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The one about the squirrels, the avocadoes and the crocodile

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In his first of the Sunday Comics, the author muses on symbiosis with the animal kingdom and truth-telling habits via the youthful uses of Russian comic strips

Jim Gabour
4 December 2011

The very last avocadoes of the season, at the very top of my backyard tree,  which I cannot reach, are being sent down to me by volunteers.  These three backyard squirrels can only reach the very tips of the fruit, which are at the ends of extremely thin limbs, so they eat the part  nearest them, the stems, which of course then drops the avocadoes down to me.

For the last two weeks I simply cut off remainders of the squirrels’ 10% commission and enjoy yet another batch of guacamole.  Symbiosis makes for a great appetizer.

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* * *

Not a very universal or deeply compelling truth, that.

So I keep thinking that this column of words, taking into consideration the other serious and thoughtful contents of a normal openDemocracy front page, might be deemed the equivalent of some sort of Sunday comics.

Even the New York Times has experimented with graphic humor amidst its serious social messages and reportage.  First last year comics appeared as a regular full page in its Sunday Magazine.  Currently, on the third page of its Sunday Review section, the paper is a month or so into a politically-oriented comic series, “The Strip”.   It is quite irreverent and very very funny.  I do not draw well enough in lines and colors these days, but I keep thinking that I may already be producing the equivalent of a “Strip” in words.

As a relevant digression, during the first few years of the student chapter of my University days, I took 26 class hours of Russian language.  I mention this for a reason that will later become more apparent.   At the time, in the late sixties, I was personally dealing with the looming military draft and possible prospect of experiencing the decaying Viet Nam War up close and personal.  But after all the worry, and finally being drafted despite attempts to evade the procedure, my vaunted military career merely ended in peering northward from behind bulletproof blockhouses, and more often over flimsy barstools, through an icy winter spent dawdling on the Korean DMZ.  There I patiently waited to be overrun by the awkwardly-dressed minions of Kim Jong-Il, whom I assumed would easily recognizable, as they all must be required to mimic the Beloved Leader’s upwardly-mobile hairstyle.   Bad intelligence, that, and bad weather, but better endured than the monsoons of Southeast Asian jungles at the time.

Simultaneously, and somewhat vindictively, I suspected the Russkies might actually win the wretched and illogical Cold War.  Nixon was in office.  And Agnew, for godsake, was a heartbeat away.  I felt it worthwhile to make contingency plans, just in case.  Butter my ideological bread, so to speak.  And thus, the usefulness of speaking the Russian language.

Twenty-six Cyrillic hours later, my college roommate and I were in the same Russian classes and of the same mind.  As a further learning exercise, we subscribed to both the daily and Sunday issues of Pravda.  The Russians were so glad to get their ever-bleak word out in the US, that they made it cheaper for us to get the paper shipped seven days a week from Moscow than was the cost of receiving our hometown paper, delivered for the same period.

The Pravdas came sporadically via post in great tied bundles, and accumulated mostly unread, still displayed as a show of cool international hipness in the front room of our “bachelor pad”, mounded in a heap near a fancy stereo stacked with Beatles, Stones and Leonard Cohen.  Indecipherable pages of yellowing newsprint did not prove to be a successful babe magnet, however, even if we could both say “rubber tree plant” in Russian.  An overwhelming majority of feminine reviews leaned toward “dusty” and “boring”, rather than the hoped-for “intriguing” and “sexy”.

 

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To the current point.  The Sunday issue of the otherwise-humorless and depressing Pravda  three times a week carried a separate sheaf of colorful pages called "Крокодил" – “Crocodile”, published by Pravda since 1932.   Though the newspaper itself proved grim and bleak, black and white and concrete grey, “Crocodile” was at least colorful.  According to The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, it circulated 5.5 million copies in the years we were subscribing, and had a stated purpose:  “Krokodil wages a struggle against what is unfavorable and alien to Soviet life and exposes bourgeois ideology and imperialistic reactionism.” Not exactly Vegas standup material, or even a cross-dressing Adam Sandler movie premise.  I could not quite imagine many audiences, other than possibly “Monty Python”, pulling vast guffaws out of sight gags structured to confound “imperialistic reactionism” (see:  “Imperialistic Reactionary Twit Cricket Team”). Which made it a serious reach indeed for me to label “Crocodile” as “comics”. But still, though the cartoons were used as a vehicle to ridicule capitalism, and indeed to deride everything that was contrary to Communism’s doctrinarian hard line, the comics section also made fun of the country’s own unimaginative bureaucrats, and of Soviet workers who drank on the job.  Again not much in the way of deep belly laughs, but still some slight comic relief from the Real World. This was more than three decades ago. Revisiting Moscow in 2010-11, "Крокодил" is the current street name for desomorphine, a drug six to ten times more powerful than regular morphine, which causes users’ skin to become scale-like, crocodile-ish, before it kills them in an average of less than three years.  A cheap, short, painful and deadly high.  Very Russian and not so funny. Today I researched the universe of like-minded Sunday “comics” in the Soviet world, found twenty-one media entities from Armenia to Uzbekistan who still carry such a section, and compiled their titles.  There were indeed two listed as “Crocodile”, but there were also seven stinging entities (“Wasp”, “Hornet”, “Bumblebee”, “Scorpion”, “Nettle”, “Burr”), four named “Hedgehog”, two “Pepper”, two domestic implements (“Broom”, “Pitchfork”), one God of Lightning (the Estonian "Pikker"), one threatening Uzbek comic called "Fist", and one edition obviously at a loss, this from the Turkmen SSR, entitled "?". Better images than desomorphine, but again, not looking any too funny.  Brutal demographics. Still the memory of international comics as a respite from hard news, a mental oasis of human-level insanity in an insane world, made me contemplate what such a medium could be for me as a writer, especially to be delivered on a “relaxed” Sunday.  Like my maternal grandfather, who often disparaged my parents’ life-long careers in newspapers, used to say, “Son, don’t let working so hard to scrabble up them damn facts get in the way of your telling the truth.” I remember the lesson. And now in 2011 I am seemingly looking to mine not-apparently-serious bits of life for that truth, Grand Dad. I am writing The Sunday Comics. * * * Coincidentally, I am eating the last avocado of the season for lunch.  It fell in a wind burst yesterday, so with the lack of common crop I think the squirrels and I are for the moment out of our mutually profitable business. Until it all happens again. 

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To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

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