If you like Garfield, you won't like this

Review: Richard Short's Klaus.

Richard Short
Nobrow, 68pp, £15

Richard Short's Klaus the cat is lazy, prone to cod philosophising, and has four-panel "adventures" with dubious continuity between episodes. But if you dive in expecting something like an even more generic version of Garfield, the blandest of the US gag strips, you're in for a nasty surprise.

While Klaus owes a clear debt to the US comic strip form, it takes their broad structure and then subverts it, creating something altogether weirder. The strip is not unlike Greg Stekelman's Sad Jokes (sample joke: A man walks into a pub. He is an alcoholic whose drink problem is destroying his family.), in being syntactically similar, even identical, to something comforting and familiar, while aiming for an utterly different meaning.

If there's one strip in particular which Klaus is aimed at, it's Charles Schultz's Peanuts. The art — simple black-and-white linework — is similar, and certain visual cues give it away, none more so than Klaus lying on his back on a mound of earth. And Peanuts is less hard to subvert than you might think if your memories of the strip remain tinted with nostalgia. Charlie Brown's existential despair, and the meanderings the strip occasionally fell into in its later years, could have been lifted wholesale and put in Klaus.

Other links are just as evident, though. The Garfield connection shines through — there's only so much variation on the lazy cat theme, and all the variation in the world won't sever that link — as does the weirdness of Tove Jansson's Moomin strips. Short draws his cats, Klaus and Otto, as standard cartoon animals, but things take a turn for the strange at his portrayal of other species. Birds have hands, a dog wears glasses, and weirdest of all are the rats, who are drawn as six-inch high naked people with tails. One particularly bizarre strip (and choosing the oddest ones here is not an easy challenge) involves Otto seeing the rats just a bit too well rendered: their lithe, naked bodies cavorting in the grass for the first two panels (tails still fully present), before switching to the regular viewpoint and showing them running away from his leering eyes. The punchline, delivered by Otto as the last of the rats throws an acorn at him: "Sometimes I'm just overcome by the strength of my visual perception".

The next strip, incidentally, features two moles discussing the fact that a cloud looks like a cloud — "In moles, imagination is governed by reason!" — before "forest spirit" walks behind them into a hole in a tree, and lays in wait, "to feast upon the bounty of unwary travellers". The spirit has Otto's body and a homunculus' face. He is never seen again.

My favourite strip — one of the few with a real conclusion, and one which could, with swapped characters, pass unnoticed in a Peanuts anthology — involves Klaus being repeatedly told he's doing "that condescending look", eventually gazing into a pond and concluding that he must have "condescending features".

Occasionally a string of strips will develop into a proto-storyline, as happens when Klaus hatches an egg or Otto gets taken to court for pushing a rat over with a stick. While they serve to make the book more coherent, though, it's clear they aren't where Short's heart is. The stories generally skip beats, make no sense, and end abruptly.

You may have noticed I've been focusing on Short's influences, on my highs and lows, on the weird strips and the strange turns, and not saying anything, really, about the quality of the actual book. And that's because I honestly don't know. I want to hate it: it makes no sense. Nothing happens. The characters wander around, exchanging words, and then the strip ends. Lather rinse repeat. And yet there's something so charming about the whole thing that I can't bring myself to do so.

The best shortcut might be this: Take a few Peanuts strips. Cut out the last panel, shuffle, and stick them back in in a random order. If the resulting non-sequiturs and aborted jokes leave you feeling bored and uninspired, steer clear of Klaus. But if you still find the greatness of Schultz's creation shines through, if form alone can give you enjoyment, then maybe Klaus might be for you after all.

Photograph: Nobrow Press/Richard Short

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror