You may know of cartoonist Brooke McEldowney through his daily comic strip, 9 Chickweed Lane. What many fans may not realize is that Mr. McEldowney produces another strip, Pibgorn. I have never seen Pibgorn in any print newspaper (there are editorial reasons for this, which will become apparent), although the Washington Post does include a link to it in the online comics section. The strip currently resides at gocomics.com.
I ran across Pibgorn quite by chance – I think I misread the title and was curious as to what kind of comic would be called “Pigborn” – and it was strange. Strange but compelling enough to get my interest, so that I kept coming back and trying to figure it out: who are these characters? What are these characters? What the heck is going on? Is it some kind of Heavy Metal story? And… are comics allowed to be so… sensuous? Well, a comic featuring a succubus as a primary character would pretty much have to be sensuous.
Yes, a succubus. Drusilla is one-third of the central cast of characters; the other two are Pibgorn, a fairy; and Geoff, the former church organist (former, because the church does not look kindly upon associations with supernatural creatures). You might guess, from the image below, what some of the editorial concerns are for putting this strip into family newspapers.
Here’s the official description:
A fantastic saga of adventure both high and low, of forbidden passion and iambic pentameter, of fays, fools, organists, demons, accordions, heaven, hell and Shakespeare, Pibgorn follows the whims and flights of its eponymous fairy heroine as she plies her conviction that there must be more to life than depositing dew drops on dandelions and sleeping under mushrooms.
More to life, indeed. McEldowney’s story arcs can be long, lasting a year or more. The stories move slowly, and even Mr. McEldowney confesses that he often does not know how they will turn out – but they always do, and the artwork has evolved into something well elevated above the status of mere comic strip. His use of irregularly shaped panels, sometimes allowing characters to spill from one frame to the next or even to hold onto the frames, is not unique, but it is unusual and engaging. String all the weekday comics together, and it’s not so much a comic strip as it is a collection of graphic novels, published in serial form.
My favorite story arc to date (now available as a book) was McEldowney’s 2006-2007 treatment of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, played out by characters drawn from both of his comic strips (this is not the only example of characters crossing over between the strips, but it is the most extensive and integral use of all of his major characters in one story arc). McEldowney’s version is faithful to Shakespeare’s dialogue, but conceived in a 1930s – 1940s style, with a few effective little twists. Pibgorn plays the role of a female Puck, enamored of her lord Oberon (played by Geoff) and jealous of his love for Titania (played by Drusilla). As Shakespeare did not write any dialogue to reflect this, McEldowney conveys the situation visually, and quite well.
McEldowney himself writes that his A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a hit with college and high-school literature professors, although he was also criticized for making it “too salacious.” Indeed, his portrayal of the final wedding-night scenes was cause for editorial concerns and contributed to his changing to a different online comic syndicate. As McEldowney describes it:
I have to confess that I nearly scrubbed the project in its final days, refusing to capitulate when I was told that my adaptation had become too salacious for readers (“soft porn” was the term ventured editorially, and highly inaccurately, to describe it) and that I perforce would have to tone it down. The truth is, the steeds of prurience had already thundered from those stables — but because the subject was Shakespeare, my online custodians had been snoring at their swabs…. With less than an hour to spare, and desirous to see the story to its close, I relented and bowdlerized the penultimate drawing as stipulated (the honeymoon couples abed on their wedding night were required to be dressed — turning Lysander and Hermia into Ken and Barbie — a corruption now purged, I am pleased to say, from the book).
In defense of his end result, I will say this: A Midsummer Night’s Dream was never children’s lit. The only reason that we don’t find such plays “salacious” in this day and age is because the language is not easily accessible to most of us, and with the minimal stage directions of the time, we don’t fully grasp the action. McEldowney’s comic version may be an adaptation, but the action is indeed faithful to the Bard’s intent and certainly makes Shakespeare accessible and understandable. What more could a literature buff desire?
After this Shakespearean diversion, Pibgorn returned to its usual flights of total fantasy. The saga continues, and I continue to look forward to it every weekday as a welcome break from a lot of tiresome reality.