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Dilbert Turns 30 (2019)
Book Reviews

Dilbert Turns 30 (2019)

The world’s most popular office-skewering comic turns the big 3-0 in this 47th collection of sanity-saving funnies.

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Think about where you were in 1989. Heck, think about if you were in 1989, as many of you reading this probably weren’t even born yet. The final year of the totally awesome 1980s ranked pretty high among the most transformational in both world and pop-cultural history, giving us a lot to talk about: the first year of the first George Bush presidency, Tiananmen Square protests, the Berlin Wall fell, Sega released their Genesis console (and Nintendo their Game Boy), Cher tried to turn back time with fishnets and The Simpsons began their history-shattering TV run. Not too shabby.

Nestled somewhere in there is April 16, 1989. Remember that date. There won’t be a test, but you’ll have an interesting piece of comic strip trivia that could win you a bar bet. That’s the date when cartoonist Scott Adams introduced Dilbert in a handful of newspapers across the US, and the world of hapless engineers and office shenanigans would never be the same. The comic – as most things – would see many changes, including an animated series, merchandising, endless wall calendars, controversy, and even secondary careers for Adams as a hypnotic marketing guru.

A flip through Dilbert Turns 30 is a reminder that time marches on, but you don’t mess with a classic. OK, you can fiddle with a classic, tweaking what works to make it work slightly better, or to help stay relevant when not just the world, but the entire delivery system has completely changed. Adams knows this better than most, and certainly better than anyone in the dying art form called newspaper funnies. His eponymous office antihero has remained largely unchanged over the years, yet still shed the two things most iconically associated with the strip: his famous upturned tie and those suffocating cubicles, as noted in last year’s wrongly-titled Cubicles That Make You Envy the Dead.

It’s also the 48th Dilbert collection, if that matters. Collected here are daily and Sunday strips culled from April 30th, 2018 through February 24th, 2019, all colorized and reproduced here on average paper stock. You won’t actually be getting that landmark “30th Anniversary Strip” here, but you’ll come close. The strip is still published in over 2,000 newspapers from around the world, but a betting man (or a betting woman) could estimate the combined number of eyeballs reading Dilbert comics on the web, or email, phones, tablets, Kindles or even pasted on company bulletin boards most likely dwarfs the old dead tree network without batting an eyelash.

Or maybe not. Lots of people still read newspapers, including comic strips printed on paper, which helps explain why these rectangular collections keep coming.

Most of the strips collected here are the usual office drone inanity that’s made Dilbert a staple – literally and figuratively – of cubicle life for three decades now. While nothing stands out in this collection Dilbert fans can expect a healthy dosing of Adams’ commentary on subjects du jour, including blockchain nonsense, artificial-intelligence, intergenerational co-workers, drones and more. It’s a nice slice of the topical and stubbornly persistent, made fresh with skillful variations on themes and puns.

Remember the office robot who gained self-awareness? Well, he got married and spawned a half-human cyborg son. This introduces all-new domestic possibilities, like text fighting with his brood’s baby mama over letting “his human parts atrophy because they are weak and stupid.” Cue up Carl, the psychotic self-driving car with a death wish (yours), mind-reading devices, vaporizing first contact and mind-numbing meetings…it’s more Dilbert, as you like it.

There’s not much in the way of celebratory bonuses in Dilbert Turns 30, which is disappointing given how creative these collections have been in the past, though there is an extra fifty comics tacked on at the end. Culled from the past ten years of Dilbert, these “top 50” strips have been selected using science and magic (i.e. analytics, permissions and licensing requests). Apart from the ‘return’ of ties and cubicles, there’s little else to distinguish 2019 Dilbert from 2009 Dilbert, a stark reminder that while the technology and toys may change, clueless coworkers and idiots rarely do.

And don’t miss the personal introduction from Adams himself, which is filled with interesting (for some) bits of trivia about how he’s slyly adapted Dilbert to the times we live in, including the ubiquity of smartphones and our ever-degrading attention spans. Evolution in a comic strip is rare, but to see elements of our culture folded seamlessly into one that people actually read and care about is even more impressive. And that’s the biggest praise one can give for Dilbert Turns 30, and the strip as a whole; it cares about what you think to keep trying to make you laugh – and get your money.

About the Author: Trent McGee