What is a cold, and if it is, then what is it not? Furthermore, how many? This last question doesn’t seem to fit at all and maybe it belongs in a different piece, one that’s three words short.
The common cold, as it’s known to everyday experience (outside Wednesdays), is one of daily life’s more reliable chores. It serves a valuable biological purpose. Without it how would we remember that we don’t really like going to work, and aren’t necessarily that fond of a lot of our coworkers, and we come down to it we’re not so fond of leaving home either? Home has so many nice things, like how it’s not work, or how you know which channel it is has the show that’s just about paint. Blocks of clay-ish matter being chopped up into powders. Powders being stirred into transparent or white-ish fluids and stirred. Colored paints being poured into shiny metal buckets. Shiny metal buckets getting lids stamped down on them. Shiny metal closed buckets getting wrapped up in paper labels. Worry that the right labels aren’t getting put on the right cans. Buckets being loaded into trucks, never to be seen again. They must be going somewhere. Maybe a paint store. Maybe an awesome paint-bucket fortress in the woods. But it’s not your concern, and it’s so good when you’re working your way through a cold.
The first sign of a cold is the one on the highway telling you which exit is for the airport. Colds spend a lot of time at airports, since they like to pass time watching the airplanes taking off and landing and pretend that they’re part of crew alert systems instrumentation. Colds were very strange as children, not often being played with by other relatively minor diseases. When they did, they were forced to be the navigators. And they liked it, because they knew all kinds of things about magnetic declination. “Did you know magnetic variation changes over the day, from its most easterly around 8 am to its most westerly around 1 pm?” they’d ask to fellow kids who clearly did not. “The variation is greater in summer than in winter!” That teaches you a lot about what you’re dealing with, when you have a cold.
When a cold encounters someone at the airport they know it’s one of two cases. It could be a person who’s travelling for business. In which case, latching on to that person lets the cold share thoughts of how they’d rather not be travelling for business. Or it could be a person who’s travelling for pleasure. In that case, hey, wouldn’t you hang around someone who’s apparently doing something fun? So that’s why colds pounce on people at airports, wrestling them to the ground and telling them about how besides the diurnal and seasonal variations there’s also a secular variation in the compass. Sometimes you might think about the irony of saying you “catch a cold” when it’s the other way around really, but it won’t help.
Are there good ways to prevent a cold? Oh, now why would you go and spoil a cold’s fun, when it’s going to all that trouble to find you? Well, you go and be you. I’d like to say you know what you’re doing, but I know better. It’s 2018. Anyone who had any idea what they were doing has fled to some better time, like 1998 or the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Still, there’s many people who swear that large amounts of vitamin C will prevent a cold. Just how it’s supposed to do that is controversial. The leading theory is that you should take a great heaping pile of vitamin C and build a fortress around you for it. The colds will be curious, of course, and poke their way through the door. That’s when you reveal that you were never inside the fortress at all and instead slam the door shut.
The plan might seem odd. But it’s only because it makes you realize you don’t really know what vitamin C looks like. You know what those candy drops with vitamin C look like. But the bulk of those are candy; the vitamin C is just, on average, four molecules per tablet. What would a wall of the stuff look like? What color would it have? You know vitamin C is “ascorbic acid”. Is it acidic like soda, sticky but harmless to touch? Is it acidic like H2SO4 that kills Johnny in that rhyme your chemistry teacher told you? There’s no way to know. Maybe there’ll be something about it on TV after the paint documentary finishes.
So something weird has happened with story strips lately. I suppose it’s coincidence, properly. But something’s happened to them since last year’s Apartment 3-Gocalypse. I figured to take some time and write about them. I’m going to start with the strip that had the most dramatic and first big change of the lot, one going back far before the end of that comic.
I’m not sure when I started reading Dick Tracy as an adult. I know it was in the 2000s, and that it was encouraged by partners in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips. And that’s because the strip was awful. Not just bad, mind you, but awful in a super-spectacular fashion. The kind the most punishing yet hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes are based on. In the last years of his tenure on the comic Dick Locher’s storytelling had collapsed into something like a structuralist parody of comics. Nothing would happen, at great length, endlessly repeated. I observed that if you put together a week’s worth of the daily strips — which the Houston Chronicle web site used to make easy to do — you could read the panels top down, first panel of each day of the week, then second panel, then third panel, and have exactly as coherent a story. It was compelling in its outsider-art insanity.
That came to an end (and I’m shocked to realize this) over five years ago. From the 14th of March, 2011, the team of Joe Staton and Mike Curtis took over. The change was immediately obvious: the art alone was much more controlled, more precise, and easier to read than Locher’s had been. And the stories had stuff happen. My understanding is Staton and Curtis were under editorial direction to have no story last more than a month; Locher’s last years had averaged about three to four months per storyline.
So finally we had a story strip with pacing. You know, the way they had in the old days. There were drawbacks to this. Four or five weeks at three panels a day — more can’t really fit — plus the long Sunday installments still doesn’t give much space. To introduce a villain, work out a scheme, have Tracy do something about it, and wrap it up? Challenging work. The first several stories I came out thinking that I didn’t know precisely what had happened, but I’d enjoyed the ride.
They’ve had several years now, and are still going strong. They’re allowed longer stories now. They’ve gotten to be astoundingly good at planting stuff for future stories. They’re quite comfortable dropping in a panel that doesn’t seem to mean anything — sometimes with the promise that it will be returned to — so they have the plot point on the record when they need it a year or more later. And they’ve brought a fannish glee to the stories. I still don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but the pace and the art and the glee are too good to pass up.
Staton and Curtis show all signs of knowing everything that has ever appeared in pop culture, ever. And they’re happy to bring it in to their comic. Some of this is great. They brought [ Little Orphan ] Annie into the strip, resolving the cliffhanger that that long-running-yet-cancelled story strip ended on. And has brought her back a couple times after. They’ve called in Brenda Starr — another long-running-yet-cancelled story strip — for research. They spent a week with Funky Winkerbean for some reason, which might be how Sam Catchem’s wife got cancer.
And they’ve dug through the deep, bizarre canon of Dick Tracy. I mean, they brought back The Pouch, a minor criminal who after losing hundreds of pounds of weight sewed snap-tight pouches into his acres of flesh, the better to be an informer and courier when not selling balloons to kids. I love everything about how daft that is.
Back in the 60s the comic’s creator, Chester Gould, went a little mad and threw in a bunch of nonsense about Moon People and magnetic spaceships and all that and wrote funny stuff about how this was just as grounded in fact as the scientific investigation methods of Tracy. One might snicker and respectfully not disagree with that. But it was a lot of silly Space Race goofiness, fun but probably wisely not mentioned after the mid-70s.
So they brought this back, and mentioned it. Not just in passing; a major theme in the comic the past five years have been struggles for Diet Smith’s Space Coupe technologies and the mystery of whatever happened to the Moon Valley and the making of new, cloned-or-whatever Moon Maid with electric superpowers and everything. I suppose it’s plausible if we grant this silliness happened that it would become big stuff, certainly for Tracy’s circles. But could we have let the silliness alone? Space-opera antics are fun, and there’s no other comic strip that can even try at them, but Dick Tracy is supposed to be a procedural-detective strip about deformed people committing crimes and dying by their own, if detective-assisted, hands.
A matter of taste. There’s something to be said for embracing, as far as plausible, the implications of world-breaking stuff the comic did in the 60s.
Less disputable, though: everything in the strip is a freaking reference to something else anymore. Everything. There’s less referential seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not just to Dick Tracy‘s long history, or even to other story strips. They made the Jumble word game part of a storyline. Last year they went to a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol with Mister Magoo for crying out loud. Think about that. Earlier this year villain Abner Kadaver lured Tracy to the Reichenbach Falls with just a reference to meet him at “the fearful place”, because of course Tracy would pick up on that reference. And yes, they struggled at the falls and went over the side. I don’t think we’ve seen his body, although Kadavner’s even more immune to death than normal for compelling villains in this sort of story.
Tracy got rescued, of course. By an obsessed fan. Not of Tracy; he’s already been through that story in the Staton-Curtis regime. An obsessed fan of Sherlock Holmes, who insists on thinking Tracy is actually Holmes and won’t listen to anything contradicting him. An obsessed fan named Dr Bulwer Lytton. Good grief.
I was set for a little Misery-style knockoff, but Staton and Curtis faked me out. They do that often, must say, and with ease and in ways that don’t feel like cheats. That’s one of the things that keeps me enthusiastic about the strip. Instead of an intense psychological thriller about how to make his escape, Tracy just stands up and declares he’s had enough of this. Mercifully sane. But part of me just knows, Staton and Curtis were trying to think of a way to have Graham Champan wearing a colonel’s uniform step on panel and declare this had all got very silly and they were to go on to the next thing now. I figure they’re going to manage that within the next two years.
It’s quite worth reading, if you can take the strangeness of advancing a complicated story in a few moments a day and that not everything will quite hang together. But the more attention you pay the more you realize how deftly crafted everything about it is.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The alternate Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose five points. Trading was hurried as everyone had forgotten to do anything until market analysts came in just before deadline to ask how things had turned out so they could say why that happened instead of something else entirely. Now analysts are trying to figure out if any of this happened for a reason or if traders were just throwing any old nonsense together. They’re suspicious.
It’s hard staying in touch with all the people you want to these days. There’s just so much Internet out there, and people will go off to all sorts of corners of it, and you might never see them again and worse, realize you don’t know when it was you stopped seeing them. What you need is a way to get back in touch with them.
There’s only one really effective way. You need to get them to eat a large plate full of iron filings, and then turn on your giant electromagnet. Obviously the tricky part of this is not getting people to eat iron filings — what else are they going to do with them, start a smelting operation? — but rather coordinating with other people who are also trying to get back in touch with people, since you don’t want your people paths to get crossed and accidentally pick up people you didn’t have any interest in seeing again. There is no solution to this problem.