One of my favorite webcomics is Wondermark, by David Malki !. What fascinates me about the strip is how mundane, ordinary elements get combined with unexpected elements to create a strong sense of the absurd, the fantastic(al), and the unreal. Generally, the physical setting of the strip is Dickensian, often involving not much more than two or three characters in a library, parlor, or dining room. Occasionally, the characters will interact in a scientific laboratory or public place, like on a street corner. Often it’s the language of the strip that creates the absurd. The characters broach topics that make little sense or, more accurately, stretch the very fabric of logic and sense to highly skewed proportions.

In strip #682, “Monkey Box and its ilk,” two characters are involved in what seems to be an ordinary conversation.

panel 1

In panel 1, the man is seated and reading a newspaper article about a murder, the woman standing nearby. The man makes a comment about the story, but he doesn’t focus on the murder itself. Instead, he remarks in an understated disbelief that the name of the town is Monkey Box. The woman responds, seeming to explain away his concern by contextualizing the process of naturalization: the residents of Monkey Box may not even pay attention to the name of the town — it’s such a constant part of their world that it has become natural (naturalized) to them. As far as ordinary conversations go, so far so good.

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panel 2

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In panel 2, the characters shift their focus from “Monkey Box” proper to other examples of place names. By the woman’s second turn, they are focused squarely on toponymy and the cognitive processes that speakers use (or fail to use) when they speak of a place.

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panel 3

It is in panel 3, however, when the strip begins to become so speculative as to be absurd. The man stays on topic, as all good conversationalists do, and the woman answers his questions. This tripartite question-and-answer exchange demonstrates turn-taking strategies that are universally available in everyday conversational discourse. But the content of the questions and, especially, the answers is bewildering.

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panel 4

The woman invents answers about the eytmology of the city-name “Paris,” invoking the sport of fencing in her effort at linguistic reconstruction. But the end of the strip approaches, and in panel 4, Malki ! has the male character bring the interaction back into the realm of the real. Undeterred, the woman continues her word play, using another fencing term and matching it up with her version of geography, her mental map of France.

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I imagine that there are any number of explanations regarding Malki !’s choices here and why he tells the story the way he does. Is he making commentary on willful ignorance? On the creativity involved in language play? On the art of conversation? In any case, Malki ! uses the concept of folk etymology as a way of constructing the absurd in this strip, providing readers our own opportunities to reflect on our surroundings and the names of places we’ve lived in and have called home.

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About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

9 responses »

  1. Steve Nelson says:

    I love this comic too, though I always forget to read it. There are a bunch of them posted on office doors of grad students in our philosophy dept. Loads of material there.

    One thing this comic and your thoughts on it remind me of is some of the discussion on proper names in Scott Soames’s book “Beyond Rigidity”. If I remember right, he thinks that some names are not solely referential–that they have some partially descriptive content as part of their meaning. One kind of example he uses is place names like Dartmouth. The town of Dartmouth in England really is at the mouth of the River Dart. So is that description some part of the meaning of the name of the town? What about the name ‘Dartmouth College’, for the college in New Hampshire? Does that name then also have some descriptive content packed into it about the River Dart and its mouth?

    I realize this is a different issue than what you’re focused on, but I didn’t have anything insightful to say, so I thought I’d just mention this fun issue that your post reminded me of. Cheers!

  2. Steve,
    Actually I was blending the idea of the absurd with the idea of toponymy here, so I’m glad you’ve posted about Dartmouth and “Beyond Rigidity.” Often, place names do begin as descriptive phrases, indexing the geography or flora or fauna of a place. Tolkien used this principle a good deal in both “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.” Examples that come to mind are the Carrock, Lothlorien, The Lonely Mountain, Mirkwood, and even Middle Earth.

    But I also am interested in “folk etymology,” which is the way that people explain their understanding of names or, more generally, words or phrases. The female character in the “Monkey Box” strip is clearly very creative in her explanation. But I don’t know whether she’s simply having a good time by making up a fictional explanation or if she really believes what she’s saying. In any case, a claim that the capital of France is named after a fencing term is a gorgeous flight of fancy. And that’s one reason I like reading Wondermark so much.

  3. roytcook says:

    On thing that is perhaps worth emphasizing here is the apparent shift, on the part of the female character, from nonsensical etymological fabrication in panel 3 to a quite sensical linguistic pun in the final panel. Although Touche’ is not (at least, as far as I know) a real suburb of south Paris, it is – in addition to being a fencing term – a legitimate and common term of evaluation within argumentative contexts (taking its meaning in such contexts from the metaphor with its use in fencing). Hence her use of touche’ is both a perfectly natural response to the male characters criticism in panel 4 and a humorous nod to the female characters made-up fencing based wordplay in the previous panel.

    As a result, the strip involves multiple layers. On one level we can appreciate the ‘flight of fancy’ involved in the fictional etymology of panel 3 as fun Jabberwockian nonsense. At another level, we can also appreciate this panel as a complex set-up for the multi-faceted “touche'” punchline in panel 4. As a result, we obtain a very rich, even if sometimes silly, comic.

    With regard to Frank’s question about the female character’s own knowledge and intentions, I find it hard to read this comic without assuming that the female character knows exactly what she is doing in panel 3. The reason is simple: Given the punchline in panel 4, I find the most straightforward reading of panel 3 as complex, intentional wordplay explicitly intended to set up the final punchline. This is not, of course, the only interpretation. But it is the one I find most natural.

    • I agree, Roy. In panel 3, the female character knows exactly what she’s doing. The question for me is whether she is intentionally making something up or if she is intentionally offering this information in an earnest, sincere way. I think a core tenet of conversation analysis here is highly relevant: conversation is locally and interactionally managed. I think I’ll write about that in a future post.

      Doubtless, the word play in panel 4 (Touché) is intentional. This is the beauty of the final panel: it demonstrates the overlap of the realistic (rhetorical appropriacy, conversational turn-taking, and topic management) as well as the fantastic(al): extending the fencing metaphor even unto Paris’s outlying neighborhoods.

      On the other hand, I think that the set-up in panel 3 for the punchline in panel 4 is probably intentional only on the part of the artist, not necessarily the characters. The woman could not have known the man’s rhetorical move beforehand and thus could only offer up Touché after his turn. Admittedly, she could have made a guess about his rhetorical move and gotten ready to counter in that way.

  4. roytcook says:

    Totally a bit off topic, but this strip got me thinking a bit about text in comics. So, what if:

    (1) Instead of merely “touche'”, the penultimate balloon in panel 4 had said “Well, touche'”
    (2) The lettering of the comic had been done in both upper- and lower-case lettering (as is standard in most non-comic contexts, such as blog post responses!)

    Then the punchline wouldn’t work! The author would have had to decide whether to render the line in that balloon as one of:

    (1) Well, Touche’
    (2) Well, touche’

    But neither of these is ambiguous. Only the first is compatible with “touche'” being a placename, and only the second is compatible with “touche'” being a fencing-based metaphorical evaluation of argumentation.

    Thus, this comic (or the imagined slight reworking of it, at least) nicely illustrates the way that typography can play a very important role in the content of both comics and jokes. With regard to the latter, it reminds me a bit of the math joke:

    “There are 10 kinds of people in the world – those that read binary notation and those that don’t!”

    which is the only example I know of a joke that works when read but not when merely heard out loud.

    • Yes! Capitalization can make a difference, and I appreciate this musing on a “what if” panel. I heard about the binary notation joke a long time ago, and it was good to see it again here.

      • roytcook says:

        Actually, a better example of this sort of phenomenon than my imagined one is the author’s use of “pari” (versus the ‘correct’ spelling “parry”) in the third panel. The use of “pari” is forced by the textual aspect of comics dialogue, since “parry” wouldn’t (visually) make sense as the singular of “Paris”.

        If this same dialogue were performed out loud, however (as part of a short play, perhaps) then it wouldn’t quite work. There wouldn’t be the artificialness of the use of “pari” rather than “parry”, since they sound the same, but “pari”/”parry” would not work as the singular of “Paris” in this context.

        In short, “paris” looks like the singular of “Paris”, but it doesn’t sound like the singular of “Paris”.

  5. Qiana says:

    Hi Frank,

    In what is becoming a bad habit, I am over a week late to this conversation. But I do want to say thank you for bringing Wondermark to my attention. What a creative strip!

    The only thing that I would add to this thread — for what it is worth — is that in exploring the question of “whether she is intentionally making something up or if she is intentionally offering this information in an earnest, sincere way,” it might be useful to recall that it is the man’s comment about “Monkey Box” that initiates this absurd dialogue. Seen from a more cynical perspective, she could actually be poking fun at his interest in the town’s name, rather than the more serious topic of the headline itself. I agree with Roy that the “touche” rebuttal infers that she may be much smarter than he thinks.

    I’ll have to add Wondermark to my rotation now!

    • Your comment made me laugh, Qiana, because you’re right. The absurd tone of the strip is set when the man doesn’t focus on the tragedy of the murder but the name of the town! I think this strip is a study on the way people miss the point.

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