What is there to say now about cartoonist Scott Adams that hasn’t already been said by a thousand other people, mostly better than I could say it?
Maybe that while others may enjoy seeing a rich jerk get rightfully clobbered by public opinion, I find it sad.
In case you’ve missed it, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip posted a rant on his YouTube channel in which he urged white people to separate themselves from Black people. The next day, while attempting to supposedly put his comments into context, he made them worse.
As Gene Weingarten wrote in his excellent analysis of Adams’ meltdown, “every viewer of 1950s TV Westerns knows when you walk into quicksand, you thrash as little as possible.” Not Adams, who fell into it up to his neck, arrogantly refused to stay calm or get help, and has just gone under for the final time.
Dozens of the remaining newspapers that were carrying “Dilbert” have now pulled the comic strip, and as I was posting this entry, I learned that he’s also been dropped by the syndicate that distributed the cartoons.
Maybe Adams will find another syndicate to distribute his work, or maybe he will self-distribute it, but effectively, if the major newspaper chains and syndicates don’t want his comic strip any more, “Dilbert” is out of business, at least as a mainstream property.
Adams’ behavior this weekend may have shocked casual comic strip readers, but people who follow the media business — and syndicated cartoonists in particular — know that he’s been increasingly off the rails. His final self-immolation is not a surprise.
For years, Adams has been flirting with conspiracy theories, far-right crackpots, white supremacists and assorted other no-good-niks. As far as I can tell, his conspiracy theories mostly hadn’t gotten into the comic strip, which at one point was carried by 2,000 newspapers, including the Post-Gazette; although I’ll admit, I haven’t followed “Dilbert” closely for a while now.
It may be hard to remember just how fresh and different “Dilbert” was in the early 1990s. There had been other workplace-based comic strips — Bill Holbrook’s “On the Fastrack,” satirizing office life, has been around since 1984, and before that there was “Motley’s Crew,” about life in a factory.
But “Dilbert” was something different. It combined a satire of white-collar office drudgery with a distinctly early ’90s sense of irony and snark. It captured better than any other mainstream comic strip the Gen X ethos that “everything in life is kind of bullshit, so we might as well laugh at it.”
Most importantly, it was the first comic strip to capitalize on the newly emerging Internet culture, before the World Wide Web was even widely known.
At a time when the Internet mostly consisted of email and text-based news groups, I first became aware of “Dilbert” when people started scanning in the comic strips from their local newspapers and sending them out as bitmap files.
Keep in mind that flatbed image scanners were primitive and very expensive in the early ’90s. My first one, acquired used, only scanned grayscale images, and it took forever to scan even a simple file. Emailing an image to someone else was a chore, too, because they had to know how to decode it at the other end.
So you had to be pretty fanatical to want to cut “Dilbert” out of the paper, scan it, convert it to a bitmap file, and then post it to an electronic bulletin board. (Most of the other bitmaps on the Internet at that point were porn. Porn enthusiasts are always early-adopters of new technology.)
“Dilbert” inspired that fanaticism. It was that unique.
Anyway, around 1993 or so, although “Dilbert” wasn’t running in any of the local print newspapers, I started seeing the comic strip in newsgroups and began following it. Our college newspaper already carried “Doonesbury” and “Calvin & Hobbes,” and I talked the comics editor into adding “Dilbert” as well. Pretty soon “Dilbert” strips were being clipped and pasted to people’s office doors and dorm walls, and it wasn’t long before “Dilbert” was a world-wide phenomenon, spawning books, toys, an animated TV series and all sorts of spin-off products. Adams had a popular email newsletter (“Dogbert’s New Ruling Class”) 20 years before anyone had heard of a “Substack.”
I’ve seen several people speculating that with newspapers in a death-spiral, Scott Adams is just trying to make himself relevant again by stirring up controversy.
With all due respect to Adams, I don’t think that’s true. I’ve been following his career for 30 years, and I think he truly believes the racist nonsense he’s spewing, and is somewhat disappointed that people don’t appreciate his brilliance.
There’s a common malady in people who are wildly successful in one domain. They suddenly think they should be equally successful in everything else they try. So actors decide to try to become singers — see the “Golden Throats” albums that Rhino Records put out — or athletes try to become broadcasters. Sometimes they’re successful (everyone laughed when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California the first time, not so much when he got re-elected). Other times, they face-plant.
Adams has tried to expand his “Dilbert” empire several times, usually with laughable results, including a line of frozen foods called the “Dilberito” (described by the New York Times as being so unpleasant to eat that it “could have been designed only by a food technologist or by someone who eats lunch without much thought to taste”); and a restaurant in Pleasanton, Calif., “Stacey’s Cafe,” that limped along under Adams’ ownership until he finally sold it in 2010.
As the old adage goes, a person’s reach should always exceed their grasp, so there’s no shame in trying to do something outside of your usual skill set, and failing.
But there is a certain hubris if you believe that because you were successful in one area — say, creating a syndicated cartoon strip — you are entitled to be successful in everything else you do. And Adams definitely has a sense of entitlement. He flat-out thinks that he’s a genius, and that no one else is capable of keeping up with up him.
That attitude has been clear for years in any of the things that Scott Adams has written outside of the “Dilbert” comic strip, including his blog and his social media posts. His recent books have been almost unreadable. I received one as a Christmas present about 10 years ago and found it so aggressively rude and obnoxious, I gave it to Goodwill after getting about 50 pages into it.
Besides holding a lot of misogynistic attitudes (which could explain why both of his marriages have ended in divorce), Adams in general seems to believe that white, nerdy men are America’s most persecuted minority. This isn’t the first time that Adams — who has had success beyond most people’s wildest dreams — has whined that Black people and minorities are holding him back.
It was hardly a surprise that another rich, white, nerdy, arrogant man immediately leapt to his defense:
Elon Musk, like Scott Adams, had amazing success in one domain (technology) which has led him to believe he deserves success in everything he does — in some cases, like his takeover of Twitter, with disastrous results.
None of this is meant to excuse Adams or defend anything he’s said. He’s a rich jerk — and apparently a proud racist — who is getting what he deserves.
As a comic-strip buff, Adams’ downfall does remind me of the last years of Al Capp, who created the innovative and successful comic strip “Li’l Abner,” about a group of hillbillies and their adventures.
“Li’l Abner” was launched in 1934. By the 1950s, it was being read by 70 million Americans daily. Capp became a popular talk-show guest and regular contributor to newspapers and magazines.
Unfortunately, like Adams, the more successful Capp became, the nastier he got. He became a crank, publicly attacking the feminist movement and anti-Vietnam War protestors. He was accused of exposing himself to women and supposedly made an indecent proposal to actress Goldie Hawn. (When she rebuffed his attempt to force her to have sex with him, Capp is said to have replied, “go and marry a Jewish dentist … you’ll never get anywhere in this business.”)
In 1972, Capp was arrested for attempted sexual assault and pleaded guilty. The incident ended his public-speaking career, and hundreds of his remaining newspaper clients dropped “Li’l Abner.” The comic strip ended in 1977 and Capp died two years later, in obscurity.
“Li’l Abner” is mostly forgotten now, except for the Broadway musical it spawned at the height of its popularity, and the related film.
As someone who is a big fan of cartooning in all forms (specifically of newspaper-style cartoons) and who was a champion of Scott Adams’ work (even in a tiny way), it’s sad to watch him go the route of Al Capp.
I don’t feel any glee at seeing him get his comeuppance. I find it mostly pathetic and sad, and, unfortunately, all too predictable.
UPDATE: Like I said, he’s proud of his remarks and he’s mostly annoyed that you puny mortals didn’t understand his brilliance: