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Book Review: Dilbert 2.0 – 20 Years of Dilbert by Scott Adams

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Dilbert is one of the most successful comic strips of all time. It's syndicated in a mind-boggling 2000 newspapers spread across 65 countries. It's now been running a stunning 20 years. And – shock horror – it's actually brilliant.

In popular culture, the cream of the crop rarely rises to the top. Reality shows dominate the TV ratings. Pop schlock rules the Billboard 100. Hollywooden popcorn flicks bring in the pennies faster than genuinely challenging, compelling fare. I'm not lamenting these facts: I love to switch my brain off and laugh at a cheap sitcom as much as the next guy. But I can't help but be saddened that the finest each medium has to offer gets ignored by your average Joe Q. Taxpayer, even if the critics do rave.

That's why I'm astonished that Scott Adams' Dilbert – to my mind, the greatest comic strip of all time, ahead of close runners like Peanuts and Far Side – has been such a resounding success. Not just on the fringes, either – "The Dilbert Principle", a collection of strips published in 1996, reached number one on the New York Times Bestseller list; Dilbert himself is an office icon, a household name. How on earth did this happen?

To answer this, we must first discuss the rather more obvious question of what Dilbert is about. Ostensibly it's an anonymous office worker – or "cubicle-dweller" – by the name of Dilbert, and his co-workers and pets, but to boil down the premise of Dilbert to such vagaries really is oversimplifying. Dilbert is really "about" satire – in particular, satirizing business micromanagement, bureaucracy and office politics. It straddles a fine line between the observational and the surreal; Adams never ventures into Far Side-style insanity but he is happy to break down the boundaries of reality to deliver his humor. The idiosyncrasies of both low-level and high-level workers are explored, but there's no doubt Adams' frustrations lie rather more with the latter than the former: upper management are typically presented as anything between merely incompetent to thoroughly vicious, while the engineers are merely lacking in social skills.

It's in these characters and themes that Dilbert's success really lies: from these stem the razor-sharp observations Scott Adams makes on the topic of office culture. Having worked in cubicles for years both before and during Dilbert's run in newspapers, he clearly had a vast well of material to draw from, and it's clear his experiences inform his comics. (He also notes in this collection's introduction that many of the strip's characters are based on real people he knew at work.) Sure, the boss in the comic (typically referred to as Pointy-Haired Boss; he lacks any real name) is rather more sadistic and fall-down incompetent than any boss in real life (one would hope, at least); but the traits he exhibits are genuine attitudes currently exhibited in big business taken to their logical extreme. It's a rich source of humor, and one that Adams reaps great reward from.

The Internet gained ground roughly in line with Dilbert's rise to success: it's safe to say that that innovation not only helped with the proliferation of the strip, but also in expanding the number of people exposed to the mismanagement displayed in the comic, which really exploded in the mid-to-late-'90s, as the dot-com boom came about.

The strip is far from entirely based in the office, however, particularly in the early years. Dilbert also has a home life, which he shares with his anthropomorphic dog, Dogbert. Megalomaniac in ambition, cute in looks, Dogbert is arguably the comic's funniest character; his attempts to enslave humans the world over have prompted some of Adams' all-time finest strips. Fictional fourth-world country Elbonia also features frequently, particularly in comics that discuss outsourcing. Multitudes of other characters and locations feature too, ranging from near-retirement office worker Wally to a family of dinosaurs, but to go into any greater depth would ruin many of the surprises and punchlines that come as you read through the strips.

You may note that much of the above review generalizes about Dilbert's history. That's simply because commenting on the specifics of what's contained here would be nigh-on impossible. The collection of strips presented here – numbering well over 2,000, spread across more than 600 pages – cover every aspect and era of Dibert's history; from early attempts at puns to the most refined, well-observed office humour. A celebration of twenty years of the comic – the strip is two decades old in mid-2009 – every year is well-represented in the tome, with particular attention being paid to the early years, and strips that were published in mere handfuls of small newspapers. Every regular and semi-regular character is featured in a number of comics; while a considerable number of themed "series" – strips that connected across several days' worth of strips – are also present. Strips originally published on weekdays are four-panel black-and-whites; Sundays are full-color eight-panel.

The real draw for the Dilbert enthusiast isn't just the comics, though. The book also comes with a new 32-page introduction by Adams – and it's a marvelous read. He discusses all the ups on the way to getting Dilbert published – his letters from and to Jack Cassady, the host of a show about cartooning Adams saw when young, are a particular highlight. Adams is refreshingly candid, and his economical writing style – well-honed on his superb blog – is a delight to read. He also offers observations on specific cartoons throughout the book – anything from a few words noting the development of a character, to whole paragraphs about the aftermath of a cartoon being published. Even those who are familiar with the whole Dilbert canon will still find plenty of new material here to read.

Which is good. Because – bombshell time – the comics here are available online. Well, not all of them are quite yet – the online archives currently only go back ten years. But more are "coming soon". Presumably, soon, the whole back catalogue will be available on the web. I'll be the first to admit that that is not the same as being able to read them in-print, on high-quality paper, with author annotations. But for the main draw of a book like this, priced at a significant $85 MSRP, to be available on the Internet for free, is liable to put some off.

Another qualm is that only 2,000 or so Dilbert strips are included here, out of a total around 6,000. Other comic strips have seen their whole back catalogue published – why not Dilbert? I can't answer that question, but thankfully, there is an addition that goes some way to making up for this: on the back cover of the book lurks a computer DVD that contains folders of every Dilbert comic every published, broken down by year. It only runs up to May 2008, when the book was finalized, but it hasn't been locked, so you can add more recent strips yourself, if you so please. It's an addition that goes some way to making up for the limitations of the book itself.

Speaking of that book.. with most books, packaging and presentation isn't really worthy of note. But with a compendium packaged as lovingly as this, I'd be remiss to overlook the book's aesthetics. Weighing in at a hefty nine pounds and slightly larger than A4 in terms of page area – not exactly easy to read on a train or plane, it must be admitted – the book is contained in a solid, sturdy outer case that's appropriately designed and sparsely decorated. (A detachable piece of card on the top side of the book is the only clear indication of what's inside). Removed the book proper from the outer shell and you're greeted with a sturdy tome that uses thick, glossy paper and quality binding to help make the reading experience as pleasurable as possible. If treated well, it looks like it would stay in fine condition for decades – a must when investing in a purchase as lavish as this.

In harsh economic times, it can be hard to justify expensive purchases like this. Spending $50+ on a book is a tough decision at the best of times; with most of the material here available for free on the Internet, I'm sure plenty of people will decide this isn't for them at the moment. But if you're a big fan of Dilbert, you won't want to miss out on this. It's a collection that looks stunning on the shelf, while the comics contained within is genuinely wonderful – they're not just the best in Dilbert's history, they're among the greatest comic strips ever published. The DVD containing all the strips sweetens the deal considerably, too – and the detailed introduction and comments from the witty and erudite Adams are a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the story behind the scenes. Newcomers will probably want to check out some of the strips free on the Dilbert website first – it's hard to put into words just what makes Dilbert so great, but even if you could it'll never appeal to everyone. But for those already acclimatised to the world of Dilbert, this collection comes very highly recommended.

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