Beetle Bailey is a well-known anachronism, its characters stuck in sort of slightly post-WWII time warp boot camp, with all the familiar Hollywood stereotypical characters, the hapless protagonist Beetle and his antagonist, Sarge, the bookworm, Plato, the lothario, Killer, the kiss ass Lieutenant, the out-of-touch General, and so on. And there’s the ignorant country bumpkin, Zero, the butt of many jokes because he takes everything literally, not knowing any better, or maybe because he’s simply stupid.
While it’s a popular strip, it’s also lame, or maybe it’s popular because it’s lame. Nevertheless, I remember one strip from many years ago that reached some sort of (possibly accidental) transcendence.
The guys are all ragging on Zero, as usual, including Sarge. Suddenly, Zero bursts out, “Hey Sarge! Are you fat, or what?”
There follows a momentary stunned silence, and Zero cracks up. “Ha!” he says. “I turned the tables on you there, boy! Ol’ Zero doesn’t do it often, but sometimes he gets a real zinger off. Ha, ha! Bet you never saw that one coming, did you, Sarge?” Or words to that effect.
And with each self-congratulatory remark, a few more of the guys leave, until finally, Sarge is also gone, leaving Zero all alone, still with a self-satisfied grin on his face. He turns and faces out at the reader and says, “They really hate it when you turn the tables on them.”
I view the entire thing as a sort of Zen fable. Did he “turn the tables on them?” Well, no, not in the sense of actually making a clever remark at their expense. So the ending is ironic; the joke is still on Zero.
Except, no, it isn’t. Many of the jokes at his expense are really no more clever than his. Moreover, they did leave the room when confronted with…what? Joyful innocence? Impenetrable obliviousness? The Fool, in the archetypical sense?
Hard to say, really. But Zero turned what was supposed to be his own humiliation into something else, and he did it by virtue of the very qualities that were the object of derision. It’s hard to see that as anything other than poetic justice.
Because we really do hate it when you turn the tables on us.