Heathcliff Askew: Neural Nets, Benign Violations, and the Absurdity of the American Dream

Making comics is like baking a cake. You have all of these ingredients (like drawing, inking, writing, lettering, sound effects, colors, and so on) that when used appropriately, can create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Baking a cake means either following a recipe exactly or having an intimate understanding of the interplay between ingredients. If you’re lucky and you don’t have a “bad bake,” the results can be spectacular.

But when I read Peter Gallagher’s Heathcliff, the first thing I’m reminded of isn’t cake, but a neural net recipe for a cake. Neural nets are a series of algorithms that work to recognize underlying relationships in a set of data through a process that mimics the way the human brain operates. They’re revolutionizing the way we discover new medicines and changing the way that we evaluate data, but despite their utility, they get a little weird at times. Here’s an example of a neural net-generated cake recipe from Jannelle Shane, an AI specialist who wrote the book on neural nets – You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.

Appetizers, fish

8 rounds; chicken
¼ lb butter (soaked)
1 can tomato sauce (½ lb)
1 salmon steaks, sauteed
½ teaspoon red pepper, chunked
1 tablespoon margarine or oil

Meanwhile, transfer the chicken breast to a serving plater and simmer for about 5 minutes, then lemon juice that has been stirring well; if on the side, as becomes warmed, carefully frost them with a sauce. Spread them and garnish with water or parsley.

Sounds like a yummy case of food poisoning.

Neural nets have the unique potential to create bizarre things because they don’t “think” like we think. The link between foods and their measurements isn’t there, and neither is the link between the use of specific ingredients and their proposed effects. No one is making cake with sauteed salmon steaks and a can of tomato sauce. It’s all mimicry and math and “¼ lb butter (soaked).” 

These bizarre creations are funny to a lot of people. But why? Humor is a ubiquitous human experience, but, theoretically, it is somewhat elusive. What makes someone laugh? How do you describe the difference between puns and slapstick, irony and standup? One potential explanation is McGraw and Warren’s Benign-Violation hypothesis (2010), which “suggests that anything that is threatening to one’s sense of how the world ‘ought to be’ will be humorous, as long as the threatening situation also seems benign.” In this hypothesis, a violation’s benign-ness is considered a function of three factors: a conflict between two norms (where one norm says the violation is wrong and the other norm says the violation is fine); the person’s lack of commitment to or low commitment to the violated norm; or the person’s psychological distance from the violated norm (McGraw & Warren, 2010).

In the case of a neural net-generated recipe for a cake, the humor is generated because it violates the “norm” of what a cake should look like and how a recipe should work, but they’re psychologically distant – no one is going to actually follow those directions, and no one is actually going to eat the resulting food, so the actual risk of harm is negligible. The violation is considered benign, and therefore funny.

The weirdness of neural nets is a useful comparator for Heathcliff, since one of the constant (negative) criticisms of Peter Gallagher’s Heathcliff is that it feels like it’s created by an algorithm. Heathcliff, the argument goes, is not actually written by a human being, but rather by a computer throwing things at the wall. This “script” is then illustrated in a style best identified with comics from 60 years ago, and, on most days, in a single panel. The approach seems eerily similar to the neural net cake recipe for BAKED OTHER LIE 1993 CAKE, in comic form: Ham + Helmet + Therapist + Fat Tabby Cat + Pile of Hams = joke. The examples of this are varied, and over the last few years, increasingly weird. I’ve joked on Twitter that I think Peter Gallagher has early-onset dementia, and our other writers have argued about the effectiveness of what he is actually doing as a cartoonist.

While the individual strip, isolated from the context of Gallagher’s oeuvre, may seem like an algorithmically derived comic, a certain thematic overlay accompanies every Heathcliff comic. In Heathcliff comics, the cat himself is an agent of chaos. He drives tanks down city streets, uses bubble gum as a get-away vehicle after stealing a fish, and sits on the board of the lunchmeat museum. Gallagher takes up a theme and pushes it as hard as possible, forcing it to intersect with all of the various in-jokes and themes that he has explored for the last 20-something years. But more important than the chaos Heathcliff wrecks is the place he wrecks it upon – suburbia.

However you want to characterize Gallagher’s run on Heathcliff, one thing you can say with certainty about Gallagher is that his comics are transgressive, although not in a way that is particularly offensive. The transgressions of Heathcliff are against a specific sort of 1950-60s public-facing white middle-America suburban experience, a setting that has sidewalks and beautiful trees, where women always wear pencil skirts and smart cardigans, and no one does anything too risque. The only criminal element in this gentle metropolis is Heathcliff’s father, a tabby cat that is indistinguishable from Heathcliff except for the black-and-white-striped prison uniform he always wears. The setting for all of Heathcliff comics is a sort of milquetoast amalgamation of towns like Rochester, New York, and Gary, Indiana (before the bad times of course – there are no bad times in Heathcliff). Heathcliff isn’t set in the city on the hill, but rather its surrounding gated communities. Heathcliff visits candy stores and butcher shops, museums and mega malls, backyards and baseball fields, all the while being vaguely obnoxious or weird. We recognize this vision of America through popular monoculture, the Leave it to Beavers and Brady Bunches of the world, parroted and mimicked by offensively bland media like Disney+’s WandaVision

If we continue to evaluate Heathcliff through the benign-violation hypothesis of humor, Heathcliff’s violations of the norm, like bringing a pile of hams to a therapy session, are interesting because they key off of two psychological distancing effects; first, that Heathcliff is a cat, and cats do not go to therapy, but second, and perhaps more interesting, is that the suburbia that Heathcliff antagonizes isn’t real and has never been. It certainly is not the America that currently exists where the rich constantly get richer while the poor get constantly poorer, where homelessness rates are similar to the current national death toll of an international pandemic, where long-term prospects for economic advancement are grim, and where a person’s only value is that of a “consumer.”

Heathcliff the cat, in his chaotic nature, brings the absurd to the flabby middle of America’s imagination. The readers who are in on the joke might come for the meat helmets, but underneath the in-jokes is a steady stream of bear-poking. It’s hard to say if Gallagher intends this type of critique, but that’s hardly the point; we aren’t just laughing at the Garbage Ape (which might be all Gallagher intends), we’re laughing at the futility of the “American Dream.” Perhaps this is why the comic is so popular on Twitter, where individual comics go viral – the key user demographic of Twitter are millennials, the first generation in generations to have, on average, a lower life expectancy and standard of living than their parents.

Heathcliff, through its transgressive weirdness, exposes and trivializes this notion of the “American Dream,” a dream that has forever been promised to all but offered to the very few. The idea of a peaceful and sinless suburbia where everyone is white and everyone is in their appropriate place is a harmful ideal held by people willing to storm federal buildings and murder lawmakers to “stop the steal.” When your average working-class person has to work multiple jobs just to pay rent in America’s “best cities,” it’s not hard to see the farce built so cleanly into Gallagher’s work.

Heathcliff is weird, yes, and, in isolation, any individual comic might not deliver on this vision. But you know, and I know, that a world where people stand around all day and talk to their neighbors or the local dog catcher without any concern for income, rent checks, car notes, and the sundry needs of life is, frankly, ludicrous. By transgressing against the context of this sinless suburbia, Heathcliff exposes its absurdity and makes the invisible absurdity of the “American Dream” uniquely visible. We laugh at Heathcliff because of the Garbage Ape, sure. But we also laugh at Heathcliff because Heathcliff, in its own “½ lb butter (soaked)” and “children love the meat tank” kind of way, shows us what is real.

Works Cited:
McGraw, A. P., & Warren, C. (2010). Benign violations: Making immoral behavior funny. Psychological science, 21(8), 1141-1149.

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Alex Hoffman is the Publisher of SOLRAD and the Secretary/Treasurer of its parent nonprofit organization, Fieldmouse Press. He has been a comics critic for Manga Widget, Comics Village, Sequential State, The Comics Journal, Comics MNT, and others.

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