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.