The Other White Meat

SOMETIMES IT FEELS like the '50s are dead. Ever since the Cocktail Nation craze crashed like June Cleaver kicking Valium, every other reference to the decade chooses condescension over appreciation, and the era's aesthetic of perfectly tamed hair, toothy smiles, and shiny product shots is once again being strip-mined for unambiguous irony.

Thankfully, Red Meat doesn't dwell on the easy application of the "I" word. The cartoon strip, which appears in about 50 alt-weeklies and now in a new collection, sports simpler aims: namely, unnerving its audience into a laugh. "It's all about fun," Max Cannon, creator of Red Meat, offers from his home in Tucson--although this particular brand of fun may not be well suited to 7 o'clock sitcoms or children's birthday parties. Yet, having grown up in a military family, the cartoonist has learned from childhood to look at hypocrisy with a bemused eye. As Red Meat portrays the follies of his cast of Ozzies and Harriets--from the malicious alcoholic Milkman Dan to the pipe-smoking, poodle-abusing head-of-household Ted Johnson--it does so without the slightest hint of sentimentality gone sour.

There is, however, plenty of tastelessness, and a kind of tonal catatonia. In one strip, Ted Johnson tries an enema out of curiosity. In another, Earl, Red Meat's resident baggy-eyed psychotic, stares out at readers and tells us, "My landlady was sick this morning, and I couldn't remember whether you're s'posed to feed a fever and starve a cold, or if it's the other way around. I know one thing for sure, though...You can't drown a cold."

Cannon insists he isn't aiming for shock value, and that he cares more about chuckles than groans. Armed with his gag-driven sensibility, Red Meat ranks higher in laughs-out-loud than almost any other cartoon in either alt-weeklies or the pitiable daily comics pages. Rendering the art on a computer gives Cannon's work an obsessive tightness--crisp digital ink-lines, characters as unmoving as a Big Boy statue--so that every revelation comes with deadpan delivery. And Cannon employs impeccable timing and judicious use of wordless panels to strip his non sequiturs to their absurd core. In one strip, Earl tells us, "Mom always used to say: If life gives you poop...Make poop-juice." And then he stares silently for one full panel as if the maxim contained some hidden wisdom we're supposed to grasp.

The occasional vomit shot notwithstanding, what you see in frame is mostly harmless; the pants-less lawn-watering and hamster-eating occurs out of sight, though not out of mind. This is a decision of economy, Cannon says: "I can't create an image so disturbing, horrifying, and humorous as the reader can create in their own mind."

Still, despite Cannon's modest aims, Red Meat's apparent normalcy also carries a trace of subversion. Take this exchange between Ted and his son.

Ted: "My goodness, look at all the birds on that telephone wire."

Son: "Those are clothespins on a clothesline, Dad."

Ted: "Wow. These are definitely the strongest nonprescription cough drops available."

What's funny--beyond the de rigueur jab at the Rockwellian image of father and son--is the fact that their OTC drug abuse had been invisible until they revealed it themselves. Red Meat invites us to consider the possibility that everybody's hiding ridiculous secrets, no matter how respectable a person appears. Right now, some suit-and-tie may be sitting in a board meeting and thinking to himself, "Wow. These are definitely the strongest nonprescription cough drops available."

Maybe the '50s aren't dead, after all.

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