Comics I Don’t Understand

Every now and then I  will stumble upon a cartoon I simply don’t get. At times I can stare at it for quite a long and still not get it. Some time ago I heard about Bill Bickel’s blog Comics I Don’t Understand. On CIDU he posts newspaper strips and webcomics that he, well, does not understand. Of course I had to ask for his expertise.

Since I didn’t bookmark the cryptic cartoons I had found in the past, I had to browse for some to illustrate this interview. Doing so I noticed two important differences I had to take in account: 1) We have a lot more illustrations and experimental cartoons, that aren’t meant to have a distinct meaning or gag in the first place 2) Several artists may post cartoons that are meant for an audience from their own culture. So.. the images I chose are cartoons I think I could be getting, i.e. cartoons that seem “international” and also look as if they have a simple meaning or punchline.

Bill, can you tell a bit about the history of the CIDU blog?

I had — and still have — a friend named B. Joni who lives across the country. We wrote to one another frequently, and in years past we’d sometimes mail one another comic strips we didn’t understand. By 1994 we both had computers, and comics strips were starting to come online, so we were able to e-mail one another the comics. Brave New World!

But then she has to switch Internet Service Providers and could no longer receive e-mail attachments. I was already running a couple of web sites, and it occurred to me that if she couldn’t receive comics in the mail, I could start up an ad hoc web site just for the purpose of showing her the comics.

How did this become a public website?

Somewhere along the line, she passed along the address to some friends, who gave it to other friends, and at the same time I mentioned what I was doing to a kinsman and he passed along the address, and before long I was getting e-mail and comics from complete strangers.

Then David Farley, whose “Doctor Fun” strip appeared frequently on CIDU, gave me a plug. Soon afterward the site was mentioned in the New York Times, and then in Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List” page – the same place my brother’s book Creepiosity got listed 14 years later, oddly enough.

Did you have any kind of cartoon/comic background before you started the page?

No background at all other than having read the comics since I was three or four. I can’t draw for shit. I did draw a comic once, though: to avoid failing a high school art class, I created a comic book – all of whose characters were constellations, so all I had to draw were combinations of white dots on black paper.

What, in your opinion, is the main cause for cryptic comics?

I’m not sure there’s a “main” cause, but here’s a partial list:

There are several instances of “This made sense to me when I thought of it at 3AM”. Then, there are gags based on regional knowledge the writer believes is universal. Or gags based on technical knowledge the writer believes is universal.

There are also those moments when a comic actually isn’t cryptic at all: it’s just plain not funny and I was looking for something that wasn’t there

Sometimes the writer wanted to challenge his readers. Or he was being intentionally obscure to show off how clever he is. Then there are writers who are actually trying to get on CIDU.

And there are f***ing cats.

Wait.. how are cats a main cause of cryptic comics?

People have remarked – quite frequently and not without justification – that I simply don’t get any comics that involve cats.

In your FAQ you tell the original artists not to send in explanations. Is that something that actually does happen?

It did happen at first, before I added this to the FAQ. Still happens on occasion now, but invariably one of the regulars chastises the writer/artist before I ever see the comment. Self-policing communities; gotta love ‘em.

Dave Farley complains bitterly about this rule in his own FAQ, but it’s all in jest. The CIDU community misses Doctor Fun terribly.

Have you ever had cartoons explained to you and then actually thought they were funny?

Of course.

You also post cartoons that are actually funny in addition to the ones you don’t understand. Why?

Out of respect for cartoonists. If I’m going to give them a hard time when they’re unclear, the least I can do is honor them when they really nail one. In the end, I’m a fan: I’d much rather appreciate a comic than be confused by one.

You have been collecting cartoons and reading other people’s attempts at explaining them for quite a while now. Has this changed your own perspective on cartoons in any way?

I don’t know, not really. I have gotten better at understanding how comics writers’ minds work. And I know a lot more than I used to about cats.

So, how DO comic writers’ minds work?

Like clockwork oranges.

Thanks for your time!

Paul Hellmich

Title illustration: “Superman is Shopping” by Zenchip


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3 Responses to “Comics I Don’t Understand”

  1. Read your article, Bill had to laugh about the cats i’ve never been able to understand why rucks of cartoonists want to do books about cats….Soon as i see the title ‘The wonderful/wacky/funny/mad/zany/etc,etc,etc, world of cats i need to get far away. Stay baffled and befuddled ,Bill life makes more sense!….When it starts making sense ,then, your in trouble.
    Take it easy

  2. Zombi says:

    I don’t understand this interview. But I do hate cats too.

  3. Nikklau says:

    Ein Künstler beschreibt beim Zeichnen eines Bildes seine Sichtweise und er malt sich diese Welt aus, um herauszufinden was seine Sichweise den von der realen Welt unterscheidet.

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