Two exercises in cartoon understanding

From cartoonist Charlie Hankin in the 11/13/23 New Yorker (which has not yet arrived in my mailbox), a big black bird, a writer at his desk, and a penguin. And then today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, with a geneticist reluctant to order fusilli at a restaurant, asking for linguine instead. The first one is pretty easy, so long as you recognize an American poet and his most famous subject. The second is more challenging, requiring that you know about both pasta and genetics, plus a concept that unites fusilli and DNA.

This is another Small Posting Through Pain (see my previous posting, on boletes), which will probably take me several hours to get through, because my poor fingers hurt like hell.

The Hankin cartoon. (Note: there is a Page on this blog about my postings on Hankin cartoons.) The central figure is the writer at his desk. On the left in the cartoon, perched on the desk, there’s a large black bird, possibly a corvid. On the right is the focus of the writer’s somewhat despondent gaze: a penguin clamoring enthusiastically, “Do me next”.

(#1) If you recognize Hankin’s excellent caricature of Edgar Allan Poe, then you’re home free: the bird is indeed a corvid, in fact a raven, and what the writer has just penned is his famous narrative poem from 1845, “The Raven” (if you don’t recognize Poe, then none of this makes sense)

The novel element is the bright-eyed penguin, who seems to be hoping for some fresh hypnotic verse from Poe, along the lines of

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before

but something cheerier, maybe with the refrain:

Quoth the Penguin “Evermore”

Who knows what story the Penguin wants Poe to tell about the lost Lenore, or whether he intends the poet to jettison his dead love entirely, in favor of something more entertaining? Penguins, after all, just want to have fun.

Note: the New Yorker‘s description of this cartoon, which of course gives it all away:

A penguin wants Edgar All[a]n Poe to write about him like he did with the raven.

The restaurant Bizarro. Wayno’s title: “Career-Life Balance”, focusing on the contrast between being a geneticist and enjoying pasta, and downplaying the DNA / fusilli joke that’s the hinge of the cartoon:

(#2) Necessary background: geneticists’ work is based on the DNA molecule, and fusilli is a corkscrew pasta (while linguine is a flat-ribbon pasta) (if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page)

So you need to know those things. And then you need to know what unites these two things: the 3-dimensional corkscrew shape called a helix. Fusilli are helixes, and DNA is a double helix: two helical chains coiled up around each other, each chain composed of four types of neucleotides. Now some details, with informative illustrations.

Pasta screws and pasta ribbons. The restaurant offers the pesto sauce over fusilli, which are corkscrew-shaped: edible helices, as here:


The geneticist diner asks instead for a ribbon-shaped pasta, linguine (thin ribbons, with an elliptical cross-section), as here:


In any case, something not at all helical.

DNA: two helical chains of nucleotides coiled up around each other. A double helix, as here:


The geneticist diner’s attitude appears to be: No Off-Work Helices. You wonder what she does about the many helix-based tools: corkscrews, augers, gimlets, drills, and so on.


6 Responses to “Two exercises in cartoon understanding”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    A geneticist should not confuse fusilli with DNA. The DNA helices are right-handed spirals, while the fusilli in the photo are left-handed spirals. (You could have used Photoshop to reverse the fusilli.)

    Six out of seven human umbilical cords are left-handed spirals. Nobody has any idea why.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    This is profoundly silly. Cartoons use conventions that are entirely unrealistic (talking animals, for example) and each cartoon involves startling divergences from the real world; as, in this case, a penguin — indeed, a *talking* penguin — in Baltimore in the early 19th century. Or the geneticist’s aversion to helices / spirals in bits of food, how utterly unrealistic is that? Surely she can tell the difference between pasta and molecular structures. No doubt she can distinguish handedness in spirals, but her absurd aversion is to helices / spirals in general. In any case, she’s not an actual geneticist; she’s a geneticist in Cartoonland, which is a very different thing.

    • Stewart Kramer Says:

      Of course, it’s there in the name, that fusilli are silly — profoundly, profusely, fully silly fusilli. Google images gave me mostly right-handed fusilli, but the left-handed ones seemed to have green pesto-colored sauce, while rotini seemed to be mostly left-handed regardless of sauce.

      Meanwhile, speaking of handedness, the cartoon of Poe (with pen in his right hand) sparked a dim memory that he was on a list of famous lefties, but the closest I could find was the claim that photos have his hair parted on his right, typical of left-handed combing, unless the photos were flipped (and right-handed people often prefer mirror images of themselves, since that’s what they see every day, so photographers often reversed portraits).

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        I too had a recollection that Poe was left-handed, but could find no mention of this (in an admittedly desultory search).

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        On the silliness of fusilli, there’s the wonderful Charles Barsotti cartoon, which I looked at in my 6/22/14 posting “Charles Barsotti”:

        Then there’s the talking pasta, #1 in [my posting] “New Yorker cartoons” of 1/14/14, which comes with a note on Barsotti. The pasta, apparently penne rigate (a hollow ribbed tube), is saying [on the phone], “Fusilli, you crazy bastard! How are you?”

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        On perceptions of handedness (in spirals or otherwise): I am seriously disabled in spatial relations. On an abilities test in grade school, I came out two standard deviations below the mean, which was troubling to the school, in part because this was taken to be a sign of (abnormal) femininity. (I was at least two standard deviations *above* the mean on all the other sections of the test, which got me labeled as a genius with some fantastically high IQ). Meanwhile, I came to understand that I was pretty much a bust on conventional gauges of masculinity, but that I was not actually feminine; I just had my own brand of masculinity.

        At Princeton, my difficulties with spatial relations, in particular handedness (especially in spirals), made parts of my theoretical physics course difficult, and the topology course in math (my actual major) hellish.

        Meanwhile, in daily life, my problems with handedness are famous among my acquaintances. My guy Jacques was actually able to view my deficiencies without any trace of annoyance or rancor; when I directed, “turn left”, he was able to ask calmly, “Is that your left, or real left?”

        I did have a boyfriend with extraordinary abilities in spatial relations; he could glance at a map and then have a full mental picture of a route. I viewed this as some kind of unfathomable (masculine) magic. Well, a random genetic gift, like tongue-grooving (which I also cannot do).

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