Today’s strip is a lesson in how Tom Batiuk’s sloppy writing is undone by his sloppy writing.
Phil’s remark feels like a passive-aggressive insult. The name Phil can’t think of is John Cullen Murphy, the artist who took over Prince Valiant when Hal Foster retired in the early 1970s. He remembers the names of brief fill-ins Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, but not the man who drew the strip for the next 30 years. These were all real-life people who worked on the real-life Prince Valiant comic strip.
When you’re making a list of something and intentionally leave off the most prominent example, it looks like you’re trying to make a point. You’re saying “The New England Patriots’ last few quarterbacks were Mac Jones, Cam Newton, Drew Bledsoe, and some guy whose initials were T.B.” It looks like you’re trying to downplay the person for some reason.
But the joke fails because… he got one of the names wrong! It was G-R-A-Y Morrow, not G-A-R-Y Morrow.
When the joke is “I forget the important one,” you have to remember the unimportant ones. Forgetting them too makes the intent unclear. This is why “beady eyed nitpicking” matters. I’m not being a spelling pedant here. I’m pointing out a problem with the execution of the joke that makes it fail. And because we’re supposed to believe comic strip characters are speaking aloud, it’s not a trivial error. If it was incorrectly spelled G-R-E-Y, it would be less bad, because it’s said the same.
The intent is unclear for another reason: What did John Cullen Murphy do to deserve being snubbed like this? This story doesn’t involve Murphy at all. Batiuk’s never mentioned him on his blog either. Murphy could still be introduced, but bringing real (and deceased) people into the story would get into some thorny areas. Is he going to be the villain?
I do like Phil’s description of “your mind playing charades with you” when you get older. I recently turned 50, and I can relate to this feeling.
The other day I was trying to remember the name of a college hangout from decades ago. I said “it was something like ‘Thirsty Turtle.'” I remembered later it was Purple Porpoise. I couldn’t remember the name, but I remembered Adjective Marine Animal, and also that it was alliterative. That helped my brain find the right answer. I figure this is just how your brain works when you get older. Your mind can’t make the direct connections it used to, and you have to take roundabout paths to find pieces of information.
The real problem is that Phil Holt has never been depicted as having memory loss. He needs it for today’s joke, so suddenly he’s always had it, and has a mechanism for coping with it. Tune in tomorrow, when Phil remembers the precise details of things that happened 50 years ago.