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.