Archive for the ‘Understanding comics’ Category

The elf season

December 1, 2023

It’s December, and as the Christmas elves appear, there comes a startling elfshelfism joke (in abbreviated form), on Facebook today. I got it from Ryan Tamares, who got it from Britannic Xen Osiris Zane, who got it from someone else, and who knows where such memic material originated.

(#1) Yes, Spock on a cock: the science officer of the starship USS Enterprise, riding a monstrously large rooster (across a bleak alien landscape)

To get to the punchline Spock on a cock, you have to recognize the figure of Spock (from popular-culture tv and movie fiction) and also recall that cock — most commonly used for raunchy reference to the penis — is also a somewhat antique or specialist word for a rooster. (As a result, #1 is not only a joke, but also a slightly dirty joke.)

As described in my 12/22/22 posting “Elfshelfisms”, the elfshelfism is a riddle form presented visually, and depends on rhyme (perfect rhyme or half-rhyme), with example punchlines: lemur on a femur, Dolly [Parton] on a tamale, and sonorants on cormorants.


Two exercises in cartoon understanding

November 9, 2023

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.


Two Halloween exercises in comics understanding

October 30, 2023

In this morning’s comics feed, on the day before Halloween, two Halloween-related strips that are also exercises in comics understanding: there are crucial things you must recognize or know if you are to make sense of the strip at all. A Wayno / Piraro Bizarro (a confrontation at the front door that somehow turns on names and relatedness) and a Rhymes With Orange (travelers with a significant road sign). Both presented as single-panel cartoons:


Doctor vs. vampire

October 27, 2023

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.


Two questions about today’s Bizarro cartoon

September 24, 2023

Today’s Piraro-only Bizarro (it’s a Sunday; Wayno’s doing other things) —

The gargantuan chalking project is, it seems, debilitating (if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 11 in this strip — see this Page)

— is comprehensible only if you recognize the huge inert creature in it as the legendary prehistoric ape of a century of film, King Kong; and you recognize the fact that cops are drawing an outline around the creature in chalk as a sign that this is a scene of suspicious death. Kong is not just sleeping in the street, he’s dead; the cops are tracing Corpse Kong.

Two questions then occurred to me, and might well have occurred to others:

Q1: What do you call that chalk outline?

Q2: Just how big is / was King Kong?

Both questions have answers. Both answers are unsatisfying, but in different ways.


The pumpkin spice of August

August 31, 2023

Retailers are rushing the season: while little pumpkins peek out from the ironweed and goldenrod of late summer, the scent of pumpkin spice suntan oil blankets the beaches, heralding a torrent of pumpkin spice lattes soon to be sweeping through city streets. No, it’s not your addled perceptions, it’s an actual thing.

From NBC News, “Autumn arrives earlier than ever for Starbucks and others with pumpkin menu items: The number of limited-time pumpkin launches more than doubled to 86 in August 2022 compared with 2019”, by Amelia Lucas (CNBC) on 8/31:

In most of the U.S., tree foliage is green and temperatures are warm. But for many restaurants and retailers, fall is already here.

Halloween candy and pumpkin spice lattes used to wait until after Labor Day to make their annual debuts, ushering in the start of fall several weeks before the season officially begins. But in the past few years, restaurants and retailers have been releasing their autumnal food and beverages even earlier.

… [But] fear not — plenty of companies are sticking to normal seasonal boundaries.

Reynolds’ Hefty isn’t releasing its cinnamon pumpkin spice-scented trash bags until September.

Below, there will be a brief refresher about the substance and its cartoon career, just so I can replay Bob Eckstein’s charming cartoon about pumpkin cartoon-memes, from last fall; Bob has now turned this into the logo for his newsletter on substack, so I can give you this version:

Three cartoon memes: Seeker and Seer / Wise Man, Sisyphus, Desert Island — see my 11/1/22 posting “Every meme is better with a pumpkin in it”

Suppose I just showed you the first of these, out of the blue, without any background or information (all that stuff I’ve just been feeding you) — a pumpkin on a ledge outside a mountain cave — what would you need to bring to it to understand why I might find it so irresistibly funny that I smile every time I see it, sometimes break into happy laughter?


A composite, please, doctor!

June 2, 2023

Today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, another exercise in cartoon understanding:

(#1) The doctor offers a made-to-order suspect to fit the eyewitness descriptions (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page)

If you don’t  recognize (Gene Wilder’s) Victor Frankenstein and (Marty Feldman’s) Igor here, the whole thing is baffling. (I imagine that the cartoonists figured that Young Frankenstein was something like a core piece of American pop culture, a cultural object that everyone would recognize, needing no further cues or clues to understanding.)

Meanwhile, the comedic premise is a goofy one, that instead of getting a police artist to create a composite drawing of the suspect from eyewitness descriptions, the policeman is soliciting a consummate resurrectionist — a body snatcher who uses body parts to resurrect a composite person, who will serve as a kind of working model of a suspect.


Raisin d’Ȇtre

May 23, 2023

Today’s Bizarro continues the Wayno / Piraro explorations of outrageous puns:

(#1) The title raisin d’être is an extraordinary pun on the French nominal raison d’être (literally ‘reason for being’), but with English raisin [ˈrezn] ‘dried grape’ in the place of French raison [ˌreˈzɔ̃] ‘reason’ (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page)

English [ˈrezn] ‘dried grape’ and French [ˌreˈzɔ̃] ‘reason’ share the initial segmental phonology [rez], but otherwise are phonetically quite distant (aside from being in two different languages) — utterly different prosody (accent + accentless vs. secondary accent + primary accent), with final syllables that share only an element of nasality (syllabic nasal consonant, nasalized vowel).

The basis of the pun, from NOAD:

noun raison d’être: the most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence: an institution whose raison d’être is public service broadcasting. ORIGIN French, literally ‘reason for being’.

What makes the pun so — forgive me — delicious is the fact that French raisin does not mean ‘dried grape’ but in fact  ‘grape’; a raisin in French is a raisin sec (literally ‘dry grape’). French raisin d’être would presumably mean something like ‘grape of being’.

Earlier from Bizarro in the outrageous pun genre, from my 5/21 posting “It’s endive!”: alive [ǝˈlajv] in It’s alive! vs. endive [ˈɛnˌdajv] in the pun, sharing the final segmental material [ajv], but utterly different prosodically (accentless + accented vs. primary accent + secondary accent) and in their initial segmental material ([ǝl] vs. [ɛnd]).

But phonetically very imperfect puns can succeed as jokes if their basis is a well-known formula: a quotation (as in It’s endive!), an idiom (as in raison d’être), whatever.

Stick figure drawing

April 21, 2023

— Wayno’s title for today’s (uncaptioned) Wayno / Piraro Bizarro cartoon, in which Popsicle, Creamsicle, etc. artists gather to draw a model popsicle stick:

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

The cartoon juxtaposes two worlds:

— the world of (what I’ll call) -sicles, quiescently frozen snacks on a stick: ice pops and ice-coated ice cream on a stick (which is conventionally known as a popsicle stick, from its use in making Popsicle® ice pops)

— and the world of life classes, in which artists draw a human figure, traditionally nude, from observing a live model


A toast to Liana Finck

April 8, 2023

… on the occasion of her being among the winners of 2023 fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, announced on 4/5. From the list:

in General Nonfiction: Liana Finck, Writer, Brooklyn, New York; Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of English, Barnard College

LF came to me first as the creator of extraordinary cartoons for The New Yorker magazine; there is a Page on this blog devoted to my postings about these cartoons. But there’s lots more, some of which I’ll cover below, in a somewhat haphazard look at her career. I’ll start with an appreciation of one of her NYer cartoons, in one of these postings, from 10/31/17: “Three kinds of cartoon”:

(#1) Liana Finck in the 5/8/17 New Yorker: two worlds intersect on the street

Christian evangelism meets recycling. To understand Finck’s cartoon … , you need to recognize the formula “Have you heard the good news?” as part of a routine of public evangelism, especially by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, going door to door or appealing to people in public places, including on the street. In an expanded form:

Have you heard the good news (about (our Lord) Jesus Christ)? (He is/has risen (from the grave).)

You also need to recognize the two characters in the cartoon as plastic water bottles — not at all difficult — and — more difficult — also recognize the symbol


as a symbol of recycling, and in addition understand that “recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects” (Wikipedia). That is, in recycling, material metaphorically dies (when it is discarded) and then, if recycled, is reborn — metaphorically rises from the dead.

If you’ve got all that, you can appreciate the cleverness in having evangelical water bottles spreading the good news about how water bottles have been resurrected (via the miracle of recycling).

About LF. A portrait of the artist (born 1986):

(#3) photo: Ilya S. Savenok

Meanwhile, some details of her work on her home page. Among her projects is an advice column, Dear Pepper, maintained on her Instagram page. A recent notice from her there:


And then the books.

— from on A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck (Ecco paperback, 2014); publisher’s blurb:

In an illustrative style that is a thrilling mash-up of Art Spiegelman’s deft emotionality, Roz Chast’s hilarious neuroses, and the magical spirit of Marc Chagall, A Bintel Brief is Liana Finck’s evocative, elegiac love letter to the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants who transformed New York City and America itself.

A Bintel Brief “A Bundle of Letters” — was the enormously popular advice column of The Forward, the widely read Yiddish language newspaper begun in 1906 New York. Written by a diverse community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, these letters spoke to the daily heartbreaks and comedies of their new lives, capturing the hope, isolation, and confusion of assimilation.

Drawn from these letters — selected and adapted by Liana Finck and brought to life in her appealing two-color illustrations — A Bintel Brief is a tour of Lower East Side New York, and includes an imaginative conversation with the Yiddish “Dear Abby,” Abraham Cahan, The Forward’s legendary editor and creator of the Bintel Brief column.

From premarital sex to family politics to struggles with jobs and money, A Bintel Brief is an enlightening look at a segment of America’s rich cultural past that offers fresh insights for our own lives as well.

— on Passing for Human: A Graphic Memoir by Liana Finck (Penguin Random House, 2018), the publisher’s blurb from their site:

In this achingly beautiful graphic memoir, Liana Finck goes in search of that thing she has lost — her shadow, she calls it, but one might also think of it as the “otherness” or “strangeness” that has defined her since birth, that part of her that has always made her feel as though she is living in exile from the world. In Passing for Human, Finck is on a quest for self-understanding and self-acceptance, and along the way she seeks to answer some eternal questions: What makes us whole? What parts of ourselves do we hide or ignore or chase away — because they’re embarrassing, or inconvenient, or just plain weird — and at what cost?

Passing for Human is what Finck calls “a neurological coming-of-age story” — one in which, through her childhood, human connection proved elusive and her most enduring relationships were with plants and rocks and imaginary friends; in which her mother was an artist whose creative life had been stifled by an unhappy first marriage and a deeply sexist society that seemed expressly designed to snuff out creativity in women; in which her father was a doctor who struggled in secret with the guilt of having passed his own form of otherness on to his daughter; and in which, as an adult, Finck finally finds her shadow again — and, with it, her true self.

Melancholy and funny, personal and surreal, Passing for Human is a profound exploration of identity by one of the most talented young comic artists working today. Part magical odyssey, part feminist creation myth, this memoir is, most of all, an extraordinary, moving meditation on what it means to be an artist and a woman grappling with the desire to pass for human.

— Excuse Me: Cartoons, Complaints, and Notes to Self  by Liana Finck (Penguin Random House, 2019): over 500 cartoons from Instagram and The New Yorker

— on Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation by Liana Finck (Penguin Random House, 2022), the publisher’s blurb from their site:

(#5) The book cover

In this ambitious and transcendent graphic novel, Liana Finck turns her keen eye to none other than the Old Testament, reimagining the story of Genesis with God as a woman, Abraham as a resident of New York City, and Rebekah as a robot, among many other delightful twists. In Finck’s retelling, the millennia-old stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and Esau haunt the pages like familiar but partially forgotten nursery rhymes ― transmuted by time but still deeply resonant. With her trademark insightfulness, wry humor, and supple, moving visual style, Finck accentuates the latent sweetness and timeless wisdom of the original text, infusing it with wit and whimsy while retaining every ounce of its spiritual heft.

Let There Be Light is proof that old stories can live forever, whether as ancient scripture or as a series of profound and enchanting cartoons. The Book of Genesis is about some of the most fundamental, eternally pertinent questions that we can ask: What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of our lives? And how should we treat one another? The stories that attempt to answer these questions are an immediate link with the people who first told them. Unable to fathom the holiness and preciousness of that notion, or put it into words, Finck set out to depict it. The result is a true story of creation, rendered by one of our most innovative creators.

Finale. Finck’s quirky sense of humor on display in a NYer cartoon from 2/25/13 exploiting the characteristics of the Slinky toy and the habits of the salmon: