14 December 2006

Reduce. Re-use. Reimburse.

See it here.

In their inimitable way, Burl and Joy transform the environmentalist's credo (Think Globally, Act Locally) into something more aligned with their own outlook (Think Selfishly, Act Selfishly).

Timmy, always representative of youthful hope for the next generation in The Dinette Set, is (as always) having that youthful hope crushed by Burl and Joy. You know when Timmy appears in a panel you're going to come away depressed at the state of humanity, so long as you equate Burl with humanity as the panel asks you to do.

And yet, this particular panel holds out a tiny glimmer of hope. Sometimes people can do the wrong thing for the right reason. It isn't much, but it's better than just waiting around for Burl and his ilk to die off.

Love your marginalia:
  • Ewwwwwwwwww. Joy's shirt. Ewwwwwwwwww.
  • While it may fit in with today's selfish re-use theme, I think the artist would have done well to think twice about Burl's shirt as well. Violating Indian Burial grounds is really not funny when you get right down to it.
  • Can that last item on the sign actual say "parsley container"? I would love it if Marlene actually owned a container specifically for her parsley.

Meta-Post: Again...

God help me, I am off again on yet another trip, starting tomorrow. Hopefully this is the last one until February.

13 December 2006

Burl is what?

See it here.

I'd like to spend this post giving The Dinette Set credit for a level of technical sophistication that most comics don't show. Making a joke of the fact that responding to SPAM, even in an attempt to make it stop, has the perverse opposite effect shows a level of technology awareness that most comics can only dream of.

I'd also like to spend this post giving credit for dovetailing the background with the overall theme, into a seamless commentary on the overload of useless information that is part of life in the Modern World.

I'd like to do that.

But I can't get past the realization that Burl is someone's boss, with all of the horrifying implications that brings.

You've got marginalia:
  • That is a more voluptuous rendering of an obese man's ass than I can actually handle.
  • Rolex stuff?

12 December 2006

Habla Anglais Herr Burl?

See it here.

It's not that surprising to see a topic like English as the national language crop up in a panel which tends to elevate provincialism to an art form.

And yet, as is so often the case, The Dinette Set undermines its own provincialism and raises the overall quality of discourse in the process.

In this particular case, it's impossible to pretend this is a comment on simple-minded xenophobia when Burl himself obliterates the English language with such panache. How can one take him seriously as a commenter on linguistics when Burl fails to recognize that "Flaming Pu-Pu Platter" is not a word, and that it is basically redundant to refer to something as the "only" national language.

We also have to examine how much sympathy we should have for folks who have, somehow, managed to stumble into a Chinese restaurant that does not have bi-lingual menus for native-speaking patrons when you can find restaurants in China with bi-lingual menus catering to travellers.

Finally, in a signature Dinette Set moment of winking acknowledgement, Burl chooses as his example of a word Cinnamon, which is Phoenician in origin. This particular touch completes the panel in so many ways. The xenophobe who is unaware of the origin of the term can hoot in agreement. The person looking for a simplistic joke can assume that "cinnamon" is foreign in origin and chuckle. The erudite reader will understand that they have been gifted with one of the most subtle etymological gags in the daily comics in many years.

Try the Kung Pao Marginalia:
  • I don't know what kind of Chinese food you get in Illinois, but apparently it never involves dessert. (If you follow that link, by the way, you'll find that Chow King has ceased buffet service since November.)
  • The artists' scrawled Chinese is pretty much indistinguishable from the scrawled English that appears regularly.

11 December 2006

The Deciders

See it here.

Under normal circumstances, you might read a line like "May I speak to the decision-maker of the house?" as a ham-handed intro to an obvious joke.

But this is The Dinette Set, and a line of dialog which does not have Mamet-like verisimilitude to normal human speech patterns calls attention to itself and lets the reader know that, rather than being a ham-handed intro, it is part and parcel of the panel's overall theme.

One immediately imagines the telemarketer on the other end of the line, forced to adhere to this awful script through the twin tyranny of an overbearing boss and periodic recording of sales calls. They are allowed no scope for decision-making in their job; that particular power has been denied by corporate overlords.

Enter Burl.

At first glance it seems like the dialog is meant to be ironic. Burl is asking for permission to handle a call intended for a decision-maker; Joy is the decision-maker in this household. And yet, that flies in the face of everything we know about overbearing, domineering, nearly-psychotic Burl's relationship with Joy. Read more carefully, of course, Burl's dialog is elliptical; Burl is making the decision to ask Joy whether she would like the distinct non-pleasure of dealing with a telemarketer. Or perhaps he is making a conscious decision to inflict Joy on the telemarketer.

Either way, it is distinctly unclear if anyone has decision-making power in this family and, by extension, in the world at large. The panel decries the lack of decision-making power we all face as a fact of the Modern Condition. We are all just cogs in an elaborate machine, with no real ability to influence events even within our tiny personal domains.

Or, as stated by the shirt with the world's most succinct recap of one-half the rules of Simon Says: "Simon Says: Do As You Are Told."

Simon Says: Check out the marginalia
  • Warning: Screen door pants on an aging Lothario.
  • Based on the amount of hair, I think the picture on the credenza to the left is supposed to be a young Burl and Joy. Based on the beanie, I think the picture on the right is supposed to be Burl as a youth; admittedly it is not distinguishable from an older Burl in a beanie.

08 December 2006

Hanes Hung by the Chimney

See it here.

On one level, today's installment of The Dinette Set is about the cynicism of age, which can be represented no more fundamentally than through the transformation of Christmas. Anyone who has spent any time with a 4 or 5 year old at Christmas will know that Christmas was once a time of magic, wonder, excitement, and endless surprise.

As we age, Christmas transforms into a time of deepest cynicism. Magic is replaced by loathing for one's relatives. Wonder is transformed into world-weary consumerism. Excitement is replaced with exhaustion and despair. And surprise changes from a positive into a negative. Any gift which comes as a surprise is most likely to find its way back to the store, to be replaced by something we really wanted.

What better way to represent this entire transformation than through the banality of the gift of a sweatshirt whose only remaining surprise will be a 50-50 call on shades of blue? Especially when the friend in the recliner nearby is wearing a shirt indicating it is he, not Jerry, who would most value a Hanes Sweatshirt.

And yet, on another level, The Dinette Set celebrates those among us who are able to remain childlike into our adult years. Jerry - irresponsible, ne'er-do-well, man-child, The Dinette Set's Peter Pan in a bad toupee - chooses to reserve for himself the only remaining surprise afforded him by his cynical friends. His jaunty finger twirl is a clear indication that Jerry, unlike his friends, has not lost his sense of wonder and playfulness.

Merry Marginalia!
  • Burl and Joy own a cell phone?
  • Does that mug say Chickory? It can't really say that, can it? How odd would it be if that was what it actually said? Especially since it is spelled "Chicory."
  • Does everyone in the neighborhood have the same clown painting? Or is this some room of Burl's house we're seeing for the first time?
  • I'm sure there's some joke in the tome sitting at Dale's feet. I know the title says "The [something] Before Christmas" but damned if I can make it out.

07 December 2006

Suburban Nightmare

See it here.

This panel really represents Burl and Joy at their level best, turning a gesture of warmth and welcome into a seething expression of deepest loathing.

But what could possibly be the reason for such hatred and scorn?

As we look down the street, first at Burl's house with its snowman-adorned Winter flag and then at the house beyond with its snowman-adorned Winter flag, the reader must marvel at the apparent homogeneity of the neighborhood. Window, flag, porch, sign...all are in near perfect alignment and agreement. This is suburbia as it is meant to be, no rancor, no clamor, no disagreement. Just perfect and blissful conformity of thought and action.

Into this environment comes an iconoclast, introducing a discordant note into the perfect uniformity and simply begging for retaliation. Based on Burl's math, not only has he left his fall sign up far too long, but he also introduced it far too early as well.

Given this egregious violation of the tacit terms of occupancy for this neighborhood, it's probably worth noting that only the wary-looking neighbor husband seems to appreciate the danger they are in. This act of passive aggressive gift-giving could just as easily have been an act of arson.

Frosty the Marginaliaman:
  • There is no excuse which could possibly justify the neighbor's shirt.
  • To make matters worse, that same neighbor-lady is wearing the dread screen-door pants.

06 December 2006

Equal-opportunity haters

See it here.

Oftentimes, it seems as if The Dinette Set views the world in fairly black-and-white terms. Today's panel is just such an example, setting up an us-against-them paradigm in which the mass of obese people are set in opposition to the lone, obese, vegetarian beatnik.

They are so opposed to his beatnik way of life that they object to fruit's very presence amidst their puddings, jellos, potato salads, and pea salads. Fruit is marginalized in the signeage the way the beatnik consumer of fruit is marginalized by society simply because he is different.

In contrast, we have Burl. A careless reading will miss the fact that Burl states that he is not a vegetarian, but has managed to fill his plate without any meat or fruit. Meaning that his entire plate is filled with vegetables and/or carbohydrates. Burl is closer in spirit to the vegetarian than anyone in the joint, and yet he has nothing but scorn for him.

The lesson, such as it is, is that the majority of people don't really hate others for being different, but rather just for being the "other." The world is filled with equal-opportunity haters who need no reason at all to hate everyone around them.

All you can eat marginalia:
  • What to make of the halo of white surrounding the beatnik? Is it meant to suggest his isolation?His self-righteousness? A lack of artistic ability on the part of the author?
  • Among the mass of unnecessary background detail, the mulleted man in a track suit is my favorite.
  • Is it just me or does Burl's forearm look excessively long?

23 November 2006

Meta-Post: Posting

Thanksgiving and another trip coming up, so the next two weeks will be hit or miss again. Have a great holiday everyone.

21 November 2006

Ye Olde Donut Hole Employee

See it here.

Today's Dinette Set appears to be no more than a disconnected mish-mash of themes.

Visually, the panel clearly deals with issues of obesity, from the protagonists (whose mere presence is an obesity reference), to the donut-shop setting, to the non-gender-specific, but obese, worker bee.

Textually, of course, issues of cleanliness predominate, with sweatshirt and dialog working together in this direction.

Finally, the purpose of the background people, so often a symbol of the hostile world lurking just outside Burl's highly-controlled circle of family, friends, and assorted hangers-on, is somewhat vague.

The fact that these backrgouond people are all white, rather than the standard shadowy-black color, of course, suggests that perhaps we should approach them with the opposite interpretation as we might under normal circumstances. In other words, perhaps they are meant to be the better angels of our nature or of society; good-natured spirits with our best interests at heart.

Working backwards from there, the artists seems to be suggesting that the Donut shop employee is not leaving the wax paper in the sack in as an unconscious custom, but rather in a subtle, yet deliberate attempt to cut down on Joy and Burl's caloric intake.

And suddenly, this disconnected mish-mash of themes coalesces around the single, hopeful image of a passive-aggressive, but well-intentioned, gesture.

Ye Olde Marginalia Shoppe
  • I believe this panel sets the mark for overuse of the phrase "Ye Olde Donut Hole", with 4 appearances in a 400x400 pixel space.
  • The angle at which Pat's plump arm is drawn makes it appear as if it is growing out of her hip.

20 November 2006

Thinking Outside the Box

See it here.

The Dinette Set has a grand tradition of conceptual legerdemain in which the artist deftly pushes the reader's attention in one direction, tantalizing them with the lure of easy interpretation, while leaving the meatier explanations along the path less traveled. It is the equivalent of an Easter egg left for the devoted reader who is able to recognize the signs and follow that less traveled route.

Today's panel is just such a moment. The less careful reader will see naught but a fat joke. But, for those who understand The Dinette Set's sophisticated artistic vocabulary, the abundence of obesity symbolism is only the first indication that perhaps there is more here than meets the eye.

Note the careful juxtaposition within Burl's dialog of a moment of almost incomprehensible lack of perception (he hadn't noticed the bowls were smaller?) and a moment of utterly brilliant problem solving. Rather than overfilling his bowl with a mountain of ice cream or making two trips, Burl solves the problem of his personal Gordian Knot by simply walking 10 feet to grab the desired-sized bowl.

How is it possible for two moments of such diametrical opposition to live together in the same sentence and within the same person? Burl's shirt holds the final piece of the puzzle, hinting that things, such as a man's height, are not always what they seem. The entire panel, therefore, crystallizes into a coherent metaphor for Burl as idiot savant, rather than the boorish narcissist that he merely appears to be.

Soft-serve with free marginalia toppings:
  • Do you think Joy's shirt deliberately leaves off the last 3 letters of "carnival" in order to make a meat-eating joke?
  • I've gone cross-eyed trying to decipher the name on the soup kettle in the background. Anyone got sharper eyes than me?

19 November 2006

Time is on my side?

See it here.

The point of today's panel escapes me, unless it is the rather obvious joke that Burl, Joy, Dale, and Marlene are fish out of water on a college campus (something that, really, goes without saying).

Either that or the artist is making the point that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that Burl won't do strictly because it is free (per his sweatshirt) and he feels he is getting something for nothing.

I wish I could find some deeper revelation in the fact that, for Joy, the passing of fifteen minutes seems like nothing at all. Truth be told, I'd imagine fifteen minutes in Burl's presence would seem like an eternity, so rather than finding deeper meaning, I'm mostly just confused.

Despite the lack of meaningful insight, I feel the need to mention today's panel because think it's important to point out that, grammatically, "the faculty lounge" does not match the pronoun "who."

Over-educated marginalia:
  • Apparently all tour guides/docents in The Dinette Set are conceived of as goateed beatniks. Not that this fact comes as a surprise.
  • What is up with the white shirt/black collar combo? Seems to be all the rage on campus.
  • Not only is the phrasing badly stilted in Dale's dialog, but it ends with an interrobang (?!) Always a sure sign of sophomoric writing.

16 November 2006

Signs and Symbols

See it here.

Without taking the time to verify this, I think this may be the first time in The Dinette Set that neither Burl nor Joy speak. In fact, only one recognizable character speaks, and that is Ma. And, based on her dialog, we are supposed to believe that Ma owns a car, contrary to the mass of visual evidence showing Ma being transported everywhere she goes.

Clearly, then, the artist is telling us that the dialog is the least important aspect of today's panel which, rather obviously, concerns itself with the semiotics of class.

Class struggle is a common theme in The Dinette Set, and usually it is dealt with fairly overtly. That said, class commentary often creeps into the background of The Dinette Set and this panel aims to establish some of the more common semiotic vocabulary of class.

To wit:
  • Rich people wear well-tailored jackets; poor people wear ratty T-shirts.
  • Rich people own clothes decorated with a single tasteful crest over the breast; poor people own clothes with busy patterns of dots, flowers, stripes, and assorted squiggles.
  • Rich people are noticeably svelte; poor people are noticeably plump.
  • Rich people drive cars with automated features; poor people drive cars with batteries that last only one hour.
Sometimes marginalia is just marginalia:
  • They may be poor, but they all drive gas-guzzling monster cars.
  • Is the guy in the CAT cap actually wearing a shirt with French on it?

15 November 2006

The Persistence of Mail

See it here.

A surrealist experiment to liberate the mind of the reader from mundane reality in today's Dinette Set.

Narratively, the reader is challenged by the surreal set-up of today's panel, in which we are asked to believe that the post office's box has become crammed with letters and packages on an utterly insignificant day. Were this 15 April, Mother's Day, or even a date in December with obvious Christmas overtones, the set up might be excused as mere hyperbole. But on 15 November, the notion is simply surreal.

Visually, the reader is challenged by a bumper sticker which, viewed from one's rear-view mirror, will command the driver to "back off" from a car that is behind them. Even the license plate gets into the act, with its plaintive and probing question: RU 4 RL?

In the final brilliant touch, syntax and imagination combine to create an aura of surrealism encompassing the entire world in which the panel is set. Perhaps no phrase in all of English written expression has even been more syntactically surreal than "across the Interstate on the other side of town." And yet, that level of syntactic surrealism is matched by the imaginative surrealism of a town with only two mailboxes, positioned on diametrically opposite sides of town.

To what end is all this surrealist expression deployed? That is not clear, however the completely non-surreal signs littering the panel, which lay out the rules and regulations of an orderly society, and the rather prominent displays of nationalism suggest that the artist is reacting against the restrictions of false rationality, such as social convention, over the instinctual urges of the human mind.

In short, The Dinette Set is advocating for anarchy!

This is not a marginalia:
  • That appears to be Karl Rove going into the post office.
  • Meanwhile, barely visible, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew appears to be coming out!

14 November 2006

Crustwood: The Next Generation

See it here.

It's always a little hard to understand the artist's intent when couples like the one in the background appear, so forcefully do narrative and visual elements work against each other.

One the one hand, we are clearly meant to be uneasy about the over-educated and over-spending East Coast intellectual parents, flaunting their Yale education and their wealth with a Boden sweatshirt and an imported Baby B├Ągo. They aim to make every other parent in the room feel less important through the sheer audacity of teaching their child manners and the alphabet (via the high chair).

On the other hand, next to Burl and his dysfunctional family unit, it's hard not to feel a glimmer of hope for the upcoming generation of Crustwood's youth, given that Patty's chances for happiness and success were thwarted through an accident of birth. Of course, leaving this mouth-breathing community would probably be the best option for both Patty and baby Tommy, but that may be too much to ask.

On yet another hand, given Patty's unnatural devotion to her parents and the fact that Burl's fathering has made her incapable of a fulfilling long-term relationship with a man, the reader can be more hopeful that the Penny's DNA will disappear from the gene pool before it has a chance to pollute another generation. Which is a relief, because Burl's influence meant it was just as likely that Patty could have ended up with 6 kids from 3 divorces before she was 30.

Then again, it looks like the over-educated wife is wearing brass knuckles on her right hand and is getting ready to punch Tommy if he does not say "thank you."

So, all-in-all, I don't know what to think.

Send in the marginalia:
  • It took me a while to pick the baby out of the mess of squiggles in the background table. While searching, I thought it looked like the husband had a tiny, shrivelled right hand (holding the balloon) to go with his wife's clubbed right hand.
  • I'm sure it has always been this bad, but recently the punctuation in this comic is starting to really bug me. Like the poorly-placed apostrophe in husband's and the odd question mark/ellipses combo.
  • Is it just me or is that a scary damn clown?

13 November 2006

The Invisible Hand

See it here.

"If you build it, they will buy it" seems to be the message of today's Dinette Set. How else to explain the manner in which an innocent conversation about overseas manufacturing and economies of scale morphs into an impulse buy?

Joy and Verla, the erudite economists, wrestle with how the manufacturer of the Whatcha-Mu-Callim is able to take advantage of economies of scale while avoiding diseconomies of scale, thus creating artificial demand by dint of sheer volume and visibility at the point-of-purchase.

The excessive abundance of the Whatcha-Mu-Callim is mirrored, syntactically, by an excess of punctuation in the dialog, which features:
  • 3 exclamation points
  • An extraneous comma ("want one, too, for the holidays")
  • The extremely rare exclamation point/ellipses combination.
Burl, on the other hand remains in his role as brainless consumer. Not only is the discussion of economics far beyond his comprehension, he falls for the rather course marketing ploy. He assumes this item, because of its prominent display, must be the accessory all the cool kids will be wearing this Christmas. So Burl purchases one for practically everyone he knows. The only people who will not be receiving one are Ma (not surprisingly) and Dale and Marlene, the neighbors against whom he competes for status symbols and with whom he is locked in a continuing death spiral of acquisitiveness.

The Wealth of Marginalia:
  • Whatcha-Mu-Callims? Why use not the more standard (and phonetically-correct) Whatch-Ma-Callems?
  • What is it with the fake schnozz fascination? E-R-O-X's comment is as just as apropos now: "Who buys previously opened novelty-nose glasses?"

11 November 2006

Sadie Hawkins Hell

See it here.

The Dinette Set has a fascination with Sadie Hawkins dances as a device, although it's usually in the background. I suppose that thought is that the battle of the sexes theme that often permeates the strip is given ironic expression in the role-reversal of a Sadie Hawkins dance. Either that or it provides a chance to give Verla and Jerry's dysfunctional relationship center stage.

For my part, I usually just find it quaint that there is still a corner of the world, apart from high school, where the tradition of the Sadie Hawkins dance appears to exist, assuming that The Dinette Set is a reflection of the world in which its artist lives.

After today's panel, however, I will never be able to rid my psyche of the hellish mixture of Sadie Hawkins and Salem witch trial imagery to which we are subjected today.

The Marginalia Maleficarum:
  • There are! Six exclamation points! In just! Three dialog! Boxes!!
  • The screen door pants get snuck into the background.
  • Satan, or a beatnick, appears to be wearing a "Mae, Go Home" shirt. I don't get the reference.
  • I think one of the bachelors in the background, whose pate is all that is visible behind Jerry's toupee, has hair plugs.

09 November 2006

Word Problems

See it here.

The reader of today's panel is clearly supposed to be lulled into identifying with Patty. After all, Burl and Joy's cheapness knows no bounds, and their intelligence is none too legendary.

But the peculiar phrasing of the dialog, clearly conjuring images of high school algebra word problems, should give the reader pause.

Can we make a value judgment based on the information at hand? Or are we allowing our internal biases to overwhelm our critical faculties?

In fact, for anyone sniggering at Burl and Joy, it is the latter.

We do not know how many gallons of milk Burl and Joy are capable of consuming. We do not know the distance between Crustwood and Chadsworth. We do not know how many miles per gallon Burl's car gets.

Without this critical information, we cannot calculate whether this trip is economically viable or not. And any judgement we make is the product of our prejudices.

So, for those of you who fell for the artist's clever ruse...shame on you!

Two trains leave marginalia station...
  • Look out pinball! The pants are back.
  • The bottom of Burl's door is either a painted decoration or some sort of mirror reflecting the background. The only thing I am certain it is not is a drawing of a set of three-dimensional objects.

08 November 2006

The Red Stain

See it here.

Joy's self-flagellation, punctuated with both an exclamation point and an emphatic use of the word how, offers up a life lesson, courtesy of The Dinette Set: keep things in perspective, focus on what's important and everything else will take care of itself. That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Indeed, the question of how marinara sauce ends up on oneself is rarely worth examining let alone assigning blame. It is, in fact, a property of all red sauces that they end up splattering shirts and blouses. Joy's angry denunciation of her own clumsiness is hardly warranted. (Though the reader could be forgiven for inventing an off-screen tirade from Burl regarding ruining a dress as the root cause, there is no direct evidence of such an event.)

Verl and Ma, unlikely sources of sage advice, point the way for Joy. Focus not on the event, but on the effect. In this case, there is little negative effect and the event even has an unintended positive outcome. Not only has Joy managed to vigorously scrub away the marinara stain, she has even managed to erase a large section of the ugly pattern on her frumpy dress along with it (a detail which is further emphasized by the wall length mirror which removes all color from its subjects).

Certainly, there are overtones in this panel relating to the midterm election and the potential uproar they could create (keeping in mind that the artist submitted this panel weeks before the elections). But given the conjunction of politics and a stained dress, I feel it is better to not delve too deeply into that particular topic.

Marginalia in the mirror:
  • The position of Joy's left hand is really freaking me out.
  • Ma's sailor suit has some pretty unpleasant connotations.
  • I find it interesting that the artist feels compelled to render beams of light coming from the mirror lights.
  • It's not possible that the entire panel is an elaborate set up for a joke about drinking white wine with marinara, is it?

07 November 2006

Democracy Messing with Your Mind

See it here.

If you've been paying attention this week, and I know you have, then I have no doubt that everyone has already figured out what lies at the heart of this particular panel.

We start with the theme of Dale and Burl's patrician cruelty towards and manipulation of Timmy, which has been a fairly common thread in The Dinette Set.

Add the narrative structure which bespeaks promises made and promises broken, plus the intense parsing of language to allow maximum possible flexibility for later denials.

Factor in Burl's role as behind-the-scenes-manipulator, which permeates this panel and most panels that have Dale as their primary focus. Having no heir of his own to torment, Burl must play Warwick to Dale's Edward IV and derive his pleasure from directing Timmy's psychological damage from the shadows, rather than inflicting it directly.

Finally, take in the unambiguous marginalia terms like "spinner," "brain trust," and "polygraph."

Taken together, the artist is once again preparing the American pysche for today's Midterm elections.

The voters have spoken, and they have chosen marginalia:
  • Given the to-do sign and the chairs, I think we can assume we are in Dale and Marlene's house. How convenient that they have the same joke-bearing surfaces (phone with post-it, key rack, to-do list) as Burl and Joy's kitchen.
  • Dale's mug says "Old" something. The last line is cut off by the bottom of the panel, raising the question of why it was included at all.

06 November 2006

Divided we Fall

See it here.

Perhaps predictably, just a few days after warning the reader about the danger of oversimplifying when examining The Dinette Set, today's panel is a case in point. At first glance, the temptation is to simply dismiss it as yet another Ma-in-the-bathroom joke.

But, the dialog is strikingly odd.

You can see the neighbors' living room (and the neighbors can see into the bathroom) but only when the bathroom door is left open. Imagine the freaky Escher-esque architecture that would be required for that fact to be true.

The only possible rational explanation, therefore, is that Ma is mistaking Joy and Burl, sitting in their own living room, for the neighbors while she is on the toilet. Ma's dementia is, of course, nothing new.

What is new, however, is the "trees" picture taking pride of place away from the clown painting.

These facts taken together create a metaphor for the upcoming U.S. Midterm elections. The clown, always a detached neutral observer and commentator is pushed aside by a partisan metaphor in which the forest is obscured by the trees. Ma mistaking her own family for the neighbors is commentary on the sharp partisan divisions within the United States population. And the overarching theme of crapping in full view of the public is about as apt a metaphor for the state of U.S. politics as you are likely to find.

No matter who you vote for, make sure you vote (for marginalia):
  • Exbisition?
  • In fact, from the general appearance of the bathroom, it seems like you would have no choice but to leave the door open since one's legs would clearly be sticking out of the door. In fact, it appears as if the toilet bowl would preclude the bathroom door ever closing.

04 November 2006

Guess Your Intention

See it here.

I don't have time for a full deconstruction, and usually lay off on the weekends. But I just couldn't let this panel go by without a few comments, because it really struck me.

First off, I think a good rule of thumb for any cartoonist would be that if you cannot depict characters which are distinctly in different age brackets, any joke which depends on a disparity of age is a losing proposition. Given that Burl's high school math teacher looks exactly the same age as Burl, the only conclusion I was able to draw was that Burl failed high school so many times that he was the same age as his math teacher when he finally graduated. Which, come to think of it, is not all that implausible.

Second, that big black blob hanging from math teacher's neck is, I know, supposed to be huge wrap-around sunglasses. But it looks like a really saggy bikini top. And that is totally off limits.

Finally, a mechanical scale does not guess your weight. It reports your weight. The grifter next to the scale is the one who guesses your weight.

03 November 2006

Warped Perspective

See it here.

If you read to rapidly, you might be tempted to believe that for the second time in a week, The Dinette Set has ventured into uncharted territory where narrative and visual are working together towards the same semblance of a joke (such as it is).

But the panel is deceiving, deliberately so.

What is so striking about this particular panel is that virtually every detail contains the main thrust (Burl and Joy are gluttonous, obese, and without impulse control) and a secondary odd detail that does not entirely contradict the main meaning, but certainly makes one puzzle over it.

The narrative, for example, leaves out the expected phrase "all-you-can-eat" which is certainly implied by "buffet" but is by no means certain. Also, the idea that even a Chinese buffet lacks dessert items is rather implausible.

Visually, we have:
  • Oreos, curiously owned by "Mom"
  • A shopping list with patently unhealthy food, plus tapioca
  • A sign to call for pizza by 4:00, but no indication why the timing is crucial
  • A sign with a pig and the cryptic phrase "Remember What?"
  • A "Hair of the Dog" mug with a lipstick stain on the rim, but on the side away from which Joy would be using it
  • The puzzling marriage of Pepto Bismol and Hostess Candies on Burl's shirt.
This overall strangeness is reflected in the perspective with which the kitchen is rendered. Are the wall counter, fridge, and pantry doors supposed to be on the same wall? They don't appear to be. The pantry doors appear to be perpendicular to the other two. In which case, the back of the fridge would take up most of the pantry, which would make no sense at all.

In the final analysis, the weight of rather odd detail does not wholly subvert the panel's apparent meaning, as is so often the case in The Dinette Set. Rather, in this case, the artist chides against complacency when reading. Facile examination of the work is to be avoided, lest the reader miss the larger meanings that are usually hidden in the details.

Only 3000 calories per marginalia:
  • Joy's flowery Mu-Mu, while not looking the same, does seem to be a quotation of Homer Simpson.
  • I can't read the label on what (I think) is the soda in the fridge, but if I had to guess I would think it says "7upies" which only makes a little bit of sense.

02 November 2006

Corporate Identity Crisis

See it here.

Just yesterday, Burl and Joy were seeing conspiracies to steal their identity in a novelty store clerk's request to see ID. Today, they see nothing suspicious in a pre-approved credit card with the absurdly low credit limit of $300. In moments, Burl and Joy will fill out the form and mail their personal financial details to a syndicate of Russian mobsters.

What lesson is the reader to draw from this morality play in two parts?

Quite simply, the artist is warning us of the dangers of an increasingly corporate-owned society.

Paranoia regarding a service-sector employee (symbol of the traditional mom-and-pop store) seems to be at an all-time high. Paranoia regarding inscrutable global corporations, however, is inexplicably low. We find ourselves, more and more, handing over personal details to such organizations without knowledge of how it is used, until the laptop storing our personal data is stolen from the back of a car and we hear about it on CNN.

In the final, unspoken, irony the worst fate befalls Burl and Joy if, in fact, the offer is legitimate. In this case they destroy their own credit rating while ending up on countless marketing lists. Six months later the only release from the incessant phone calls from debt collectors and telemarketers will be to reach for the handgun. Which leads us back to Halloween's panel.

With an introductory marginalia of just 19%
  • Why are there two 411 numbers by the phone and no 911 number?
  • Any theories on what "Watch Sweet 16" has to do with the rest of the items on the to do list?
  • The rainbow toilet is an image I could have done without. But since the artist felt compelled to include it, at which end of the rainbow will one find a pot of gold in this case?
Update: Commenter b called my attention to the possibility that Sweet 16 could be a reference to the NCAA tournament. I hadn't considered the NCAA angle. Strangely, that would mesh with the Dee Brown reference yesterday which I suspect is actually a reference to a former basketball player from the University of Illinois and presumably nearby Crustwood, Illinois. I wonder if both these panels were written in March 2006 and trotted out to cover-up a post Halowe'en battle with writer's block or a vacation?

01 November 2006

Identity Crisis

See it here.

Something very odd is going on today in The Dinette Set, but I'm not sure I can put my finger on it.

Narratively, the clerk is making a fairly standard request and Joy refuses to provide personal information, most probably because Burl read something about identity theft in Reader's Digest or TV Guide and has browbeaten her into an irrational fear that her identity will be assumed by an unscrupulous person.

Visually, every inch of the panel features a T-shirt bearing the name of a famous person (with the possible exception of the Big Foot shirt in the back). In a metaphoric sense, every person in the shop has assumed the identity of the celebrity with whom they most identify.

It would appear that both narrative and visual are working together (in manner of speaking) towards the same semblance of a joke (such as it is).

Now that is not something you see every day in The Dinette Set.

Just name, rank and marginalia:
  • I admire the artist's quaint concept of what the average Marilyn Manson fan looks like.
  • Do you think it is too much to hope that Dee Brown refers to the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? Probably so.
  • I'm not sure what, but something is definitely wrong with the shoulder area of that Minnie Mouse T-shirt in the background.

31 October 2006

Trick or Treat?

See it here.

The Dinette Set has something for everyone in celebration of Hallowe'en.

For some, an hilarious treat in which Burl comes face-to-face with his own mortality, though obviously this is one of his friends playing a joke. Fans can flood the Dinette Set forums with speculation about which of Burl's prankster friends is under the sheet.

For others, a frightful trick in which Burl comes face-to-face with his own true mortality. This is a harbinger of the future, come to offer Burl one last chance to amend his ways before the grim specter of death calls him home.

For the remainder, an impossible dream in which the artist announces her intention to kill off Burl, and with him the comic strip, and then retire. Dare we dream?

Smell my marginalia:
  • Joy is so startled by this apparition that she has 4 separate indications of her fear: a pair of head bobble lines, a hand bobble line, and candy falling like sand in an hourglass.
  • Interestingly, the pumpkin face that was on their front door just yesterday is gone.
  • The artist aims one at commenter Pinball, for whom Joy's pants must be a nightmare.

30 October 2006

Torch Song

See it here.

Hmm, I picked the wrong day to come back.

Today's Dinette Set is a singularly puzzling panel. In a strictly narrative sense we have an unfamiliar neighbor leaning on the car, begging for a ride. Burl informs the man that they are going exactly where he is going, and that he may join them. Dale adds the neither helpful nor humorous capping comment that they must stop for gas along the way.

Searching for humor, the reader is given two potential options. Perhaps we are meant to focus on the obesity/laziness angle playing out in leaning man's gym bag and the fact that a carful of men are driving, rather than walking, to a rec center just a few blocks away. Alternately, perhaps we are to marvel at the energy inefficiency of driving "just down the next block over."

Unfortunately, either way there's not much in the way of a joke going on, meaning that something else must be going on, subtextually.

The only conclusion I am able to draw on that score is based on several rather odd details coupled with the big black car. The first is the pumpkin face, conspicuously visible due to the strange perspective at which the house is drawn. Second is the large and menacing pair of bolt cutters in the garage. Third is the concept of a wrestling league for men Burl's age.

From all of this, the reader can piece together a hidden narrative involving the wrestler being a bully or homoerotic threat in the locker room. Burl and his posse, always up for a spot of gay-bashing, decide to pick up their nemesis in an intimidating black sedan. Instead of going to the rec center, however, they will be driving to the gas station, and then out to the woods where the bolt cutter will be used to remove all fingerprintable digits while the gas will be used to torch any potential evidence.

I feel safe saying there can be no other possible interpretation.

Men's all-star marginalia team members:
  • What the hell is going on with the left rear tire? Why is it outside the wheel well?
  • Is that leaf thing an elaborate hood ornament or some sort of plant growing near the light? It looks like it is attached to the front of the car.

16 October 2006

Meta-Post: Schedule

The next two weeks will be hit-or-miss. I have to plan for and then do some travel. I will do my best to post whenever I can.

13 October 2006

Super-size us

See it here.

At first glance, it is tempting to throw one's hands into the air and declare today yet another thematic repeat of the past two days, emphasizing Burl's extreme cheapness through the device of a pair of free Meal Deals.

Tempting, but in classic Dinette Set fashion, the inherent tension between dialog/narrative and artwork leads to the larger truth if you are willing to peel away the layers of the onion and discover what lies inside.

The reader's attention is quickly drawn to a seemingly extraneous detail, the gender of the person at the window. Joy's dialog clearly indicates that she is female. The drawing is much less definitive on this point, although to be fair, it may be asking to much to identify his/her gender, given that it is not possible to even identify what s/he is supposed to be doing.

The simple presumption is that s/he is trying to get Burl and Joy's attention to let them know s/he gave them extra Meal Deals. Probably Meal Deals belonging to the sinister shadowy figure piloting the battleship-sized vehicle blotting out the sun behind Burl and Joy and threatening to run them off the road should the truth be discovered.

But the sign on the front of the establishment belies that interpretation. It clearly states that if you buy one Meal Deal, you get one free. So, suddenly, it becomes conceivable that Burl and Joy actually got what they ordered: two Meal Deals, and two free meal Deals. At which point the employee is, instead, trying to warn them that they have forgotten the 72 oz. drink that comes free with every Meal Deal.

And so, with an almost Socratic pedagogy, the panel leads the reader, step-by-step, to the more global commentary. In its avuncular way, The Dinette Set delivers a gentle tsk-tsk regarding the excesses of life in America, with 5,000-calories-per-day diets and 5-gallons-per-mile autos.

Would you like marginalia with that?
  • I would love to give credit for the clever Einstein reference "MC2", but I'm at a loss to explain how Special Relativity bears on today's panel. And an bad pun about Einstein is still a bad pun.
  • The neckline of Burl's shirt can only be described as "plunging" if I am seeing it correctly. It is possible that I am not seeing it correctly, however, due to the choice to make the shirt out of horizontal stripes against the backdrop of vertically-striped seat upholstery.
  • Burl's head is swivelled 180-degrees to talk to Joy, who is 90-degrees from him. Do you figure Dale and Marlene are in the back seat?

12 October 2006

Cheapness: Redux

See it here.

Let me see if I can summarize my feelings about today's panel succinctly: This is the exact same joke as yesterday.

Admittedly they moved to a different store to shop for Britta's birthday present. They picked up Verl somewhere along the way. They are shopping in some sort of "secondhand crap" store rather than a book store. The density of marginalia is far lower. The words are different. The picture is different.

But none of that can alter the fact that today's panel is 100% redundant with yesterday's.

Perhaps the artist sent two panels to the syndicate and asked them to pick the one they liked best, but they misundersood and published them both on consecutive days.

Perhaps this is an intellectual exercise wherein the reader is supposed to compare and contrast the two panels and draw a larger conclusion from their similarities and differences.

More likely, this is either a bankruptcy of new ideas or a completely unnecessary strengthening of an already pervasive theme, Burl's cheapness. I'll let the reader decide for themselves which explanation they favor.

The names of the marginalia have been changed to protect the innocent:
  • As if repeating the same panel were not enough, Joy's "Buy One Get One Free" T shirt makes a comeback, which is something I am sure none of us ever wanted to see again.
  • The Holy Grail appears to be on the shelf in the back, just below the ceramic elephant.

11 October 2006

Putting out the trash

See it here.

In general, today's panel lacks a unified concept to draw what is, even by Dinette Set standards, a very busy panel into a single unified whole. The best that can be said about it is that the garden-variety Dinette Set cheapness joke is deployed as a foreground for a trash-dumping exhibition of book title marginalia ideas that, for whatever reason, could find no other home.

In general, the jokes fall into one of a few categories:
  • Jokes at the expense of the cultural elite: such as David Sedaris' Barrel Fever, The Devil Wears Hanes, Told By An Idiot.
  • Jokes at the expense of the nearly illiterate: Full House: the Best 41 TV episodes, Reading Books for Dummies, Biography of The Olsen Twins.
  • Jokes that should have been reconsidered: C is for Cheap, Reading Books for Dummies, The Little Ice Age.
The New York Times Best Marginalia List
  • Da Cubs? I assume that's a reference to the decades old "Da Bears" SNL joke? The point, however, escapes me.
  • Whatever Joy's shirt is supposed to say, the last three letters of the cut-off word appear to be "THF". Off the top of my head, I can't think of a word that ends "THF".

10 October 2006

Another outbreak

See it here.

Dear lord, what is going on in Dinette Set land?

This marks two panels in under a week which are brazenly dealing with age, the erotic, and the erection.

Big and small for ladies, the Jolly Green Giant, up and down male symbols, the movie Cocoon. Even worse, in the portrait atop the TV, Burl appears to have sprouted a vintage 70's porn 'stache.

And this time they have the temerity to drag Carey Grant's good name into their sickness. I imagine his estate will be looking to sue.

Once again, CDC guidelines are in effect, so if you have been exposed, even mildly, claw your eyes out and seek out the most potent sedative you can find.

09 October 2006

Where's the beef?

See it here.

The Dinette Set explores the awesome power of Madison Avenue to shape public perception and the pervasiveness of that power.

It starts with the appearance of an article in a magazine regarding GM cars. The article, of course, is ostensibly an independently-penned piece, but in fact is more likely the product of a collaboration between the two companies' PR departments. All of which is a clever critique of the conglomeration of advertising and traditional media (or in this case the semi-traditional tabloid media) into a single, vertically-integrated, advertising one-stop-shop.

From such a tiny acorn sprouts an instantly mature oak of doubt in Burl's mind regarding the attractiveness of his own GM vehicle. The panel limits itself to Burl's rather impotent outrage at his local GM representative. But the author's clear intent is to suggest that, within a week, Burl's doubt will have transformed into desire, and Burl will replace his perfectly serviceable vehicle with a new one, guaranteed to not be ugly.

Furthering the overall effect, examples of "putting lipstick on a pig" as metaphor for advertising litter the walls. Alongside them are brazen example of product placement with brand loyalty implications. But the most stunning example of the power of marketing is reserved for the coffee cups, which effortlessly reverse Burl and Joy's gender, using only a text label.

I can't believe I ate the whole marginalia:
  • Talk about putting pressure on yourself, the brand name "Excellent Cookies" would really limit your options.
  • Ding Dongs, of course, require no marketing. They are, after all, Ding Dongs.

07 October 2006

The truth is out there

See it here.

An interesting subject gets examined in today's Dinette Set, which is the growing tendency in American society to utterly ignore Occam's razor: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity).

In more popular form, Occam's razor is usually understood to mean that the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation. Or, as Wikipedia says: "when multiple competing theories have equal predictive powers, [select those which] introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest hypothetical entities." And Wikipedia is never wrong.

When confronted with crop circles, there is a single rather obvious potential answer--that they are a hoax-- which requires only a belief in a single entity (hoaxers) and two assumptions (they can create crop circles
and keep it a secret). Of course that does not stop a large number of people from violating Occam's Razor and favoring the explanation that they are the work of aliens, which introduces a much more complicated set of entities and assumptions.

And then there is Burl--the American Everyman. When asked for his opinion, Burl goes even further and posits a massive global cover-up and hoax perpetrated by every media outlet in the world who has agreed to publish these faked photos (and videos) while ignoring the fact that the actual physical sites are devoid of crop circles. All without a definable benefit, unless you count residuals for repeat showings of Ripley's Believe it or Not.

At a time when almost 50% of Americans believe in ghosts and when only Turkey (among 34 surveyed nations) has fewer people which believe in evolution than the United States, it is clear that The Dinette Set is making a brave and principled comment on a controversial issue: the willingness of the American population to believe convoluted explanations for rather simple things.

Scientists doubt the existence of marginalia, but here is the proof:
  • I have never seen it, but The Reluctant Astronaut is on-point, and a Don Knotts reference to boot. How much more could you ask for?
  • I'm going to guess that Burl's cup is meant to be an ironic suggestion that his rampant imagination is caffeine-fueled and he ought to switch. Alternately, it is saying that 100% caffeine-free coffee is a myth. I can't be bothered to look up information on that last supposition. But I am sure more information on 100% caffeine-free coffee may be found on the internet.
  • Could Joy's cup be a reference to Apollo landing hoax theories? The truly bold step would have been a Bart Sibrel reference.

06 October 2006

Fight the power!

See it here.

The county fair is a deeply contradictory symbol of American rural life.

On the surface, the mere thought of a county fair conjures up the halcyon days of childhood cotton candy binges (which eventually result in adult onset diabetes) and the first early fumblings of independence and sexuality of early adulthood's group dates. A wonderland of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, the county fair is a miniature traveling version of The Happiest Place on Earth.

And yet, there is always the dark underbelly to consider. Toothless carneys serving ptomaine-ridden fried food from food stalls and operating unmaintained death-traps masquerading as rides, always leaving town one step ahead of the health and safety inspectors. Booth games, whose origins are unabashedly rooted in graft, openly fleece pigeons who believe they can win the giant panda for their sweetheart, be they daughter or date. And pricing that would force Bill Gates' family to limit their activity.

This dichotomy is the artist's clear intent in setting the panel at the county fair and on a death trap of a ride. That is as far as it is possible to divine intent, however, if we examine the panel in traditional fashion by examining the narrative and dialog literally.

What Burl and Jerry's oblique discussion of ski lifts would have to do with any of this, is unclear. For that matter, what Burl's supposition that Jerry would have lost one of his skis while riding the lift is meant to signify is mystifying. Likewise, why any of this would be considered funny is similarly shrouded in mystery.

But if we examine the entire panel as a meta-comical commentary on the bittersweet existence of a syndicated cartoonist, it suddenly becomes clear. The dialog is not meant to be read in traditional narrative fashion. Rather it is a punchline-free tone poem underscoring the artist's protest at unreasonable deadlines imposed by syndicate overlords.

Power to the people!

2 bucks for three shots at the marginalia!
  • Are we supposed to be in Branson, Missouri, Village of the Damned? Or is this the traveling Branson Experience?
  • Jerry appears to be wearing very effeminate loafers.

05 October 2006

This panel has been quarantined

See it here.

I wish I could tell you that there's some deeper meaning to be gleaned from today's panel. But, sadly, it is exactly what it appears to be, a thinly-veiled discussion of Viagra-fueled sex between the aging Dinette Set characters.

I am now going to follow CDC guidelines for anyone who has come into contact with this particular panel, which involves clawing my eyes out of their sockets and drinking until the memory of the panel is erased from the conscious mind.

If you've been exposed, I suggest you do likewise.

04 October 2006

You've come a long way Burly

See it here.

Today, narrative and visual elements do battle, with the end result a panel which is significantly more than the sum of its parts.

The narrative revolves around Burl not showing proper chivalry or perhaps civility at the door to the cineplex. The clear intimation is that Burl should be a nice guy and help hold the door while allowing others to enter first. Burl's riposte is the first clue that the panel is working at something deeper than this simplistic gag, however. In fact, read carefully, Burl is being fairly pragmatic. If everyone held the door, he sagely points out, we'd all be standing outside.

The visuals make one feeble attempt to amplify the surface gag, adding a rainstorm to heighten the urgency of getting inside and the nobility of the man holding the door. But, as we have seen in a previous panel, no one is yet getting "soaking wet" according to the artist's shorthand. So this small detail is easily overlooked as an artistic red herring.

Rather, what the visuals strongly enforce is that Burl is taking his appropriate place in the line, allowing the two ladies he and Dale are accompanying to enter first. The visuals make it clear that any other expectation is unreasonable. Clearly no more than one person is required to hold the door. And, by setting the panel at the movie theatre, it is made clear that Burl should not realistically be expected to allow the entire line to enter before him, lest he not find a seat at his desired movie.

Furthermore, for all his noble talk, Dale is acting no more chivalrously than Burl.

In the final analysis, the panel examines the confusing role of the male in a post-feminist era. What exactly is the role of the male supposed to be? What are the boundaries of acceptable behavior? How can a male, especially one of Burl's generation, straddle the line between excessively infantalizing the female of the species and treating them with proper respect? As is typical of The Dinette Set, the panel raises questions, but leaves it to the reader to come to their own conclusions.

Sir Walter Raleigh laid his coat across the marginalia:
  • Is it just me or is the man holding the door rather confusingly similar in appearance to Dale?
  • Wouldn't a movie theatre tend to have an automatic door?

03 October 2006

Just desserts and tragic irony

See it here.

Usually when The Dinette Set makes the decision to challenge conventional conceptions of the purpose of a comic, most often by refusing to include elements which would be recognizable as traditional forms of humor, it does so for the purpose of elevating the art form to explore and ennoble the human condition.

Not so today.

Today The Dinette Set explores the darker side of human impulse. Clearly emboldened by the rather effete image of the service person on the outside of the van, Burl and his posse engage in a bit of gay-baiting. It starts with Jerry, whose own heterosexual masculinity is re-affirmed by both shirt and arm hair, engaging in a bit of sing-song taunting and ends with Burl's rather clumsy, but obvious, Jaccuzi-based sexual come-on.

As is always the case in The Dinette Set, however, the universe retains its moral center and will engage in a bit of punitive bashing to set things right. One can only imagine the carnage which occurs in the next few moments as the psychotic-looking repair man, adorned with crudely rendered "prison tats," shoves his toolbox deep within one of Jerry's orifices before eviscerating Burl with one of the knives the van indicates he carries.

Dale alone will escape, ironically screaming with girlish horror as he flees the scene.

All the detectives found was a pool of blood and the following marginalia:
  • Interestingly, the psychotic repair man, despite having motion lines near his head, appears unable to swivel his head a full 180 degrees.
  • One wonders why the artist chose to make the back window of the van out of opaque glass.

02 October 2006

It takes a global village

See it here.

Today's Dinette Set is a deliberately disorienting experience. Throughout the entire panel, questions fly at the reader fast and without answer. Who are the Voyd's and why do they need sympathy? Why is it easiest for Burl to put the letter in their mailbox on his way to work rather than doing it right away? If they can put it in the mailbox, why don't they just visit them and deliver it in person? Where does Joy believe they live? Where do they actually live? How did the Voyd's move across town without Joy and Burl noticing?

This last question is the only one with a fairly obvious answer. Anyone living in close enough proximity to Burl and Joy that they could hand-deliver mail would be expected to sneak away in the middle of the night without leaving a forwarding address.

Most curious, however, is the circular nature of the narrative. We start with a declaration that it is easiest to hand-deliver the sympathy card to the Voyd's mailbox. Verl does what she can to introduce a complication, the fact that the Voyd's have moved across town. But we end, essentially, right back where we began. Burl goes right by the Voyd's house on his way to work, making it only marginally less convenient than it was originally.

Which is the crux of the panel's commentary. The world is shrinking into a global village where physical distance is irrelevant. Conceptions of what makes someone a neighbor are changing along with the technologies which have caused the world to shrink. Examples stuck amongst the marginalia in support of this daring proclamation are luminaries such as the USPS, the grapevine, and Sprint Messenger Service.

The only marvel left in the panoply of marvels would be the knowledge that Burl and Joy have actually heard of instant messaging. So much so that one suspects "Sprint Messenger Service" is just an unfortunately fictitious name for an an actual physical messenger service. I say "unfortunate" because today, of all days, would be the single worst in which to make an IM joke.

You have marginalia:
  • The sheer load of marginalia devoted to jokes about mail makes one suspect The Dinette Set harbors some sort of grudge against the post office or was outraged by the latest postal rate increase, whenever that happened. I find it hard to believe anyone thinks about the post office that much or mails enough letters for postal rates to matter.
  • Anyone want to hazard a guess what the "to do" item crammed between the dialog balloons is supposed to say. For that matter, how about the 411 post-it.

01 October 2006

Mother Earth fights back

See it here.

Read rapidly, this panel might pass for a simplistic joke regarding Joy and Burl's infantile inability to postpone gratification of their desires, despite a downpour. Alternately, it could also be read as a joke regarding their cheapness: they are going to get their money's worth from their car rental, even to the point of their own discomfort. Possibly, it could be read as a selfish and narcissistic commentary on the fact that they do not care what damage they inflict on the rental car.

But none of those reading can explain the black stains covering their shoulders and Burl's pants. It's tempting to convince oneself that this is how the artist chooses to represent the state of being "soaking wet." But that would assume a level of artistic capability bordering on the pre-K level.

Instead, we have to understand that this is cleverly-intended symbolism. This particular torrential downpour is not made of rain, but crude oil, brilliantly recalling the gusher scene from Giant. The earth, under siege from human activity, largely as a result of burning fossil fuels, is fighting back.

Black gold, Texas marginalia:
  • Any guesses on what Dale's shirt is a reference to? I suppose it could be a reference to the Fila apparel brand. I wouldn't put something like that past The Dinette Set, though it's a hell of a stretch.
  • It looks like they rented a Hummer convertible.
  • The position of the two doors does not easily explain why Joy is so far into the room that she has to do the owl-head thing, but Burl is still stuck outside.

29 September 2006

The post-modern Everyman

See it here.

The composition and content of today's panel is extremely interesting. Most interesting is that the central figure is not our protagonists, Joy and Burl, but instead is the ticket window patron, who is devoid of facial features, a clearly deliberate quotation of Magritte's The Son of Man, symbol of the lonely anonymity which occurs because humans refuse connection with one another, preferring to be solitary, even when in plain sight: "Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well." In a panel with significant baby imagery, this man must symbolize the Son of all Mankind, in essence the post-modern Everyman.

The rest of the figures in the panel are only important insofar as we can learn from their interaction with the post-modern Everyman.

Burl and Joy, in virtual unison of gaze and posture, glare in consternation at this enigmatic symbol. Their mode of interaction with the world involves constant hostility and an assumption that every inconvenience is a deliberate and personal affront. In a world lacking meaningful social interaction, they have gone to a strangely opposite extreme and assigned every shred of interaction a narcissistically excessive amount of meaning. Burl, the infant-in-adult's-clothing, is the mouthpiece for this world view, lacking the impulse control necessary to keep his thoughts to himself.

The mother of the baby and presumed wife of the post-modern Everyman has jerked her head a clear 180 degrees in anger at Burl's comment. This head-swiveling ability, which appears to be common in The Dinette Set's universe, is an animalistically maternal response to a perceived threat to her infant, though ultimately impotent. More importantly, however, she is taking this action in favor of responding to the very real cries of her infant, whose desperate needs go unfulfilled while its parents attempt to sedate themselves with the latest entertainment offering from the mass media.

In the background we have a solitary figure standing out against the other shadowy background figures. He is slyly and voyeuristically enjoying the conflict, but refusing to be drawn into it.

When everything is placed together, this panel clearly bespeaks the profound and growing dehumanization of the post-modern existence.

Hidden behind the four walls of our houses and fenced off from our neighbors, our lives are devoid of contact with the community of Man. We've traded non-interactive entertainment, such as movies and television, for direct human contact. What contact the post-modern Everyman does engage in is done anonymously, voyeuristically, and within a space with dubious impulse-control rules, such as the Internet.

The end result, the panel surmises, is a rending of the social fabric which will eventually become so acute that, among other things, human parents will lack the necessary instinct to even care for their young.

Surrealist marginalia:
  • If you look closely, I believe the infant in line is actually the infant star of Look Who's Talking Again, despite the fact that the artist has cleverly tried to mask the difference with a hilarious false moustache.
  • Sam's Club has a family crest?

28 September 2006

Death ride

See it here.

The Dinette Set, as is its wont, takes the road less traveled, eschewing banal conventionality, like humor, in favor of exploring the deeper and more poignant mysteries of the human soul.

Ostensibly a panel about Timmy's new bike and the disastrous consequences which accrue when Dale attempts to take it for a spin, what we actually have is a parable about accepting age with dignity. Dale commits the elemental mistake of attempting to relive his youth by taking the first turn on Timmy's bike and finds himself hurtling towards a strangely empty white space in the panel.

Towards the void, if you will.

The bike at once becomes a figurative and literal death ride, hurtling out of Dale's control towards his own death. In the most optimistic scenario, the panel is entirely metaphoric and speaks to the need to accept the slow descent towards death, rather than hastening one's demise through age-inappropriate thrill-seeking behavior. More disturbingly, the reader must face the possibility the panel is not a metaphor and we are witnessing the moment just before Dale's horrific and fatal bike accident scars Timmy for life.

Whatever the actual answer, a part of me believes this panel is The Dinette Set's homage to Mary Worth's recently departed and irreplaceable stalker-in-Captain-Kangaroo's-clothing, Aldo Kelrast.

27 September 2006

The long goodbye

See it here.

Ma Penny has long been The Dinette Set's most tragic character, hounded as she is by the specters of death and dementia. And today's panel examines what it is like to live in Ma's world.

Her home, which I believe we are visiting today though that is pure speculation, is a clear metaphor for a failing mind. She cannot remember her own daughter's phone number, yet takes the time to commemorate that fact in writing on the wall. She has lost her car keys. And she has forgotten to fill in her own mnemonic device, despite its massive size and prominent placement.

Narratively, Ma mistakes the salad spinner for a serving dish, or possibly an implement intended to distribute salad dressing, clearly a sign that she is in need of assisted living.

This appears, on the surface, to be an incredibly simple joke. And yet, paradoxically it doesn't work, which is the author's clear intent. The key is the deliberate and conspicuously imprecise use of the word "tossed." On one hand it is brilliant because of its pun-like quality and could add to the joke. But on the other hand it causes the reader to wonder if, perhaps, the panel's meaning runs much deeper than is evident on the surface. Should we be looking for puns or double-entendre visually as well as verbally? Is the meaning actually something beyond what we are seeing on the surface?

Once the reader starts down this path, we are given a chance to experience what it is like to be Ma, trapped inside a failing mind which cannot make sense out of even the simplest things.

I can't remember where I left the marginalia:
  • Looks like Ma broke out the fancy, and I mean fancy in a jewel-encrusted way, goblets for Joy and Burl.
  • A good rule of thumb would be: if you can't draw salad on Burl's fork that is distinguishable from a mass of squiggles or a pair of busted eyeglasses, then you'd be better off not drawing them at all.

26 September 2006

Be right back

A second post today because commenter treedweller requested that I take a peek at this panel from 23 September, 2006.

I admit that this panel does pose significant interpretive issues. For starters, it brazenly defies conventional wisdom which says that comics should have an identifiable narrative or joke, and preferably both.

At base, we have a man using a laptop computer, and Burl is reading off his screen the chat shorthand "B-R-B" and asking what it means. The natural assumption is that Burl is being rude in reading the man's screen (reinforced by the sly smiley face on his T-shirt). The man, therefore has suspended his activity and told the person on the other end of the conversation that they will "be right back" in order to deal with Burl.

Of course, that reading suffers from several problems, the central being that it is not funny in any way generally understood by homo sapiens. Beyond that, typing "brb" assumes a two-way instant communication connection, which would require an internet connection, which may be available in train stations but not (so far as I know) on trains themselves.

And so, having determined what the panel is not (funny or narratively sound), we can actually pierce the fog and determine what it is, which actually turns out to be very simple.

The single most prominent detail is the word "Dell" which is conspicuously framed inside a white expanse which is purportedly the laptop's cover. Also conspicuously, no attempt is made to mock the laptop's brand, such as terming it "Dull".

And so, we are left with only one reasonable explanation. Dell Computers, for reasons passing understanding, paid an enormous amount of cash for product placement within The Dinette Set and this is what they got.

Visit the marginalia's Facebook page:
  • American Tourister also seems to have paid for placement, though obviously not as much as Dell.
  • Is it just me or does the "car may be disengaged" warning read like a tasteless Amtrak derailment joke?

Bewildering freedom of choice

See it here.

After spending almost two months contemplating how best to address the subject, The Dinette Set finally gets around to using the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman as a springboard for a sweeping lament about the state of US politics.

Political campaigns are no longer discussed in terms of issues, the panel clearly suggests. Instead, the entire focus is on the who's-up-who's-down of the horse race. Polling used to be a reactive glimpse at the voter's state of mind regarding the virtue of a candidate's positions relative to his opposition. Now polling has assumed a leading role in defining the actual value of a candidate. So much so that polling data can actually depress voter turnout and decide elections.

Furthermore, personal connection with candidates has been eliminated in the post-television era of large media conglomerates. Everything which is known about any given candidate comes from those 3-second sound bites which are deemed entertaining enough to take time away from reportage on American Idol. And, just as the TV Guide can be trusted to define the hot shows (saving us the trouble of deciding for ourselves), those sound bites which make the cut must pass through the filter of a talking head who will save the populace the trouble of distilling information for itself.

Once the panel is closely examined, the reader cannot help joining with Joy's shirt in the belief that the entire exercise is a bunco swindle in which we, the people, are persuaded to buy worthless candidates who are, ultimately, Kinko's copies of one another.

You can fool some of the marginalia some of the time:
  • I'm struggling to identify the significance of Marlene's bathing wear.
  • I'm also struggling to read the bottom lines on Jerry's shirt and Burl's cup.

25 September 2006

A private matter

See it here.

I'm back from vacation, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And to greet me, The Dinette Set examines our sense of personal security and privacy.

Joy stands, as naked as anyone could possibly tolerate, in front of a window which affords a view out onto the world but also allows the world to peer into her house. While she looks through the blinds, the neighborhood has a clear view of her bare midriff sandwiched between a sturdy brassier and a comfortable pair of underwear. And, in a delicious meta-theatrical irony, the reader has a perfect voyeuristic vantage point from within her own house, unimpeded by even a small amount of Venetian blind.

It's not clear what, precisely, this metaphor speaks to. Certainly it could be a general comment about the Internet, which enables unprecedented access to information but also imposes serious risks to one's personal security if not careful (or if AOL publicly publishes your search history). Possibly it expresses a more topical concern regarding the trade-offs of the NSA wiretapping program which violates civil rights while purporting to provide additional security against external threats. It could be a more general commentary and not related to anything specific.

What is perfectly clear, however, is how Joy chooses to deal with the insecurity of living in the modern world: she ignores it completely pretending instead that she is perfectly safe. She hides her head behind the Venetian blinds of life, preferring to believe herself and her privacy secure against all evidence to the contrary, such as the all-too-evident open window just inches below her eyeline.

Pay no attention to the marginalia recording your conversation:
  • Burl's reaction to all of this is strangely paradoxical. On the one hand his posture indicates an airy lack of concern. And yet, if my eyes do not deceive me, he has concern lines radiating from his forehead. Either that or his Spidey-sense is tingling.
  • Please, God, tell me that dark patch on Joy's underpants is not an Xtreme skid mark.

20 September 2006

Super-size us

See it here.

I am in a rush today (still on vacation), and so all I have time for (without incurring the wrath of loved ones) is this:

Appalled as I am at the fact that poor Timmy has been left in Burl's care, I am at least grateful that Burl and Joy removed the S&M spikes from their kitchen chairs to protect the child from injury during his indentured servitude.

This small act indicates some capacity for personal growth on the part of Burl and Joy, a capacity which is mirrored by their capacity for weight gain as a result of over-indulging in french fries.

19 September 2006

Unrequited...uh...something

See it here.

On the surface we have a fat joke, to wit: Joy's neck is too fat for the necklace to reach around. But bubbling below the surface, we have a panoply of symbols reflecting the state of Burl and Joy's relationship.

Burl, for example, has long since ceased to see their relationship as anything beyond a convenience borne of dependencies. His shirt could obviously be a reference to his belief that he had a hand in Patty's upbringing, a claim which is probably dubious. More likely, however, it is a reference to his having long since retired any feelings of care towards Joy.

More poignant is Joy's not-so-secret wish for Burl to view her as an object of desire, as expressed by her shirt's brazen declaration that her breasts can be "bought" (and rather cheaply at that). Long gone are the days (if, indeed, they ever existed) when Burl might give Joy a present in the hopes of attaining physical requitement from her. Why exactly Burl has given Joy a present is not the subject of the panel, though it is safe to assume that the reason is entirely perfunctory. No matter how much Joy wishes it, the gift from Burl comes with no strings attached.

And, in the final analysis, the fact that they openly shop in a faux jewelry store for gifts is a clear indication that neither of them attaches any value to their relationship beyond the surface appearance they project to those around them. It does not matter if their private lives are a living hell of emotionless co-habitation and unrequited love, so long as, to Dale and Marlene's eyes, everything appears normal.

18 September 2006

Fact-free zone

See it here.

Today's Dinette Set is all about the fading importance of fact in modern discourse, especially in the midst of a bitterly-contested election where truth is the first casualty.

No one in the audience can possibly have any idea what the actual number of steps for a day should be, and the author must know this. So we have to conclude that the panel is designed to ask the reader to derive enjoyment without benefit of knowing the facts.

As such, and much like modern discourse, the reader is apt to accept as fact whichever figure best fits their own preconceptions, or in this case makes the joke more personally entertaining.

17 September 2006

The invisible hand

See it here.

Picking up one of the panels I missed while away, The Dinette Set takes a hard look at TV, advertising, and the modern condition.

By the 21st century, TV advertising has virtually perfected itself. Assisted by the fact that the length of the average commercial is within the attention span of the average channel-surfing viewer (unlike the programming), pop-culture knowledge of commercials is as much coin of the realm as knowledge of the programming which interrupts the steady stream.

Madison Avenue Moguls rub their hands in glee knowing that water cooler conversation and You Tube links are as likely to feature the latest commercials as actual programming. And Marketing Directors at major corporations cackle knowing people will TiVo the Super Bowl so they can watch the newest commercials.

Of course, Burl's tastes in commercials is a bit more pedestrian than most, but we should probably forgive him his desire for hair. After all, commercials will tell you that to be attractive, you need it.

That said, the real metaphysical question posed by this panel is: There's an identifiable "best" of Full House?

16 September 2006

Crossed salad implements

I'm heading off for a week of vacation and time to post properly will be scare, but I'll try my best to get regular "quick hits" up here.

See it here.

Dueling rudeness today with overtones bemoaning of the lack of civility and growing crudeness in human discourse and interaction. The central ethical question revolves around which couple is demonstrating the most rudeness.

Is it Burl and Joy for going off-script and purchasing a worthless house warming gift? Or is it the about-to-be-newlyweds for crassly pointing out that Burl and Joy have purchased a gift that was not on the registry?

The author's answer is not well hidden. The goateed man wielding the oversized salad spoon like a cudgel is fairly dramatic evidence that he and his wife are the one's overstepping the boundaries of good taste the most.

15 September 2006

Crustwood free trade association

See it here.

Given the impact globalization has on workers of Burl's age and stature, it's no wonder The Dinette Set takes a probing look at this deeply complicated issue.

On the surface Burl and Joy embrace the idea of globalization, celebrating their connection with the rest of the world, represented by the German cousin, as well as the idea of the "global village" which shrinks the world and enables his cousin from another country to come for a visit. They welcome him with a large party, American-style, and even try to add a few appropriate flourishes, such as signeage which says "Velcome" and a name tag which says "Da!"

And yet, for all their effort to embrace globalization, they reflexively rebel against it.

How else to explain the Tiki torches, which clearly imply that, to Burl and Joy, one ethnic touch is as good as another. No effort need be expended learning specifics about the German culture from which the cousin originates. Tiki torches are foreign to American and, as such, they should be good enough for a foreign guest of any stripe, all of who fall into the same category: "not American." This point is further strengthened by Joy's shirt with it's mix-and-match language usage.

But that represents the more passive-aggressive aspects of Burl and Joy's rebellion. It also features much more overt aggression as well. For example, they conflate the concept of "translation" with "we don't understand your crazy foreign language and why don't you just speak English, goddamnit?"

In addition, Burl atampts to force all ethnicities to conform to his pre-conceived notions, all of which emanate from American entertainment, such as the fat but lovable German Sgt. Shultz from Hogan's Heroes whose name is emblazoned on Burl's T-shirt.

The T-shirt shirt itself offers and even deeper puzzle because the phrase "Dismissed" was not Sgt Shultz's catch phrase, but that of Col. Klink. That forces us to wonder at the intent of such an obvious mismatch, since the possibility of an accidental mismatch is so remote.

Perhaps the two lines of the shirt are meant to be an entire phrase: "Dismissed, Sgt. Shulz!" In this case it is expressing Burl's isolationist rage and desire to cast all foreigners, including his cousin, from America's shores. On the other hand, perhaps it bespeaks Burl's lack of understanding of his own culture in that he can't even get American pop culture references correct. Unfortunately, we may never know the true answer to this question.

But what is certainly clear from this panel is that globalization may be a fact of modern existence, but the first line of defense is blithely co-opting the entire notion and redefining it until it means "foreigners becoming more American."

I see no marginalia! I hear no marginalia!
  • Unless I am mistaken, I spy Psychiatrist John (who's been absent for a long time) and Personal Injury Lawyer Tom in the crowd.
  • It's hard to tell where Dale's face ends and the party guest's bicep begins. That's twice in two days that Dale's face has merged with a background body part.