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What makes us love certain things?
This is what I’ve been pondering since I read Tales Designed to Thrizzle. I bought it partly because Graham Linehan likes it, but also partly because I was in a comic shop and buying it seemed like a hip thing to do. (Sigh.) And anyway, Linehan isn’t the only one to rave about it, either: Conan O’Brien says on the back cover that
It has become cliche to say I laughed until I cried, but when I’m done reading one of these underground comics my shirt is literally soaking wet. This guy may have one of the best comedy brains on the planet right now.
TDtT Vol 1 is an anthology of the first four comic books in the series. Stacked up inside are dozens of short, surreal pieces where strange things happen with little or no explanation: a snake and a piece of bacon travel through time together; Uncle Sam explains to a youth the sordid history of the Sex Blimp; miniature hobos jump into a rabbit’s ears.
In between are fake ads in the style of old kids’ comics, advertising weird stuff like a bra made of nuts or something to get monkeys out of your hair.
It’s all drawn brilliantly. Just looking at it is a joy. The Cousin Granpa pages are beautiful, and the Thirties strips are just splendid and striking.
I love the very noir, very Philip Marlowe page right at the start of the woman unzipping her frock. For someone like me who even struggles to draw a stick figure in Pictionary, it’s hard to comprehend how someone’s done this at all.
But the thing is – as I was reading it, I wondered, why spend all this graphic talent on something that goes.. well, nowhere?
What makes us love certain things.
And this is something we all come across from time to time. Something with a huge cult following of thoughtful, talented people, that you just don’t really get – or which, in any case, just doesn’t get you. It’s something you feel you should love – you love Monty Python, the surrealists make you squeal with delight, and super perfect Kristen Schaal co-stars in the TV adaptation of this series – but it just doesn’t make you laugh. Why?
Let’s put aside the theory you’re just not cool or contemporary enough to get it. That’s just lame and self-deprecating. Instead, it could be one of these things:
Theory 1: It riffs off a genre you don’t know well
When I see the Love Jumble strip this is what I see: a guy has taken an idea – let’s mix up a whole lot of frames in the style of old cartoons using the same cliches over and over; end with a curveball – and drawn it excellently. It’s interesting but it doesn’t make me laugh. Or feel anything, really.
I’m wondering if what could be going on is the same thing that happened between me and the Goon Show. I never understood why it had such a huge following when all I could hear was hyperactive nonsense – until I got a better understanding of its cultural context. Here’s England, rebuilding itself after the war, where London’s been bombed and kids have been shipped out of town to keep them safe, and where everyone had to be so adult and responsible. And then, here come these guys on the radio saying stuff you’re not meant to say – silly stuff, crazy stuff that’s nothing like the sort of person you’re meant to be when you’re keeping a stiff upper lip. And for half an hour while they’re on air you get a respite from reality, and it’s the best thing ever.
Maybe Thrizzle is like that, in the wider context of comics or graphic novels. You’re someone who’s read a lot in the genre, and some of it’s earnest and some is setup-punchline funny, and then out of the blue comes the Nut Bra and you’re just knocked over. Did he just write that? And you laugh until tears come streaming out from under your red Irish eyelashes and soak your shirt.
In this theory, in other words, it’s not me who’s to blame, it’s all the time I’ve wasted not reading other comics.
Theory 2: Ownership and in-jokes
I think a lot of things start out simply being liked, and then what turns them into cult objects is that people make it a part of themselves. You get an early iPhone, and you, you know, like it, but then you show it off, others rave about it, you become The Guy with the iPhone, and before you know it you’re camping in a line to get the next one.
I love Monty Python, but I wonder if, at the start, I started out only liking it. When I think back, the love probably started when I found a friend at school who also liked it and we started swapping catchphrases. Nothing endeepenates a sense of ownership like swapping catchphrases. My brother and I used to spend entire car trips quoting whole episodes, and to this day the phrase ‘The ARCHITECT SKETCH!’ makes me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy too. And then I went and got all the records and books and stuff, and I was officially a Monty Python person.
I’m pretty sure that if I had friends who also liked this book, we’d end up swapping Thrizzle catchphrases. ‘Pat me dry with a paper towel to remove excess grease.’ Bwah ha ha ha! ‘Sex blimps!’ Woooooo. Thrizzle is the best thing ever!
I know this theory might sound like I’m demeaning the actual comic. I don’t mean to; I’m just wondering about the nature of how we adopt some things as deep, defining loves – in the way the people on the back of this book rave about Thrizzle. I’m sure many of them just love the comic from the get-go. But I wonder how many other fans had their Thrizzle affection develop gradually with help of other social/contextual mechanisms.
And I think just re-reading it is starting to have the same effect on me. Just then, when I was flipping through trying to find examples of stuff I didn’t find funny, I discovered I’m actually starting to like a lot of the strips. It’s like I’m swapping Thrizzle in-jokes with my temporal selves. ‘The fabulous nut bra. Bwah ha ha ha! I can’t believe he wrote that! “Fuck shit, ladies, this is the bra for you!” Haaaa.’
And next I’ll be showing my friends, and buying posters, and before I know it I will be a Thrizzle person.
This book was mostly read in the back yard on the grass on a towel in the sun.
You can see heaps of Kupperman’s Thrizzle stuff and more on his blog.