I laugh, therefore I am

Red sun: The philosophy of the Russian Revolution explained via a hilarious Pokemon mashup, on Existential Crisis

Red sun: The philosophy of the Russian Revolution explained via a hilarious Pokemon mashup, on Existential Crisis

Ahead of World Philosophy Day, a funnies guide to philosophy and its great masters with an eclectic pick of comic books, webcomics and one truly special Twitter account

In 2005, the United Nations decided that the third Thursday of every November would henceforth be celebrated as World Philosophy Day. Well, ‘decided’ isn’t the right word here. What actually happened was a ‘proclamation’.

To quote the official document: “At the request of the Kingdom of Morocco, an item on the proclamation of a World Philosophy Day was included in the agenda of the 171st session of the Executive Board and was examined together with the feasibility study prepared by the Secretariat in that regard”. Proclamations, kingdoms and executive boards: are anyone else’s eyes glazing over? This, in a way, is the problem with how philosophy is perceived by both educators and students.

If you’re looking to feed vitamins to a child, you may have to make them believe it’s actually sugary junk food. If you’re Tom Sawyer trying to get someone else to paint the fence, you’ll have to make them believe that fence-painting is the most gratifying thing a 12-year-old can do (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain). Remember that scene from How I Met Your Mother where Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) demonstrates that anything said in “chant mode” by a large group of people sounds feel-good and uplifting? It’s the same principle, basically (which is also the reason why a How I Met Your Mother reference was smuggled into an article about philosophy).

Here, then, are some comic books, webcomics and one truly special Twitter account that teach you the basics of philosophy — and the lives of iconic philosophers — in a manner that’s not just accessible but also hilarious.

Action Philosophers!

The first title on my list is Action Philosophers! by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. This series, published by Dark Horse, presents some of the most influential philosophers of all time, from Plato to Bodhidharma to Freud, as characters in a typical American action comics title.

The series has two primary strengths. The first is its affectionate, over-the-top parody of action comics. This works because Van Lente and Dunlavey have clearly grown up on a steady diet of these books. The punches land with comical intensity, the speech bubbles are lovingly cartoonish and the overall joie de vivre of a kicks-and-punches caper is captured to a T. The other great thing is the high premium on factual accuracy: behind all the nudge-winks and the belly-whopping laughs is a deadly serious commitment to the truth. Van Lente and Dunlavey created a disclaimer in the very first issue: if any readers were to notice a factual error, they could send the publishers a citation-backed note about it.

Both strengths converge in constantly surprising ways. Consider the first issue. The cover features Plato, drawn with purple skin, a la Devil Hulk. The Plato-Hulk is drawn mid-flight, as he is about to smash (“Plato SMASH!”) his opponent in a wrestling ring. We learn that he became named Plato because the word means ‘broad’; Plato had really broad shoulders in his youth and was an amateur wrestler of some prominence. After he could not qualify as an Olympics wrestler, he “got into the philosophy racket” on the advice of his friend the Oracle of Delphi (drawn hilariously as an anonymous telemarketer, peddling prophecies for four dollars a minute), who told him to go see a man called Socrates.

This is the kind of factoid that will never fail to get a chuckle out of discerning readers: Nelson Mandela was an amateur boxer, David Foster Wallace was a nationally ranked age-group tennis player, Albert Camus was an avid junior-level footballer and so on.

And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to read an “All-Sex Special” featuring “the hard-drinkin’ hard-lovin’ Saint Augustine” and “Ayn Rand’s non-Objectivist love affair”?

Existential Comics

Existential Comics is written and drawn by Cory Mohler, a former software professional. Using modern-day pop culture references, meme culture jokes and a healthy dose of old-fashioned scepticism, Mohler cuts through the academic jargon and delivers the juiciest bits from the teachings of Nietzsche, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft… all the way to modern-day biggies like Christopher Hitchens (whom he skewered memorably)

A brilliant example of Mohler’s style is his famous ‘Philosophy Force Five’ strip. The pop culture parodied here is, of course, the Fox Force Five storyline from the film Pulp Fiction (Uma Thurman’s character starred in a cancelled TV show of the same name, an all-female vigilante caper). The Philosophy Force Five are all female philosophers who absolutely demolish the arguments of the “Scientismists”, narrow-minded ‘science-first’ thinkers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and company who argue that science is inherently more beneficial to mankind than philosophy. The Force Five are introduced via cue cards. For instance, Simone De Beauvoir is introduced as “The Beaver”. Specialities: “Existentialism, feminism, writing better novels than Sartre”. Similarly, Elizabeth Anscombe aka “The Old Man”. Specialities: “Language, intentionality, being grumpy about young people doing sex with each other”

This is the philosophy of the internet era: irreverent, intertextual and incapable of giving a single hoot about hoary old men who think they know better than everybody else (Bonus: Mohler has a “Days without a Kant/Can’t pun” counter; last week, this crossed four years).

Dead Philosophers

I stumbled upon Dead Philosophers after a recommendation by Mohler himself. This webcomic has some of Mohler’s postmodernist sarcasm, but it is, on the whole, more formally conventional than Existential Comics. Also, it is a static panel strip, which means that it uses only slightly varying photographs in successive panels, depending more on quicksilver wit and pow-wow dialogue to make its point.

The most recent strip is the kind of black humour that the ongoing epoch both needs and deserves. It pits Ayn Rand against Nietzsche, with the former taunting the latter about his abysmal book sales (comparatively speaking) and general lack of popularity in today’s individualist, thoroughly mercantile world where “the blood of lesser people” is fair game. Nietzsche is defensive but agrees that he ought to have been given some credit as one of the inspirations behind Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. After Rand’s taunting finally gets to Nietzsche, he claims he is “not a beta cuck, but dynamite”. Rand then delivers this coup de grace, “Friedrich, I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Alan Greenspan the day I took his virginity: this interaction is of no further use to me and I find your whimpering repulsive.”

Daily Nous Philosophy Comics

Daily Nous is not just comics, strictly speaking — it is primarily a website that collates the best articles about philosophy from around the internet. But once a week, it also publishes original philosophy-centric comics written and drawn by one of their four in-house artists: Pete Mandik, Tanya Kostochka, Rachel Katler and Ryan Lake. They each have a different and immediately identifiable style — my favourite is Katler, whose strips are called “Ad Hoc”.

In one of her most retweeted panels, she explains why the universe is often described as “lying on the back of a giant turtle”, with the corollary being that “it’s turtles all the way down”. It’s simple: turtles stack up nicely on top of each other while giraffes, for instance, would be a tangle of limbs and necks. Jellyfish would merge into an amorphous blob, hedgehogs would be in perpetual pain, stinging each other in bad areas — you get the picture.

Kim Kierkegaardashian

The last entry is a Twitter account, the inimitable Kim Kierkegaardashian, an anonymous modern-day master who mashes the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard with the tweets of Kim Kardashian. It’s one of those things that makes you wonder: “How the hell has nobody thought of this before?”

Where do I begin? Only last week, there was this: “Weep in quiet solitude, empty and again empty out your pain. Your eyes will appear hydrated and refreshed.” There are the more predictable ones every one in a while, but they are still somehow supremely effective, like: “Here’s a quick anti-aging trick: die”.

Some are so well-written that they almost transcend the Twitter medium. Like this one: “I am obsessed with vintage, because I too will be properly appreciated only after I am dead.” And its follow-ups: “I love online vintage shopping, taking possession of the past in service of the truth”, and “When you try on a vintage piece, ask yourself: Is this how I would dare present myself to Socrates?”

Kim Kierkegaardashian is, first and foremost, oodles of fun. But it also tells you how philosophy can be used to bridge worlds that would have otherwise never collided. And yes, the account is self-aware to a frightening degree, especially about the pitfalls of easily digestible 140-character nuggets of wisdom. Consider its take on Twitter experimenting with 280 characters: “Your tweets may be twice as long, but they’re still as empty inside”.

Aditya Mani Jha is a commissioning editor with Penguin Random House

Published on November 10, 2017

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