If you like Garfield, you won't like this

Review: Richard Short's Klaus.

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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The mass trespass that opened the gates of the countryside

Over the 18th and 19th century, common land was privatised. But 85 years ago, a group of radical ramblers decided to make their mark on it. 

On 24 April 1932, hundreds of ramblers from Manchester and Sheffield set off for the highest point in the Peaks. They were intending to highlight the gross unfairness of their severely limited rights to access an outstandingly beautiful area of country which was rarely farmed by its wealthy, aristocratic owner but instead kept only for occasional grouse shooting. The walk would go down in history as the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 (named after the moorland plateau), and would later be seen as a seminal moment in the struggle for public access to private land. 

At the time of the Trespass in 1932, calls for a "right to roam" had been being made for years. This was at base a question of competing freedoms, and of course one of class: should the land-owners be able to prevent the common man and woman from traversing open country, or did the latter have a fundamental and basic right to enjoy the countryside as much as the former?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, various Enclosures Acts packaged up common land and moved it into privately-owned estates. Altogether, millions of acres of common land, which had been used by Britain’s rural population to graze cattle and grow crops, were privatised. This in turn robbed many of their livelihoods and way of life. 

The first parliamentary demand for the right to roam was made in 1884. It was unsuccessful, as were the many subsequent calls. 

In 1932, the Kinder ramblers were stopped by the local police force. Five were subsequently jailed for breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. It only caused the pressure for working people’s access rights to areas of open country grew stronger. As public awareness of the campaign increased, its popularity grew and more and more people became involved in the subsequent trespasses which followed. 

However, as is true of the history of many progressive causes, it wasn't until the election of the next Labour government that the cause saw progress. In Clement Attlee's post-war administration of 1945, the ramblers at last had a government which shared their desire for reform of landowners' rights as against those of the public. 

A National Parks Commission was established in July 1945, under the chairmanship of Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and in 1949, the National Parks and Countryside Act was passed by Parliament. The Act facilitated the enhancement, protection and public enjoyment of “those extensive tracts of country in England and Wales” designated “by reason of their natural beauty and the opportunities they afford for open-air recreation”. Two years later, in 1951, the UK’s first national park – the Peak District – was formally born. 

Attlee’s legislation did not just allow for the creation of national parks, but also for the negotiation of access agreements to privately-owned areas of countryside. It was the Labour government’s view that working people ought to be able to enjoy their country’s areas of natural beauty. A view borne of the same philosophical underpinning which characterised much else in that post-war Parliament – a radical reformism which aimed to reconstruct war-ravaged Britain as a more fair and more equal country. It was of course the same government which introduced the National Health Service and the "cradle to grave" welfare state.

This said, for all the strides forward for public rights to private land made under the post-war Labour government, very significant parts of British countryside remained completely out of bounds for working people. 

Whilst more national parks came into being over the years, and further access agreements were negotiated with estate owners, it wasn’t until the 1997 Labour government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that the right to roam formally made its way on to the statute book. That it took so long for this country to recognise public access rights to open countryside is shocking - but not surprising given the historic power and influence of landowners in our democracy. 

Now, 85 years on from the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, we should commemorate and celebrate its power, and of course the rights we take for granted today. But the anniversary should also serve to give hope to all those of us who campaign for all manner of progressive change - hope that one day we will see the causes we campaign for today made law.

 

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