Doctor vs. vampire

A wonderful wordless cartoon by Liana Finck from the 10/30/23 issue of the New Yorker presents a  challenge in cartoon understanding: what do you have to know and what do you have to recognize in the cartoon if you’re going to understand what’s going on in it and why that’s funny?

An intense confrontation between a doctor and a vampire: the doctor seeks to repel the vampire. while the vampire, in turn, seeks to repel the doctor; each is shielding their eyes, to avoid seeing the repellent brandished by the other (the crucifix threatening the vampire, the apple threatening the doctor); the confrontation appears to be a standoff

A full appreciation of this comical Mexican standoff requires that you recognize the two characters, one drawn from the real world, the other from a fictive world of popular culture, somehow (absurdly) joined, indeed frozen, in mortal combat — which means recognizing why the crucifix is a threat to the vampire (this requires your knowing some vampire lore) and why the apple is a threat to the doctor (this requires your recognizing the joke’s inspired mainspring, a subtle pun on a proverb in English).  Truly awesome.

The characters. On the left, a caricature of a doctor, a physician: in a white lab coat, with head mirror, stethoscope, and prescription pad in pocket. Presented as female; in the real world, a fair number of physicians are women (and Finck is entitled to toss in a note of defiant feminism if it suits her; the cartoon is, after all, her creation, so she gets to craft the details).

On the right, a cartoon version of a vampire, the blood-sucking creature of the dark night, from a mythical Transylvania: note the piercing eyes, the pointed tooth, the sharp nose, and the swirling dark cape (he might be a monster, but he’s got style; indeed, he’s fatally attractive, swoon-worthy, especially to women). Presented as male, in the mold of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula as depicted in the classic movies Nosferatu (1922) and (especially) Dracula (1931).

The repellents. On the left, the doctor is wielding a crucifix. Quick summary of ways to deter or repel a vampire: garlic; mirrors and sunlight; a crucifix, holy water, or other symbol of Christian belief (to vanquish and demolish a vampire, more extreme measures are required: notably, driving a stake, especially of hawthorn or ash. through the creature’s heart; or decapitating it and burning the body). The doctor has chosen a crucifix as her vampire repellent, though no doubt her head mirror could also be enlisted in her task.

On the right, the vampire is brandishing an apple. If you don’t get this, the cartoon’s joke is totally lost to you. What you need to pull up here is a familiar proverb in English:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Ordinarily, this is meant as health advice, recommending eating an apple a day as a prophylactic, making the services of doctors unnecessary. In Finck’s cartoon the apple is serving instead as a  kind of doctor repellent, warding off doctors as a menace, keeping them from coming so close as to become a mortal threat. So the apple is a visual allusion to a subtle pun, turning on conveyed meanings.

The standoff. The overarching story is that the confrontation is a Mexican standoff, doctor and vampire holding one another off at just past arm’s length. From Wikipedia:

A Mexican standoff is a confrontation where no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory. Any party initiating aggression might trigger their own demise. At the same time, the parties are unable to extract themselves from the situation without suffering a loss. As a result, all participants need to maintain the strategic tension, which remains unresolved until some outside event or interparty dialogue makes it possible to resolve it.

The term Mexican standoff was originally used in the context of using firearms and it still commonly implies a situation in which the parties face some form of threat from the other parties. The Mexican standoff is a recurring cinematic trope, in which armed characters hold each other at gunpoint.


3 Responses to “Doctor vs. vampire”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Somehow the head mirror continues to be a standard cartoon trope to help identify the wearer as a doctor, but I cannot remember the last time I saw a doctor wearing a head mirror.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, tropes live on even when they have little (or even no) relation to reality. I can dimly remember head mirrors from my childhood — but now, the doctor’s pocket includes a small hand flashlight for shedding light in dark places, like your throat.

      • JBL Says:

        I not only remember my pediatrician wearing one, but I remember his upward pointing lamp (in a reflector) next to my head shining on the head mirror so it reflected light directly into the ear he was poking at.

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