Tuesday, November 15, 2005

On Dilbert

So, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, is an Intelligent Design apologist, even though he feels compelled to issue unconvincing denials. I don't really have much to say about Adams and ID per se, beyond commenting that Adams is clearly a moron. However, this topical hook gives me a good excuse to ask: What the fuck is the deal with Dilbert?

I've always hated Dilbert. Well, hate isn't the right word, because it implies a level of respect that the Dilbert comic strip does not merit; it would be more accurate to say I feel contempt or irritation towards the Dilbert strip. We're supposed to identify with the endlessly put-upon Dilbert character, and sympathize with all the indignities he suffers, but how much sympathy can you feel for a character who never, ever does anything to fundamentally change his situation? I, and many people I know, have worked in IT in some capacity or another for many cumulative years, and we don't answer to pointy-haired bosses. Guess why? Because we don't choose to put ourselves in those situations, and also because --- I hate to be completely elitist about this, but I will be --- we're good enough at our jobs to quit and get better offers if we end up in that sort of terrible situation. Also, we have some modicum of self-respect.

But let's leave aside the fundamentally self-imposed mediocrity of the Dilbert character. Let's examine the quality of Dilbert purely as a comic. Comics rise or fall based on two elements: the art, and the writing. In both of these areas, Dilbert sucks.

Is Dilbert well-drawn? Don't make me laugh. Could Adams ever, in his wildest dreams, approach the astonishing visual inventiveness of Bill Watterson? Ha! Does his art have even an ounce of the grace of Charles Shulz's? Ha! Ha!

OK, I've just mentioned two of the all-time greats of comics; let's drop it down a notch and compare it to relative neophytes like, say, Cat and Girl. Look at the use of space, and the visual rhythm established by the alternation of light characters on dark background with the inverse. Look at the delightful posture of the girl in the final panel. Or, if you prefer relatively conventionally blocked strips, then have a look at Piled Higher and Deeper, which is drawn by an assistant professor instructor/researcher of computer science at Caltech... in his spare time (not something that junior CS profs faculty at Caltech are known to have in great supply). The expressiveness of the characters' faces and postures carries this strip.

Look at those comics, and then look at Dilbert. The comparison's just embarrassing. Adams's compositions are boring; his lines are clunky; there's not an ounce of visual wit. I think you could draw a reasonable Dilbert comic by pasting clip art of Dilbert characters at random inside three panels. To call Dilbert's art amateurish would be an insult to amateurs, since I've known a few amateur cartoonists in my life and literally every single one has been a better artist than Scott Adams.

So much for drawing. Is Dilbert well-written? Pffft. I could point you once again to any of the comics above for examples of superior writing, but there's plenty more where that came from. Let me pick just one more example. Let's compare Dilbert to another geeky comic about people wasting their lives on pointless endeavors --- consider Penny Arcade, which is about two extremely profane and narcissistic souls who would be content to spend their lives sitting in front of a television playing video games, and occasionally committing petty acts of violence. Penny Arcade also happens to be drawn far better than Dilbert, but for the moment I wish to draw your attention to how this strip's writing, for example, tweaks the rules of pacing for a three-panel strip: an offhand joke's crammed into the top half of the first panel, and the setup appears in the second panel. Also, notice the third panel's deft use of implication and parallel syntax ("I've got an idea."..."I don't have any ideas."), where a lesser writer would have simply had the murderous character declare his intentions directly. And then there's this rather touching strip about a nervous father-to-be, which pretty much speaks for itself.

Dilbert? Um, right. First, it's utterly conventional: there's a setup, a beat, and a punchline. Second, the punchline's invariably weak: in the case of the comic linked above, the boss wants to hear what he wants to hear. Ha ha. Yep, comedy gold.

So, basically, Dilbert's art sucks, and its writing sucks. There are zillions of comics out there that are objectively better in every way. So what is the deal?

I don't know, but I conjecture that Dilbert is Cathy for the disgruntled, self-pitying office drone set. It's a crude, one-joke strip that compensates for its shoddy quality by flattering the prejudices and salving the insecurities of its target audience. Of course, every artist and writer knows that pandering to your audience's pettiest psychological needs isn't exactly a formula for producing great work. Great art works --- including great comics --- always possess a certain integrity. It's an integrity that Scott Adams's work lacks, either because of his character, or, more likely, because of his middling talent.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising, then, that Adams considers the arguments put forth by Intelligent Design and evolution advocates equally (in)credible. When you've spent your life being rewarded for producing crap, then maybe you begin to lose the ability to distinguish between crap and its opposite.


  1. Preach it, brother!

    Granted all of the above, Adams has never tried to keep it a secret that he's only in this for the money (his remarks re: Watterson's retirement are the perfect example). He's openly exerting the least work for the greatest profit. Sort of an optimized WalMart of comics.

    If you're looking for another purely BW / mostly line-oriented example, I recommend PVP. Art + story = good work. If nothing else, Scott Kurtz has a very interesting business plan in that he gives his strips away for free to newpapers in order to generate more web traffic. It certainly seems to work....

    However, Dilbert comics as physical artifacts do have a use. I've been a manager several times in the past few years and sometimes it helps to be able to put up a comic, draw a line to PHB with the note "this was me yesterday."

    Finally, if you'd like to be even more irritated by pointless cynicism, try reading some of Adams's books of prose: "Dogbert's guide to ...". Lots of fodder for the ever-so-disgruntled "I'm so edgy" set.

  2. I’ve long despised both Dilbert and Cathy as horrible (or at least lame) strips that just won’t ever die. Astute of you to point out that they are working the same sort of crap.

    I dropped my subscription to the paper version of the local newspaper after one too many good strips disappeared. The last straw was when they punted Sylvia (and, of course, kept Dilbert and Cathy). Anyway, there is better news and better comics to be found online. And people wonder about the decline of newspapers.

    Cat and Girl looks cool. I'd never seen it before.

  3. Your two objections to Dilbert: badly drawn, badly written.

    Badly drawn: of course it is. Who said it wasn't? Why spend three paragraphs making the case that Dilbert is poorly drawn, something anyone can see at a glance? There's nothing inherantly funny about good draughtsmanship.

    To quote you: "Comics rise or fall based on two elements: the art, and the writing. In both of these areas, Dilbert sucks." Clearly Dilbert has "risen". It's been consistently popular for over a decade. Therefore, if your analysis is correct, the artwork in Dilbert must be good. But how can that be when anyone can see that the drawing is absurdy simple? Because that style (or nonstyle) of drawing WORKS in this context. It's the right tool for the job. If Adams went to an art class and learned to use perspective and shading, that wouldn't make Dilbert any funnier, and it would probably make it less funny. Adams uses and absurdly simple drawing style to convey absurd situations.

    Badly written. Most people experience some frustration at their jobs. Even geniuses such as yourself who can pick and choose among jobs have to deal with workplace annoyance occasionally. Adams is brilliant at mocking the sources of frustration.

    Addams publishes a comic a day. Not every one is good. But often enough, they're wickedly funny. It's easy, but unfair, for you to pick out one not-so-great one to represent them all. I've read Dilbert comics where the dialog is great. Sometimes he manages to cram a couple sub-jokes in addition to the main joke into a three-panel comic.

    One thing I really like about Adams's work is that he attacks the cruelty of the powerful. I don't know if he's trying to be subversive. I'd guess he's probably just trying to be funny. But in effect he's planting seeds of doubt. Very few comic strips take on the issues that Dibert does. Sometimes I'm amazed at the implicit accusations he makes and the institutions he attacks. The comics you offered as being better than Dilbert seem mostly to be about the characters' personal problems or their love of video games.

    If I understand your post correctly, you're saying Dilbert is popular because it helps losers feel better about themselves. Actually, it can appeal to anyone who has to cope with others having power over them. It's popular because that category includes most people.

  4. "This Modern World" is subversive, "Dilbert" is not. Blowing off steam and whining are not critical attitudes, they are just ways of putting up with things people shouldn't put up with.

  5. There's a difference between being frustrated with your job, and using your frustration as an excuse to dehumanize and belittle your co-workers, which is what Dilbert encourages.

    Yes, everyone deals with difficult situations at work sometimes. The question then becomes: is my manager being difficult because she's fundamentally a dunce and a jerk, or is my manager also in a difficult situation? Even Fred Brooks, hardly a PHB, once remarked that managing programmers is like herding cats; and then there are the manifold pressures from above and from without that a manager must confront. And is my co-worker doing dumb things because he's a worthless idiot, or because he's inexperienced and nobody's shown him the ropes, or because HR placed him in the wrong office and now he's floundering?

    Granted, Dilbert's a parody of a dysfunctional workplace, but parody need not be one-dimensional or without compassion. The difficulty of work is, in many ways, just a reflection of the fundamental difficulty of dealing with your fellow human beings. Dilbert's answer to this deep human problem is resignation and smugness.

    Yes, Adams publishes a comic every day, but that's not an excuse. So did Charles Shulz. It's not time that makes the biggest difference. It's the deeply held attitudes of Adams and Shulz, which inevitably comes across in the comics. Why does the situation of Lucy snatching away the football from Charlie Brown hit home, in a way that Dilbert's equally repetitive frustrations do not? Because Shulz's characters possess a human element which elevates the repetition to an almost grandiose pathos. Charlie Brown and Sisyphus share much in common. Would anyone in their right minds say that of Dilbert? Pffft.

  6. Here's a strip that pokes fun at dilberts lack of originality:


  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. I don't welcome off-topic self-promotion, David. Unless you have something to say about Dilbert, you shouldn't be commenting here.

  9. I don't know how will u react to this link dilbert

  10. If you don't enjoy something as simple as a comic strip just don't read it and stop complaining about it!

  11. Nice one, Pointy-haired boss.

  12. I agree whole-heartily about what you said about Dilbert. I don't hate it, exactly, but I feel that Scott Adams has created a 1-trick pony. It has taken the premise of office drones sitting in cubicles and doing nothing, and attending obligatory meetings where they also accomplish nothing, and beaten it to death for over 30 years(The strip officially started in 1989). That is the problem with hitting the same notes over and over, you have taken something that may have started out as amusing, and made it mundane. Also, the artwork is one of the most simplistic, lazily drawn dreck I've ever seen in the papers. Now, I'll admit that one of my favorite comics strips, Peanuts, had fairly simple artwork, but Charles Schultz made the characters for the most part lovable, relatable, funny, and surprisingly well-developed. He also had the courage to talk about some of the more sad realities of childhood and life. No, I'm not talking about just being stuck in an office cubicle, but anxiety, depression, unrequited love, loneliness, and the like. It was so personal, that it really felt like Charles Schulz was writing it just for you, that he understood and sympathized(coincidently, the little red-haired girl was based off a girl that rejected him in his youth). It was also gut-bustlingly funny, and imaginative with the constant fantasies of Snoopy as a World War II flying ace. I also loved Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes: great characters, beautiful backgrounds, and just plain brilliant. Scott Adams' work by contrast seems bored, one-note, and hollow. To each his own, but this is definately not my cup of tea.