What is Dilbert? Put simply, Dilbert began as a journey into the life of an intelligent yet naïve engineer coupled with a remarkably similar (and cynical) dog - Dogbert - transforming over time into the satirical play on the inner workings of a faceless conglomerate that is loved by millions. This entry concerns itself mostly with the comic strip itself, merely touching on the topic of its author.
Origin of the Strips
The first ever appearances Dilbert made were in...
That's right, before any comics were made, Dilbert had been created for the sole purpose of adding some humour into otherwise dull business meetings. Then, one day, someone thought 'Hey, that's a pretty neat idea!' and suggested that Scott Adams (the author of the Dilbert strips) should try marketing them. And so, our protagonist thought 'Why not?'. And so he did.
The number of strips now in existence is huge, but it all began with only 50 - about seven weeks worth, at the present rate of production. The strips were rated and commented upon by a number of people. (Some, but not all, of whom were acquaintances of the author. If you're thinking 'boy, that's quick!', just remember that the author wasn't really that rich.) Responses to strips were varied, but everyone agreed on one thing: the strip was good!
The next obvious step was syndication. Well, with a response like that, who wouldn't want to take it? And so, this in mind, Scott Adams - a complete unknown with no previous experience in writing comics - sent his strips along, with a condensed account of the reactions of various readers, to a number of organisations.
Responses ranged from complimentary but apologetic through to the downright impersonal. One suggested, on further correspondence, that he take art classes (a perfectly reasonable suggestion, since despite being brilliantly inventive they did look rather like they had been drawn by a twelve-year old).
However, divine providence intervened; the promise behind the strips was spotted by United Media, who published the first official Dilbert strip in April, 1989.
And now, the fun begins...
But Who is this Dilbert Guy?!
Good question. As the comic has evolved, so also have the characters, and Dilbert himself has undergone a number of subtle changes over the years.
Dilbert is an engineer, an everyman character around whom the strip revolves. It's never made entirely clear just what kind of engineer he is, but the evidence points to something in electronics design. Like millions of engineers worldwide, he sits in a cubicle in front of a PC for most of his working day and is plagued by the petty vicissitudes of clueless management, scheming co-workers and a complete inability to get a date with an attractive woman.
The Cast - At The Office
Nowadays, most of the action seems to go on in the company where Dilbert works. There, we find characters ranging from overwrought tech support assistants through to cynical and uncompromising co-workers (often referred to by Dilbert enthusiasts as 'cow-irkers' or 'In-duh-viduals' - don't ask). To first time readers, they may seem like a baffling array of seemingly insane and individually pointless beings. They are a baffling array of seemingly insane and individually pointless beings - most of the humour derives from the richness of the interactions between them. These may seem initially simple and superficial to casual readers, but to the hard-core Dilbert fan there is a depth to them that defies the sheer variety of social idiocies and corporate paradoxes they embody. That makes them funny.
However, to ease the transition period and to help first time readers get the most from their experience, here is a rough guide to the strange and scary people that (somehow) keep the entire conglomerate going...
A short, bald, bespectacled engineer. Wally is Dilbert's main sidekick. He does almost no work at all, but continually complains about his ridiculous performance targets. His complaints usually result in pay rises. His main function is to be Dilbert's foil or antagonist - they have occasional email flame wars.
Alice is an engineer, just like Dilbert and Wally. There are two main differences, of course. First off, unlike Dilbert and Wally, Alice is actually extremely talented, hard working and successful. Second, she's obviously lower paid than both Dilbert and Wally. Well, obviously - she's a woman. It's a shame that this provokes more sad nods of recognition from real life engineers than actual laughs. Her main function in the strip is to deal with sexism issues.
The boss has no name. This is a deliberate move to allow the reader to imagine that it's their boss. He has a distinctive hairstyle - bald on top, with pointy tufts of hair either side. This has led to his being referred to as 'the pointy-haired boss', or simply PHB. This character defines the word 'clueless'.
Carol is the boss's secretary. She therefore runs the office, and does so with a rod of iron and, occasionally, a crossbow. She's apparently scheming to replace the boss, but it's unclear why she's bothering since she has far more power than him already. She's continually unimpressed with the intelligence of the highly qualified engineers around her - with good reason.
Asok (pronounced 'ASHook' - he's from an undefined ethnic group) is an intern - which is to say he's in the office to get work experience for no pay. His main function in the strip is to be the one who has a naïve faith in the system, and to ask the perfectly sensible sounding questions to which the older (read: 'more cynical') characters can give the depressingly humorous answers.
Tina is a technical writer. This is not the same as a typist. Tina takes the half-formed, badly-written documentation that the engineers write and turns it into something useful and readable. She is continually undervalued for this skill. Her main function in the strip is to allow the author to poke fun at engineers' love of jargon. She's also extremely touchy, seeing every single comment anyone says as a personal, possibly sexist insult. She is therefore also the character most used to make fun of the extremes of political correctness.
Mordac, Preventer of Information Services
Every large business has a department full of people responsible for the computer systems, often referred to by 'humorous' nicknames such as 'the help(less) desk'. They usually seem to think that their job is to make sure they fill in their timesheets and type their memos on massively parallel Cray supercomputers, while the engineering department render three dimensional CAD drawings on programmable pocket calculators. Any request for technical support is viewed with deep suspicion. The archetypal field operative for such a department is Mordac - Preventer of Information Services. It is a dark day for any employee whose machine attracts the attentions of Mordac.
Ted the Generic Guy
Whenever there's a need for more than the usual roster of characters, or someone needs to do something that would be out of character for those people named above, Ted the generic guy appears. He is, quite literally, just this guy, you know?
Elbonia is a made-up country. No matter where you live, it's foreign. It's therefore OK to make the generalisation that all Elbonians are stupid, sexist, bearded weirdos, because they ARE - even the women. Elbonia's main export is mud, which is waist-deep everywhere.
As was stated earlier, the very first use of Dilbert was in business presentations, in order to elucidate points and add some light comic relief. However, a significant amount of activity takes place in Dilbert's own home, and a whole cast of characters has evolved with this in mind. Some of them do occasionally turn up at his office for one reason or another.
Dogbert is the main character in the strip aside from Dilbert. In fact, in his mind, the strip should be called 'Dogbert'. Dogbert dreams of ruling the world and, in fact, has made several starts on schemes to do just that. He also runs his own consultancy, and looks good in hats. Not bad for a dog.
The anti-Dogbert. Catbert actually originated in the home - he attacked Ratbert (see below). But he very quickly left the house, and found his natural home in Dilbert's office as head of Human Resources. As a cat, he fits the job perfectly - like cats, HR people don't care whether humans live or die, as long as they get fed, and they like to play with their prey before making them redundant.
A rat. He escaped from a laboratory and got adopted by Dilbert and Dogbert, reluctantly. His main function in the strip is to be the perpetual underdog(!).
Dilbert's garbageman is the most intelligent man in the world. His main function in the strip is to bring Dilbert down a peg or two when he thinks he's clever. You might very well say 'hey, he can't be that clever if he's working as a garbageman'. Since he is, by definition, more intelligent than you, you can't be expected to understand his life choices. He probably has a really, really good reason for being a garbageman, which everyone else in the world is too dumb to understand.
Dilbert had a girlfriend for a while. It didn't last, unfortunately. Interestingly, quite a lot of readers complained when Dilbert looked in danger of settling down and being happy. They identified with the single, geeky guy, and were upset that he might get a girl before they did.
Mom and Dad
Dilbert's mom is sometimes called 'The Dilmom'. She appears to be wearing a hat, but that is in fact her hair. She's incredibly technically competent, so much so that she makes her son look stupid. Dilbert's dad has never appeared in the strip. He's in a 24 hour 'all you can eat' restaurant, and won't leave until he's had all he can eat.
Bob the Dinosaur
Dilbert is a family comic strip. In the extremely conservative society that is modern day America, that means that characters can't use offensive, extreme swear words like 'damn', or 'hell', or make reference to Satan, the prince of darkness1. So instead of that, we have 'Phil, Prince of Insufficient Light'. His job is to 'darn people to heck'. His main function in the strip is to make fun of the sort of society where you can buy a child an assault rifle for their sixteenth birthday, but you can't put the word 'damn' in a newspaper comic strip.Everybody Loves Dilbert!
Well, nearly everyone.