelling of one of the ingredients of the portmanteau.

(This isn’t a quibble with the Bizarro portmanteau. Not every portmanteau is perfect, nor should it be expected to be.)

The hybrid. A satisfying cartoon portmanteau pairs a (linguistic) portmanteau with a visual hybrid, an image that represents a combination of things from two different worlds, corresponding to the linguistic expressions in the portmanteau. The central figure in #1 is, at once, a singer in the rock band Metallica and a calico cat, linking the world of heavy metal guitarists with the world of domestic pets. Consequently, that central figure is also a poor depiction of a Metallica member — where is the luxuriant long hair, the manly facial features, the show of skin on arms and chest, the hands with five (rather than four) fingers? and where do the fur, the pointed ears, the tail, and so on come from? — and a poor depiction of a domestic cat — what cat stands on its hind feet to play a guitar, wears leather vests, studded bands, jeans, and boots, and so on?

The point here is that while the figure in #1 is in some sense both a rock guitarist and a domestic cat, the hybrid is a kind of guitarist-cat pastiche and as such is decidedly imperfect, unsatisfactory, as an instance of either one.

From my 5/22/18 posting “(I just) can’t stop (it)”, on a Harry Bliss cartoon:

(#2) “Get those things away from me–I can’t stop eating them.”

A translation of a scene (of snack-food addiction, in the universe of tv commercials) to a parallel metaphorical world (of rampaging Godzillas, in the universe of monster movies).

… The cartoon is based on a familiar scene, two friends having some snacks from a bowl (think: potato chips or Doritos), one noting that they just can’t stop eating the snacks. This scene is realized in the cartoon as two cartoon-memic Japanese movie monsters devouring terrified people, one noting that they just can’t stop eating the people. The cartoon translates the first into the second by identifying elements of the two worlds — setting, participants, activities, and so on. The speaker on the right is just someone chomping on snacks with a friend, but is also Godzilla #2, in the midst of a shared frenzy of people-eating.

All this is on a small scale in [the Bliss cartoon]. Larger-scale translations are familiar from stagings of plays and operas in which the elements of an original are translated into other social settings, times, and places.

… On a small scale, such translations are commonplace in cartoons, where part of the humor comes from the absurdity of the identifications. Fearsome monsters in comfy chairs are reflexively crunching up people because their bodies are irresistibly tasty.

In #1, we have the translation of a scene (of guitar-shredding on stage, from the world of rock music performance) to a parallel world of other creatures (in this case, playful domestic cats). Similar correspondences are found in other Bizarro portmanteau cartoons, notably in a series on human food consumption translated to a world of anteaters; more on one of these below.

The two worlds. Rock music and playful pets. I was surprised to discover that (apparently) in all these years I haven’t posted on either Metallica or calico cats. But now, obviously, the time has come.

From Wikipedia on the rock band:

(#3) Kirk Hammett, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Cliff Burton (from left) in 1985 (photo: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Metallica is an American heavy metal band. The band was formed in 1981 in Los Angeles by vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, and has been based in San Francisco for most of its career. The band’s fast tempos, instrumentals and aggressive musicianship made them one of the founding “big four” bands of thrash metal, alongside Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer. Metallica’s current lineup comprises founding members and primary songwriters Hetfield and Ulrich, longtime lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo.

And from Wikipedia on calico cats:

(#4) (photo from the Petfinder site)

A calico cat is a domestic cat of any breed with a tri-color coat. The calico cat is most commonly thought of as being typically 25% to 75% white with large orange and black patches (or sometimes cream and grey patches); however, the calico cat can have three other colors in its pattern. They are almost exclusively female except under rare genetic conditions.

The purported factual inaccuracy of #1. I know, I know. There’s something bizarre about a claim that a hybrid cartoon figure is somehow factually inaccurate. Look, a cat — even one that’s been trained to stand, unnaturally and unsteadily, on its hind feet — cannot possibly play a guitar; and no rock guitarist has fur rather than body hair, a tail, and whiskers instead of a mustache. Further,  hypodactyly in humans — illustrated by the clearly thumbless guitarist in #1 — is a very rare genetic disorder, not reported (so far as I know) in any professional rock musician ever, even singers (much less guitarists, percussionists, or keyboardists). Keep the hypodactyly example in mind.

But still, we got the following preposterous exchange on Wayno’s Facebook page (even Wayno allowed himself to get sucked into the discussion):

JMM: Here’s where my nerd kicks in: Calicos are exclusively female. Would this have been a Joan Jett cat…

RG > JMM: First thing I thought. Rockin’ stone butch kittykat! MeeeYOW! 😻

Wayno > JMM: You assumed this depicts a male?

JMM > Wayno: I’m down with Joan Jett wearing open vests … And wasn’t the point “Metallica” cats …? Nothing androgynous about “Metallica”, says their lawyers.

(#5) (photo supplied by JMM, but available all over the place) Joan Jett, playing air guitar in a leather vest, just a millimeter or so away from flaunting a nipple — a wonderful photo of Jett looking tough, competent, jokey, and, yes, in her way, feminine; that’s a really pretty leather vest (have I mentioned how much I enjoy Joan Jett?)

(#6) (AZ: just for fun, another Joan Jett photo) JJ, in a really hot bra, joyously shredding an actual guitar

Wayno > JMM: Calico cats are ALMOST exclusively female, so you can think of this as one of those rare genetic mutations that also plays guitar.

JMM starts by objecting to the figure in #1 because it’s presented as a male and a calico, but calicos are almost always female. Well, then, I wanna object to it because it’s presented as a cat and a guitarist, but guitarists almost always have thumbs. (And almost never have tails, and so on.)

This is already preposterous, but then people go on to cite the extremely rare genetic anomaly of penis-bearing calicos, as if this could somehow be relevant to the plausibility of a cartoon character. Someone could then challenge my objection by citing the extremely rare genetic anomaly of human hypodactylism, as if this could somehow be relevant to the plausibility of a cartoon character. (They might also cite the extremely rare occurrences of vestigial tails in human beings.)

Jesus fuck, we’re talking about a cartoon character here, a fictitious pastiche, so all such appeals to objective accuracy are beside the point. All the cartoonist has to do in this case is provide a plausible superficial appearance of a figure that is both a Metallica guitarist and a calico cat (though no such creature could exist in the real world). It seems to me that #1 achieves that goal beautifully; it made me laugh out loud.

But, still, people really really care. We have little emotional attachment to opposable thumbs or tails in cartoon characters, but we have a big emotional investment in  the sex — female vs. male — of any cartoon character that has notably human characteristics. We really really care about sexual identities.

We insist on knowing the sex of tiny babies, assign other characteristics to them on the basis of their attributed sex, and then interact with them differently.

We are made uneasy by people whose sex we cannot  easily determine; by people who give off apparently inconsistent signals of sex; by people who refuse to be labeled as one sex or the other; by people who have switched from one sex to the other.

But, as I see it, it’s our moral duty to other people at least to learn to live with such unease, at best to rise above it. I have family, friends, acquaintances, students, and colleagues in all of the groups I just listed, and I have been working over decades to treat them with the respect and regard they deserve. With time, this just becomes second nature, as it should be.

We are also made uneasy by people — like me — whose attitudes and behavior fail to conform to the standards of normative gender in some social group they belong to. Fail in small ways or large (professing same-sex desire or engaging in same-sex sexual practices being large ways).

In any case, people in general are remarkably attentive to matters of sexual (female vs. male) identity and gender (feminine vs. masculine vs. both vs. neither) identification, even when they ought to be irrelevant — which is where that preposterous exchange about the sex of calico cat Metallica guitarists came from. We keep wanting to gender — assign a sex to — even fictive humanoids, like the ones in the funny papers. In particular, like Bizarro anteaters.

From my 10/19/21 posting “Formicavore home cooking”, about this Bizarro cartoon:


Gendered anteaters. So far, everyone who’s commented on [the Bizarro fire-ants cartoon] has assumed that the L anteater, the speaker, is female; and that the R anteater, the one afflicted by the fire ants, is male — probably because L is the server and R the served, and those are roles conventionally assigned to female and male, respectively, in our society. (L and R might be anteaters, but they are also a pair of people having a meal together; this is the sort of cartoon where things exist in two worlds at once.)

But Wayno has also crafted his depictions of L and R to gender them physically. R is larger, bulkier than L; in humans, the mean size for males is significantly greater than the mean for females, although there’s a lot of overlap — but in the land of cartoons, everything is exaggerated. … R also has thicker and darker fur than L — and tousled, masculine (human) hair.

Wayno didn’t use the standard cartoonist’s convention of marking female creatures by giving them long eyelashes, choosing instead to use subtler indicators.

(Since I am who I am, I point out that L and R could be gay males, differing noticeably in size and taking different roles in meal preparation — just as my man Jacques and I did: he was significantly taller and stronger than me; I was the cook, he the clean-up crew; I was even the fan of spicy food, Jacques the very wary one. But the gay male interpretation wouldn’t occur to most people.)

The gendering juggernaut rolls on.

Bonus: “The Shredder”. Wayno’s title for #1. From NOAD on the verb shred:

1 [with object] [a] tear or cut into shreds … 2 [no object] play a very fast, intricate style of rock lead guitar: that girl can shred like Eddie Van Halen | [with object] : he really can shred that guitar.

So, nicely combining (a) the well-known inclination of cats (calico or otherwise) to shred the upholstery of furniture with (b) the shredding guitar-playing style of rockers like Metallica.

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