In a collection titled The 37 Cartoons You Should Read Before You Die, it's only appropriate that at least one of those cartoons forces readers to contemplate dying. Raymond Larrett — aka Norman Dog, whose "Bad Habits" strip ran in the Express from 1981 to 2007 — couldn't resist. In his trademark retro-magazine-headline diction, the comic in question is called "Death: What Kind Is Best for You?" and offers two options: first, the slow, lingering kind: "Advantage: lots of sympathy! Downside: expensive, you die," reads the caption. Or consider the sudden, unexpected kind: "Advantages: quick, painless, you'll be in the paper. Disadvantages: messy, you die."
"This is simply a summary of a longstanding argument I would have with my son, who said that when he got old — which was understood to be however many years I happened to be at the moment — he'd like to be struck instantly dead by a meteor to the back of the head," said Larrett, who will introduce the book at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, January 28. "I would argue for the long fade-out, though for what it's worth, I'm coming around to his point of view."
Rather than follow a single character or set of characters, "Bad Habits" has always reinvented itself continuously, hopping with savage accuracy from bores to boors, from wishful thinkers to wage slaves.
"My only subject matter is whatever I'm thinking about on any given day," Larrett explained. "The real connective thread is a fascination with cliché and stereotyped thinking: the unexamined thoughts and ideas that roll through our brains and out our mouths without us ever knowing what we mean. And I don't point the finger at others. I find that if I can contrive to overhear myself thinking, the most remarkable nonsense turns up."
A recurring theme in his work is human vulnerability, whether it's conveyed via lottery losses or oddly shaped body parts or a humanoid rabbit — "Bob, the Angry Alcoholic Bunny" — who appears now and then in the book hurling insults, behaving irresponsibly, and throwing up.
"Farts, puke, blood, tears, semen, any and all convulsive, involuntary bodily emissions have always been a rich vein" for cartoonists, Larrett said. "It's not that puke is funny per se. It's the loss of bodily control, and hence loss of dignity." And that's a human condition so universal as to stoke the complex reaction — recognition and denial, mockery and sympathy — that is the key to Larrett's genius.
"Bad Habits" was drawn in black-and-white until three years ago, when Larrett switched to color "because I'm not skillful at using it and wanted to improve. ... So this book is the best of the color years." How did he choose which pieces to include? Whichever among them "caused me to wince least upon rereading," Larrett said, poking fun at every humorist's favorite target: himself. 7 p.m., free. DieselBookstore.com
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