Comics Strips: Math and Michigan

Over on my mathematics blog I’ve got a fresh roundup of comic strips that mention some kind of mathematical topic, and my thoughts about the topics those inspire. Some of those are even comic strips that don’t use π as a pun on the concept of pie, so, do enjoy that.

If you don’t, then, here’s the Pearls Before Swine comic strip, by Stephan Pastis, which ran this past Sunday. It’s of a familiar enough form — Pastis setting up a shaggy-dog type story to build to violence — but it flops as a comic strip, and I wanted to do some public musing about why.

The setup is contrived, which isn’t inherently a problem. Many Pearls strips are built around transparently contrived setups, usually in the service of a pun or bit of wordplay. Typically I like those, partly because of the long setup and trying to anticipate where he’s going with this and sometimes getting surprised by where he ends up. (He usually then apologizes it away with a final panel of the characters telling him to “get help” or “stop it”, which is trying to deliver an awful pun and stand away from it; but, the structure does seem to demand some resolution after the punch line and an apology is, if not very clever, at least something.)

But in this case I think the contrivance is deeply problematic, undermining the whole strip: to get to the punch, smash, and trample line, we have to suppose Pastis-the-character has bought a Brutus Buckeye costume for an upcoming speech at Ohio State University, and put it on to drive there, and gotten lost driving there, and ended up in Ann Arbor. I’ll waive my wondering whether it’s possible to dial a pay phone while in a mascot costume and while I haven’t actually noticed a pay phone in Ann Arbor it’s the sort of place I can accept as having some.

Now: buying the costume and wearing the costume to go driving are weird behaviors. Eccentric at minimum. Eccentricity isn’t inherently bad — if you’re trying to do comedy, really, and especially if you don’t have a lot of time to delineate your characters then being wildly eccentric lets you get a joke out in recognizable form — but this leaves me wondering who would even do that? The strip falls flat, to me, at the point of getting Pastis into costume and from there the whole thing is lost. Suggested rewrite: he was invited to play Brutus Buckeye at the Ohio State game and he didn’t have time to change at the stadium, which is absurd but at least some kind of motive.

The next bit: He got lost driving to Columbus, Ohio, and ended up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor really isn’t near Columbus. It’s a couple hours mostly due north. The only way you can end up in Ann Arbor if you’re driving to Columbus is if you’re driving from Michigan, in which case, well, you’ve heard of Ann Arbor. This can maybe be patched up a little, by supposing that Pastis flew into Detroit for something (perhaps that should be the speech he was giving?), bought his Buckeye costume (from where?) and then started driving to Columbus, which is weak but at least puts together a minimally plausible scenario where Pastis might be in a Buckeye costume in Ann Arbor.

Also, he should have had the strip published the weekend of November 30th, when the University of Michigan is to play Ohio State (in Ann Arbor, conveniently enough), so the implied buildup to the battery is the more credible.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

9 thoughts on “Comics Strips: Math and Michigan”

  1. Agreed on all these points except for your fondness for his pun strips, which I despise. First, I hate pun strips. Second, that aside, if he honestly thinks those puns pass for jokes, then he should let them speak for themselves and not have the last panel always be a character complaining about how bad the pun is, which is a cowardly way of refusing to stand behind the joke. It is, as you say, trying to have it both ways. If you like the awful pun, then he can say the pun is the joke. If you hate the pun, he can pretend that the “joke” is that the pun is bad and the characters are complaining about it. Which actually is not a funny joke; it’s tediously predictable. When he has some tortured setup, I just skip ahead to the end panel with Rat standing there with a mallet threatening the author or whatever.

    So, yeah. Pastis’s pun strips: hate them, hate them, hate them, and I don’t think “needing a last panel” is an excuse for the tedious “character standing there complaining about the pun” panel. You’re much kinder toward them than I am, but I’ll stop ranting now.


    1. I’ve been trying to think why it is I feel like these overly complicated wordplay strips need the deliver the punch line and then go on to a self-negating panel afterwards, and I’m not sure why. I had thought it was for the rhythms of the whole strip but I might well be just taking the rhythm from the fact that Pastis always does it that way. I have to think more and more carefully about it all.


  2. The strip also errs in greatly exaggerating Ann Arborites’ feelings toward Ohio State. First, Ann Arbor isn’t nearly as dominated by the university as Columbus is (despite the latter also being the state capital and home of other colleges). Second, the rivalry is much more intense in Columbus: Ohio State fans really, really hate U-M, across all sports and other areas. Michigan fans notice OSU only once a year, for the football game. U-M feels no sense of academic rivalry with OSU; it considers its rivals Chicago, Northwestern, and Berkeley. It wants to be Harvard. (OSU, academically, wants to be U-M). In fact, one of the reasons OSU hates U-M is this perceived sense of arrogance.
    In 20-odd years as a Michigan fan, I’ve never heard of an OSU fan being harrassed, while it happens regularly in Columbus.


    1. Ann Arbor’s that kind to OSU fans even after last Saturday?

      I’m actually willing to give jokes a lot of leeway in exaggerating how violently sports fans feel about each other, especially in a strip as slapstick as Pearls Before Swine. I’d imagine if you actually did wear the Buckeye costume in Ann Arbor on game day you’d get jeers and maybe some playful harassment (people bumping into you or the like), but nothing too serious (barring, say, wandering into a late party where everyone’s drunk).

      I’m interested in the academic rivalries, since, first, I’m currently living in Lansing and while Michigan State has perfectly good grounds for rivalries with both University of Michigan and Ohio State they don’t seem to have quite caught on; and second, I went to colleges — Rutgers and Rensselaer Polytechnic — which just didn’t have the self-esteem to promote decent rivalries. RPI would like to be rivals with MIT, but MIT can’t be bothered to notice RPI’s existence.


  3. Pastis has never been what I would call a “favorite cartoonist”. He is really so much more of an anti-cartoonist. The fun he makes of Bill Keane and Family Circus is not funny, it is down-right grotesque, bordering on disrespectful. His puns are often stupid. His Rat character is unremittingly mean and petty, and seems to be more of an identity character for him than his Stephan character is. As much as I dislike his dyspepsia, I can’t help but laugh at his Larry the Crocodile jokes and some of his hapless Pig jokes. If only he could turn his lack of drawing skill and wicked humor to use in political satire the way Pogo used to do… He better never make fun of Walt Kelly, though.


    1. I’m given to understand that Bill Keane is actually surprisingly enthusiastic about people making fun of him and his strip. This might just reflect that he’s secure in his success — nobody ridiculing Family Circus is going to do a thing to make it less overwhelmingly popular, or peel away any fans who weren’t on their way out anyway — or that it’s really a thrill to get mocked. Or he just has that sort of sense of humor that can’t be put into the daily comics.

      Rat, I’ll agree, has gotten to be a lot less pleasant as his targets have been less thoughtfully chosen. It’s one thing to be mean and petty to characters who’ve established themselves as deeply annoying; when (to make up an example) it’s Rat beating senseless someone who’s slow following the directions at an ATM, it’s disproportionate.


      1. I agree with everything you said. I don’t begrudge Pastis his success. I’m sure he has earned it in some ways. I love cartoons in general, and some specifically with a life-long devotion. I wish though that some cartoons would work a little harder at the craft and have a bit more to offer.


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