What is real? A short disquisition.

August 25th, 2006 | Oddments, The Artistic Condition

our mutual friend

I should be writing episodes 494 and 495 right now, but to procrastinate, I started reading the comments people were making about 493. The very aptly named Sir Real brought up an excellent question which I’d like to address, “What ‘actually’ happened in the DTWOF world” in this episode? Did Lois trash Ginger’s car? Did Sydney really make an assignation with Madeleine right in front of Mo?

I get confused myself with episodes like this. In fact, I just came up with a conceptual category for them—I’ve started thinking of them as “speculative” episodes. Just as speculative fiction imagines worlds that are different from this one while illuminating some aspect of our reality, a speculative DTWOF episode imagines a course of action that does not actually occur in the world of the strip but which attempts to shed some light on current events.

Being very fond of the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative–“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law”—I like to take it out for a test drive occasionally.

For example, what if we all behaved in our domestic lives the way the Bush Administration conducts foreign policy? Or the way Enron conducted business? (Here are some examples of “speculative” episodes: Foreign Policy, Snug as a Bug, Everyday Enron.)

Obviously, I try not to do strips like this too often because then the whole cartoon universe would dissolve into meaninglessness.

Even so, things remain a little blurry because the behavior of the characters in speculative episodes isn’t entirely inconsistent with their personalities. That’s why they’re funny. (If they’re funny, which sometimes they’re not. Doublethink, for example, I consider a humor failure.)

Like, I wouldn’t put it past Sydney to make a date with Madeleine while Mo was sitting right there. (And I’m sorry, but I must congratulate myself here. Don’t you think “our mutual friend” is the best name for an English professor’s dildo ever?)

Sir Real goes on to ask, “So, Alison, are the events of this strip part of the `canon’, so to speak? Or more of a play-within-a-play sort of aside? (Or a lapse like Watson’s wandering war wound?)” The answer is no, they’re not part of the ‘canon.’ Nor are they lapses. They’re asides.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

55 Responses to “What is real? A short disquisition.”

  1. Idealistic Pragmatist says:

    Oh, wow, it’s like the “West Wing” September 11th episode! (Except, you know, better written and funnier.)

  2. Elisablue says:

    This is a very sharp “auto-analysis”, if I may say so. I enjoy very much myself those “speculative” episodes, I find them thought-stimulating , funny, and very coherent with DTWOF world. What about working in a daliy newspaper ? I mean a “big”one like the New-York Times ? Forgive me for the naïve question, I am half English, half French, living in Paris, and apart from absolutely laughing out loud reading you, I really love the political background in DTWOF .
    I came across Fun Home in Libération this summer and am looking forward to read it. The drawing seemed different, less “round” than Dykes …so to speak, it’s difficult to define, as if the silhouettes were longer, more fragile, and therefore conveyed some other kind of emotions to me . What is it exactly ? … Well, I don’t know but it moved me.
    Ok, getting a little obscure here, night has fallen over Paris.
    Thank you, just “merci”.

    Elisablue

  3. Heather says:

    Is it me/ Or does Raffi look more and more like one of your younger brothers from Fun Home. This is not a criticism, just a comment.

  4. Ryan says:

    I intuitively understood the speculative strips without explanation – and I enthusiastically love them. I’m all about the soapiness of course, but you do satire too well to not share. The journey of DTWOF is richer than any punchline. (and the little hidden details along the way are the best part)

  5. tallie says:

    i rather liked doublethink.

  6. Deborah says:

    I think of these strips as akin to Doonsbury’s “Mike’s summer day-dreams.” Sometimes the day-dreams turn into Mike’s new reality (moving to Seattle to start working in hi-tech); sometimes they are commentary (last week’s Sunday strip about war).
    Love ’em, keeps us guessing, messes with genre.

  7. mlk says:

    I haven’t noticed any changes in Raffi, but JR looked an awful like someone-we-know-as-a-young-child in the strip with the face flicking busy body. it probably wasn’t intentional — or was it? did the resemblance just creep in, or is Alison messin’ with us and the DTWOF universe? is JR a Christ figure?? now that’s a freaky/intriguing thought!

  8. Duncan says:

    Well, I noticed that the young cousin, killed in a car accident — blond, freckled, with a flattop — lying on the slab in one panel of Fun Home, looked a lot like Lois used to in DTWOF. And one of Alison’s newfound queer friends, sitting down to lunch with her, after she came out at Oberlin, looked like Lois in the retrospective how-the-roommates-met story in one of the DTWOF collections.

  9. Duncan says:

    oh, and p.s. — I did love the “Our Mutual Friend” gag.

  10. Aunt Soozie says:

    Alison,
    Is it unnecessary to say that you are really, really FUNNY? You make me laugh…that pose on your lawn…our mutual friend…

    and just in case you’re taking a poll…I did get it, but, I love that you chose to explain your “what if” strip so throughly…and quoting Kant along the way. Goodness me…
    (goodness me…that’s not yiddish) Giving the explanation wasn’t funny, exactly, but it does reflect your generousity of spirit.

    You could’ve just said, “duh”…but, I guess you’re not like that…ie, sarcastic and bitchy. Is that a perk of having a large group of imaginary alteregos? …they can experiment with all kinds of things…be it self righteousness, bitchiness, arrogance, denial, pursuit of illicit affairs and you can look on from a safe distance…and be nice to your devoted readers.

    When artists draw portraits I think the portraits often resemble the artist in some way. It’s probably about projection, in the gestalt therapy sense of projection, that we are all projecting, all of the time…
    It’s just like that “people look like their dawgs” thing…we draw on what we know…(ugh, that’s so bad)
    have a good weekend…
    Soozie

  11. Brian says:

    Two tangential comments:

    1) “Snug as a Bug” may be my favorite single DTWOF strip.

    2) I knew a philosophy grad student who called her dildo “Das Ding.”

    Thanks for the meta moment.

  12. leighisflying says:

    Maybe we should start a list of our favorite dildo names…

  13. Bear says:

    “Don’t you think “our mutual friend” is the best name for an English professor’s dildo ever?”

    Yes. Yes, I do.

  14. lisa rosman says:

    i persist in calling my dildo mother’s little helper.

    i like yr meta stuff, too–so much. and i like this epi, as well. there are times when i feel like the characters (esp the relationships bt mo and sydney, and clarice and toni) have been adrift for too long, though. some kind of clarity has to be achieved—it’s like their problems have become a little too theoretical and, thus, so have i.

    of course, i do defer to la senora. i just feel like they’ve been languishing in limbo lately.

  15. Deb says:

    I love the jaunts the strip takes at times into “speculative”. It adds depth and additional color to the characters as they evolve. I have been laughing my *** off reading about naming dildo’s. I haven’t given my favorite a name in particular, I just totally associate it with a sound……..AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH falls quite short of that one particular sound, but you get the picture!

    Alison, thanks so much for reading the blog posts and caring about what is written and commented about here! That is so cool of you!

  16. Friend of a Friend says:

    My partner and I call our Hitachi our “Friend.” Been doing it for years.

  17. lea says:

    hm… speculative fiction. think about it: isn’t that technically a semantic pleonasm? now, it seems literary critics and their friends use it to categorize, and yet…
    in other words: how fictional can it get, or is this the true meaning of the sur-real (or Sir Real?)? 😉

  18. anonymous says:

    Other non-canonical strips are the ones where we see behind the scenes — the characters as union members, actors, etc. I guess for me those set the stage for the more recent political-allegory strips, so it was obvious to me that they weren’t supposed to be part of the story-line.

    Also, I totally get the idea of an alternate fictional story line that is not the “real” story line. I have a set of stories in my head that I would write down if I were a fiction writer (which I’m not). Anyway, I occasionally explore what would happen if a character made a different choice, and a whole different set of events happened. I sometimes work it out in as much detail as the “real” story line. But I’m very clear that that’s not what “really happened”!

  19. Sarah says:

    Actually, I liked the Doublethink comic. But then, my sense of humor tends to be different than most people’s.

  20. Aagh! says:

    I still can’t read the last one.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Doublethink, I think, was doubly funny, ironic, and right on target the second time around – only because the situation we find ourselves in is so painfully ridiculous, I appreciate your making that ridiculously clear. Again.

    You must have some high standards for humor, or failure for that matter.

    I especially enjoyed Lois being the bad guy, and sounding so out of character. Or speculative.

  22. Suzanonymous says:

    Another vote for DoubleThink here.

  23. mlk says:

    I’m relieved that the events in Signing Statements are instances of what might be rather than what is, and especially relieved that Ginger’s car and relationship with Samia (such as it is) are still intact. I’ve a special fondness for Ginger, and would hate to see her cave so compleely to her insecurities around intimacy. and I can imagine Lois borrowing a roomie’s car, smashing it up, and then blowing off the damage — though perhaps not with such legal clarity. still, I’d hate to see her do it and would be distressed that Ginger has to live with such a *@&&#. her plate is already full, and pay at Buffalo State probably isn’t that great.

    getting back to similarities between DTWOF characters and people in Fun Home, want to say that I don’t believe for a minute that the resemblance between JR at 3-1/2 and Alison as a young girl was intentional or had any deeper meaning. my speculation about Christ figures was simply a flight of fancy. more likely, Alison was experimenting with how a young and as-yet-undeveloped character might appear and act at another developmental stage. her transitioning Jonas to Janis and then bringing her into adolescence was masterful! finding JR is just a matter of time.

    for now, the cross pollination between DTWOF and the account of Alison’s own life is a delight!!

  24. Jerome says:

    Um, I have always taken the speculative strips as speculative – especially since there is so much precedent for it in both the calendars and the regular strips. Characters have alternately been portrayed as men, Log Cabin Republicans, straight, etc. Obviously, none of this is canon. Granted, those are from the calendars; but more recently, Bush, Rumsfeld et alia were shown accepting various forms of therapy from the regular cast members. It seemed pretty speculative to me. I think the Doonesbury “Mike’s Summer Day Dream” analogy is apt.

  25. Judy says:

    I think the nature of this and other ‘speculative’ strips has always been totally clear. I recall all the cute ones about the DTWOF rank and file union meetings. I did not assume that any of the scenarios in the recent Sir Real strip were to be taken as plot points. As always, your work is crystal clear and awesome!

  26. mlk says:

    maybe enough has been said on this, but I’m going to add another layer anyway . . .

    we’ve got 2 types of strips under discussion. in some, characters are totally out of character (where Stuart’s in leather, and one of my favorites, where Mo and Lois are a monogamous couple. or was that 2nd one part of a calendar?). in others, the characters are used to illustrate social issues. seems that what tips us off that we’re in for one of these speculative strips will vary.

    in Snug as a Bug it was those helpful labels for folks’ political/social roles. this time, it was the strip title and opening panel. the illustrations that Alison used, though, were so plausible that (some of them at least) appeared to be “real.” they *could* be used as the basis of an actual strip.

    did Alison snip events from the characters’ between strip lives to illustrate her point (sort of a reversal of the fanciful strips where characters drop their DTWOF roles), or did she have the characters act out fictitious events for the strip? it’s really hard to say!

    and some of us, who don’t have anything better to do, like to speculate on it. but maybe we’ve all had enough of that?

  27. Fernmonkey says:

    I actually really liked the ‘Doublethink’ one – especially the line about the Blackened Cajun Stir-Fry.

  28. shadocat says:

    This may sound like a weird thing to ask and complely off-subject, but how old are Mo’s cats? Not that I want them to go onto the next life, but they’ve never even been sick or anything…

  29. shadocat says:

    This may sound like a weird thing to ask and complely off-subject, but how old are Mo’s cats? Not that I want them to go onto the next life, but they’ve never even been sick or anything…

    Okay, I just tried to post the above and it said I’ve already said that-I swear I haven’t!

  30. shadocat says:

    NOw I can see BOTH posts on–I look like an idoit–sorry, sorry, sorry ! Damn this anciient ‘puter!

  31. shadocat says:

    and now I’ve misspelled idiot—I need to lie down for awhile…

  32. Jude says:

    At least one of Mo’s cats has some sort of health issue — diabetes? or kidney disease? I can’t recall, but a while ago, Mo was giving someone directions for taking care of the cats while she was away (at class? graduation?)

  33. Sir Real says:

    Uhm – gosh! *blush* ! Thanks!

    I’m highly flattered that you thought it worthwhile to address! Not to kvetch, well just a bit – you did misquote some phrases I thought choice. Shucks.

    Then, I was after all apprised by other blog denizens that the alternate universe nature of these sort of digressions is pretty obvious… as Aunt Soozie opines, `duh’.

    I’ve come to agree on the`duh’ness of my question, especially when I realized that none of events in those other speculative asides had surfaced as factors in the actual story lines.

    Not to knock the care you took in answering! 😉

    But I _will_ join in the compliments to Madeline’s dildo name! `Our Mutual Friend’ suggests to me something in a double-headed model – perhaps a Nexus? (which I can highly reccommend if both parties enjoy penetration. It sports a hefty pricetag but one of the better investments I’ve ever made, even if, unlike Lois, I couldn’t get it wholesale.)

    Say, what _does_ Lois do for discount sex toys these days?!! Even with the Madwimmin employee discount, that must’ve been about the biggest item in her budget of yore – besides transport to demos…

  34. Sir Real says:

    Gosh, that sounded harsh – as if rebuking you for answering my stupid question… whereas I do want to echo Aunt Soosie’s plaudits for your generosity to your devoted readers, which group I’m ardently glad includes myself. Convoluted syntax and all!

    (And I do like Doublethink, btw… and “Everyday Enron” was the first time I actually got a grasp on what the unfucking heck was going on!)

  35. Sir Real says:

    I realize I’ve accused Alison of misquoting! Whereas her paraphase merely left out phrases I was proud of. Guess I’m flustered at the attention… ooof.

  36. Aunt Soozie says:

    I liked doublethink too.
    Sir Real…
    I was kinda imagining you as a literal “Sir”
    …till you mentioned your favored investment in the area of quality silicon products. I’ll give myself a big “duh” for that.

  37. Dreww says:

    What I’d like to see, even though it might not belong within the pages of DTWOF itself, is an inversion of these asides where the Bush administration acts out the typical role patterns of the strip. Something like Dubya and Cheney as the not-quite-well-matched married couple, Rumsfeld as an aging drag queen. Too much like clichéd Brokeback Mountain parody, I suppose, and there would be no political or Kantian point to it, but still fun to see.

  38. Sir Real says:

    Aunt Sooze, may I interject that the `literal’, as you put it, doesn’t factor when it comes to Sirnosity. I don’t happen to be a fulltime `Sir’, but I could be, regardless of what I happen to have under my skirt.
    Thank you.

  39. NLC says:

    AB writes: “The answer is no, they’re not part of
    the ‘canon.’ Nor are they lapses. They’re asides.”

    I’ve got the next book title:
    “Canonical Dykes to Watch Out For”

    (“Categorically Imperative Dykes to Watch Out For”?)

  40. Deb says:

    I have not imagined Sir Real as a “real” Sir. I was imagining a really nice butchy woman who could take matters into her own hands and make something beautiful from it. Am I a romantic or what??

  41. Deb says:

    How about “Blogging Dykes to Watch Out For”?

  42. --MC says:

    I was going to suggest “Dykes On A Plane” but the joke is already stale.

  43. shadocat says:

    No, No, I like it! But who are we going to get to say “I’m tired of these mother f*****n’ dykes on this mother f*****n’ plane!”? We may have to go outside the strip. How about Hothead Paisan?

  44. Em says:

    I suppose it’s too late to do “Dykes to Watch Out For 2: Electric Boogaloo”

    Count me in as someone who was confused as to the reality-ness of these asides, so I’m glad to have it cleared up. Still, I would like to think that JR’S “MINE!” actually did happen in cannon:)

  45. Andrew Ogus says:

    This sequence of comments made me laugh out loud almost as much as the original strip. I think “Canonical Dykes to Watch OUt For” is a great title!

    As i recall Mo’s cats were healthy but Mo was just characteristically EXTREMELY fussy about their feeding (I remember her telling poor Harriet to mix yeast INTO the food etc. as Harriet rolled her eyes). But they must be awfully old. Digger did pass on, after all. (I’m not advocating cat death either, let me hasten to add, but one good thing about the strip is that the characters age and change).

  46. Ann says:

    Like anybody’s going to read comment number 47, but I always think of this kind of episode as though the usual characters are actors and this is a special episode where they are doing a farce. And I think sometimes Alison does literally portray the characters as actors, like when they take time out to complain about the story lines, etc.
    And I’ve always loved Alison’s use of silhouettes. Jesus, I hope I spelled that right. Could cause another 46 comments.

  47. Danyell says:

    I too think Double-Think is very amusing. The not-so-subtle analogies are great, but it still ties into important character behaviours and story-lines.

    Yes, I do think “our mutual friend” IS the best name for an English professor’s dildo.

    And I totally appreciate the need for “speculative” episodes, as you call them.

    And yes, I guess I did just comment on your post in reverse.

  48. mlk says:

    Mo’s cats are getting older . . . Sydney wasn’t at Mo’s graduation from library school because Mo didn’t trust a cat sitter to give one of the kitties shots. at the end of one of the strips, she’s stuck her hand w/a syringe!

    I believe the poor feline is diabetic, but am not sure.

  49. shadocat says:

    Yeah, can’t believe I totally blanked on the kitty diabetes (is it Virginia or Vanessa?)

    I do love these “breaks from reality” strips–“Backstage” is one of my favorites (MO polishing her toenails and smoking, bitching someone out over the phone-priceless!) But thinking about past strips has some how made me ponder some real life questios more strongly than I otherwise would have before.

    I read the blog about Tee and remebered the strip where Mo and Syd went to “Race For The Cure”. Someone (I think Sydney) wondered why there wasn’t more attention and research being done to find the CAUSE for cancer. I don’t know if Tee ever smoked, but other than that, it seems only curosory (that may be spelled wrong) research has been done to find other causes…everything see geared toward “the cure”. You wouldn’t believe how many people I know, and have known, with cancer. Some never smoked a day in their lives.

    One more, and then I promise I’m done. Did anyone see Peter Jennings’ last report, last week on ABC, about the spread of AIDS in the black community? I went home, grabbed my battered “Indelible” book and found a panel (from 1988, for Chrissakes!) that stuck in my memory–Mo was stating “74% of all women with AIDS are women of color!” It is now 2006, and the powers that be are just NOW figuring this out?

    Thank you for letting me rant.

  50. Chip says:

    Wow, a lot of responses.

    I just wanted to say that, having been a DC Comics fan in the late ’60s and ’70s when the Superman Family comics would frequently feature “imaginary stories” (sort of a redundancy), I had no trouble wrapping my brain around the concept of this episode, or the others that have momentarily ignored continuity for the sake of political allegory (or whatever).

    So, you see, I was effectively trained for this by those fantastical stories in which Superman and Lois Lane actually got married and/or had a child, or whatever — story lines that (in those days) we *knew* could never happen, since nothing was ever allowed to change in the Superman universe. (My, how things have changed since then.)

  51. Anonymous says:

    A friend of mine has a dildo called Mr Darcy…

  52. mlk says:

    shadocat, you’re right that Americans don’t pay much attention to the causes of cancer. I believe there’s something of a shell game going on here. we’re told to change the things over which we have some measure of control — eat a healthy diet w/plenty of anti-oxidants, exercise, drink pure water, quit smoking and avoid second hand smoke, abstain from sex or practice safe sex/monogamy to avoid HPV and cervical cancer — but there’s no discussion about WHY filtering water is a health concern. or about how air pollution has done more to damage health than to increase asthma in children. or how the way that our food is grown and processed affects its healthfulness. examining and addressing the causes of cancer will require a stronger commitment to public education and changing the way we do business in the U.S.

  53. A conversation that veers from a dildo named Mr. Darcy to the need for more public education about the environmental causes of cancer. Can I just say, I love you guys?

  54. woodstock says:

    You consider Doublespeak a humor failure? I guess I’ve just been living inside the Beltway too long; for me it has the audacity to speak truth in a way that is so shocking your only choice is to laugh otherwise you’ll breakdown crying and eat an entire back of Doublestuf Oreos in 10 minutes. Then again, I’ve been told that my sense of humor is rather arid so I’m probably not the norm.