Comic Strips Worth Reading: Norm Feuti’s _Retail_


It was an ordinary setup for a week of comic strips. The department store hadn’t been sent some of the sunscreen meant for a planed summer display. Marla, the department store manager, shrugged, resigned to the impossibility of getting the supplies they needed to meet corporate’s plan. Brice, the new assistant manager, was sure that was impossible. At his old store corporate would never short-change inventory like that. Marla told Brice if he wanted he could go beat his head against the wall of corporate’s inventory system.

And that’s a moment that stood out.

Retail, by Norm Feuti.

Retail is another example of the continuity-humor sort of comic. It’s set in one of many outlets of a New England department store. Something inspires the week’s worth of action. But the characters change some, in the slow way we change. Sometimes characters leave altogether, for new towns or new jobs or new careers. Sometimes characters realize the job they took for a summer is becoming their lifelong workplace.

So here’s the thing that stood out. Most comic strips that do a story you know the rough outline of what will happen. That’s not necessarily a strike against it. If the characters are clearly defined then there are limits to what they can do. Anything too far outside is surprising or illogical. And while a situation can blow up unexpectedly, that doesn’t happen often. Stories have logical limits.

But here — what might happen? And many options made sense. Marla could be right, that corporate didn’t care, and after long enough of fighting against this, neither should Brice. Brice could be right, that there was some dumb screwup that could’ve been fixed by anyone trying. There could be some truth to both sides.

That stands out. Comic strips often have this sort of interpersonal drama. But there’s usually a more clear definition of who the heroes are and who the villains are. Retail stands out for avoiding that. The characters are the protagonists of their own lives, and they’re depicted well enough that you can typically see their side of it. It stands out to see this sort of drama in which everybody involved is a reasonable adult.

This is not to say there’s not pettiness or stupidity. But it’s a pettiness and stupidity that feels observed and authentic. Stuart, the District Manager, has the sort of suspicious, devious mind that inspires suspicious and devious behavior from underlings. Stock manager Cooper discovered that one of his employees had for months thought all there was to inventorying deliveries was counting the number of boxes received in the morning and had no idea the stuff inside the boxes needed counting too. Everyone’s job is that blend of being called on to do more than their time and resources allow, for people who are ambiguous and contrary yet exacting in their demands.

The comic can be absurd. Some pieces feel like fossils of an early idea of the comic as a broad satire. See most of the strips with Lunker, the enormous and nearly cloud-cuckoolander stockroom worker. But that’s kept well-balanced, enough loopiness to break up and to highlight the mundane stuff. The result is a comic strip that feels like the warm memories of having worked in a mall, sometime in the past. When what you have left of it are a couple of anecdotes about weird customers and boring evening shifts and the time everybody gathered around to watch the impossible happening. Which, in my case — it was a Walden Books — was someone actually for once buying one of the nearly 48 billion copies of The Polar Express that corporate thought we needed. It was August. It was ridiculous, in the quiet and simple ways. The ways of retail life.

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Meanwhile, at the Trial of the 23rd Century


Doctor McCoy holding a Klingon translator up to his ear and looking shaken.
And one more time: this Captain Kirk isn’t small, he’s far away. Small … far away. Got it?

McCoy: “Jim? Is your translator thingamabob licking your ear, too?”

How The Pinball Machines Broke Down


This is, to the best of my ability to reconstruct, how the various pinball machines broke down during what proved to be Demolition Derby Night at the league.

  1. TOTAN. I would like to begin my defense by saying that I was acting properly with respect to normal operational use of this pinball machine. To wit, I was aiming at stuff and hitting the flippers and all that, while the machine wasn’t giving the correct response of very many points. One may speculate that the machine was just coming off a bad night, perhaps after quarreling with an old friend or getting bad news about its car’s brakes. But we must dismiss that hypothesis because it was certainly giving plenty of points to the other people playing in the group with me. Anyway when the left flipper stopped flipping, up, down, or sideways, that was that for Tales of the Arabian Nights.
  2. IJ. While it is true that I was not doing a lot better on Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure, I can’t take any blame for this machine going down because it was the league’s champion player, a kind of supernatural entity manifested whenever sufficiently many machines are brought together in the spirit of fair competition and $2.00 Pabst Blue Ribbon Night, who broke this one. During the “Well of Souls” mode, a portion of the game in which an estimated eighty balls are launched simultaneously on the playing field and you’re left to deal with that, at least one ball showed a previously unsuspected ability to stop being so-called “solid” matter and become some kind of Bose-Einstein Condensate, passing through the thick rubber bands and getting stuck inside that little triangular kicker that’s right above the flippers. I don’t want to seem ungrateful because seeing a ball stuck in such a freak position is a kind of privilege, but this does mean he’s taken the league’s crown for “balls stuck in freak positions”, which I had previously held by getting a ball stuck on the parapets of the castle on Medieval Madness.
  3. G: HS II. I’m completely innocent and uninvolved in this one because we were upstairs glaring at, oh, I’m going to guess The Simpsons Pinball Party, which was only broken in that it’s kind of a lousy game. But while we were there, Getaway: High Speed II‘s ball plunger suffered from a sudden onset of “impostor syndrome”, my age cohort’s great neurosis, and felt so ridiculous at the idea that it was expected to launch pinballs out onto the playing field that it couldn’t do that anymore and just hummed nervously. The curious side-effect of this was making its impostor syndrome no longer a syndrome, because it was right to believe it wasn’t up to the job it was doing.
  4. CQD. Old British telegraphic and wireless Morse Code distress signal, superseded in 1906 by SOS. Not in fact a pinball machine, although the way things were going that night, it was the best game of the lot and I came in eleventh. Passengers were unloaded onto the Aquitania and the ship ultimately towed to Halifax.
  5. FT. So I had this terrible first ball that drained instantly, which at least brought up the “fed up with briiIIIiick!” sound clip from the Father Ted pinball machine, and the second ball was no good either, and when I heard the “what do you say to an extra ball?” sound clip I was ready to swallow my pride at take the pity-award extra ball, and then someone who wasn’t even in the league came over and pointed out nobody ever made a Father Ted pinball machine and we had to scrap all the scores for that too, which is a shame because I’m almost positive I could have got Rabbit Rock Festival Multiball and that would have changed everything.
  6. WtCJ. My continuing insistance that there was too a pinball named Welcome to Cactus Jack’s, about an Old West saloon where cactuses polka dance, drains my credibility every time I bring the subject up and encourages speculation that my time in grad school was one of hallucinogens and eigenfunctions. I insist this is only partially true.

All things considered it was a pretty rough night.