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I don't read Dilbert anymore - but Solomon isn't the reason
on September 6, 2001
About three years ago, I bought a Dilbert-a-day desk calendar. Every day I ripped aside the previous day to reveal today's comic. It was great up until around August or so, when I realized that Dilbert was still stuck in his cubicle, and so was I, and I couldn't stand the thought of having my nose rubbed in it every day for the next four months.
I threw the calendar away.
In "The Trouble with Dilbert," Solomon professes to have "cracked the code" of Dilbert comics, revealing that Dilbert is actually intended to keep workers complacent. This hurt Scott Adams' feelings, as Norman was accusing him of acting in the best interests of everything he stood against. Who's right? Both of them.
If one considers the entire body of Dilbert comics as one very large text, then it may seem significant that the protagonist (Dilbert) does not evolve as a character. By all rights, a protagonist should be affected by their experiences, and if they steadfastly remain constant, then one must assume there's a good reason for it. The most facile conclusion one might reach is that the character hasn't changed because the character likes things just the way they are.
One might then take the extra step, add a dollop of good old-fashioned paranoia, and assume that Scott Adams intends Dilbert to serve as an example. To subliminally assert that "Things are just fine" would indeed, make Scott Adams a tool. Quite a loathsome tool, to boot, because he's clever enough to disguise this message in what seems (to the uncritical eye) to be a scathing daily condemnation of corporate politics and practices.
But here's where things fall apart: Dilbert does not evolve because he is a character IN A COMIC STRIP. I don't say this to mean "it's too trivial to analyze" - that's simply not true. I say this because a standard convention of the art form known as the comic strip is that its characters do not evolve.
If comics were expected to behave like proper literary texts, then Garfield would have been put to sleep years ago, after suffering from incontinence, arthritis, deafness, cataracts, and kidney disease (not necessarily in that order). Jeffy would be a card-carrying member of the AARP, and Andy Capp would be either incarcerated for spousal abuse or knifed to death in his sleep, take your pick.
Dilbert caught on quick and big because it says funny things about familiar situations. Cubicle-dwellers (like myself) were hooked on Dilbert after that first shock of recognition; the "Oh my god, that's EXACTLY what it's like here!"
Recognition provides comfort, and Dilbert reassures most people that they're not the only ones made miserable by corporate life. In short, Dilbert feels your pain.
Scott Adams feels your pain, too. He's put in his cubicle hours, and honed his insight and humor to a keen edge through years of personal experience. Scott Adams knows just what it's like, and he wants you to feel better. His job is to coax a laugh out of millions of people every day (and he gets paid rather well for it, to boot).
I've almost entirely switched from Dilbert comics to Scott Adams books. Adams has written several books - BOOK books, not just collections of comic strips - which serve as roadmaps to cubicle life, complete with helpful tour suggestions. I have gradually molded my work life into a perfect expression of Adams Fu (translates as "The Way of Adams"), gleaned primarily from "The Joy of Work," which is one of my favorites.
In his books, Adams essentially advocates screwing the company any way you can. A full third of "The Joy of Work" is devoted to various strategies you can use to buy yourself free time at the office. I can whole-heartedly attest to the efficacy of these strategies, as I use several of them in conjunction to buy myself roughly four hours of free time every day. At Adams' suggestion, I have studiously put this time to good use; for example, I'm currently using my free time to write this very essay.
If one considers Dilbert in the full context of Scott Adams, then no, Dilbert is not a tool of the corporate elite. And yet I don't read Dilbert anymore. I just can't; even the occasionally half-glimpsed Dilbert comic makes me want to curl up on the bathroom floor and cry.
If I could take over Scott Adams' brain (and drawing hand), I would create a story arc wherein Dilbert escapes corporate life once and for all. He strikes out on his own and carves a new niche for himself. Several years pass, and one day he returns to his old office to taunt Pointy-Haired Boss. Maybe Dilbert (no longer shackled by notions of corporate propriety or threats of political retaliation) drops his pants and moons the PHB in front of the entire staff. Maybe he sets fire to the building (a la Stephen Root in "Office Space"). I haven't exactly worked that part out yet.
I suspect that part of the reason Scott Adams was blindsided by the Solomon's accusation is that the scenario I just spun out is, essentially, the story of Scott Adams' real life. Adams started drawing from his cubicle, and ten years later - presto! - he's king of his own empire. Safely insulated within the happy life he's built for himself, Adams can well afford to look back at cubicle life and laugh.
Me, not so much.