Who hasn’t heard of Dilbert! Whether you are an engineer or not, Dilbert gets you, right? And that’s what makes it one of the most popular corporate comic strips out there. Conceptualised and created in the US, this comic strip of Dilbert and his office mates understands and lightens the gripes of working-class people across the globe.
Dilbert captures classic mismanagement and workplace inefficiency beautifully, bringing it to life through a bunch of characters that are lazy, holding on tenuously to their middle management positions. These ‘dysfunctional time-wasters’ suffer from the baffling vagaries of upper management but never openly complain. Perhaps that’s what makes them so relatable to most and it helps us all swallow the bitter corporate pill easily.
No one really knows why Dilbert works, but it does and that’s all that matters. Let’s see how the creator of the comic strip got around to creating it.
About Scott Adams
Scott Adams was born in 1957 to a postal clerk and a real estate agent. The middle child with two siblings, he was a fan of the Peanuts comics and by the age of 6 was already drawing his own comics. Once school and college was out of the way he joined the corporate world in 1979 and worked as a management trainee, computer programmer, commercial lender, budget analyst, product manager and a supervisor. All these positions and the countless dealings he had with numerous people gave him fodder for Dilbert and he started the strip while still working. Submissions to various publications met with a dead-end but it was an encouraging letter from a fan that kept Adams going.
It was in 1989 when he was working for Pacific Bell that Dilbert was first published by United Media. It was also while working here that he encountered various personalities who went on to become the characters in his strip.
The history of Dilbert – from then to now
The comic strip originally revolved only around Dilbert and his pet dog Dogbert in their home. The early plots mostly highlighted Dilbert’s engineer nature and his bizarre inventions, and some told the audience about his megalomaniacal ambitions.
Later Adams decided to shift the location to Dilbert’s workplace in Silicon Valley and the comic strip began to parody technology, workplace, and typical company issues. This gave the strip more impetus and its fan base started to grow rapidly as more people could relate to the humour.
In Dilbert’s world, bureaucracy and office politics hamper everything, including productivity, and employees’ skills and efforts are not rewarded; in fact, simply appearing to be ‘busy’ is praised. The audience is appreciative of the humorous situations where characters take ridiculous decisions that are natural reactions to mismanagement.
Perhaps the appeal is of what cannot be acted out in the real world which finds its release through this comic strip.
Dilbert, the main character, is a skilled engineer but socially inept, with a poor romantic life.
Besides Dilbert there is the Pointy-haired boss, unnamed so that most people can see their own boss in him. He is unimaginably incompetent and compensates for his lack of ability by organising group sessions and strategy meetings that usually never go anywhere. He does not understand technology and he always tries to disguise it, ineffectively. He isn’t sadistic, just uncaring, and uses his employees to his need, without bothering about what happens to them.
Then there’s Wally, an employee who walks around calmly drinking coffee through all the upheavals of a corporate setting. He hates work and will work hard to find ways to avoid doing anything. He is even more socially useless than Dilbert but isn’t aware of it. Wally was originally conceptualised as a worker looking for a severance package but now just hangs around as part of Dilbert characters.
Alice is a competent and hardworking employee who doesn’t feel adequately recognised. While she blames it on her gender, it is most likely because of her short temper, even with the Pointy-haired boss.
Dogbert, Dilbert’s anthropomorphic pet dog, is a highly intelligent megalomaniac who comes in and out of the strip as a high-ranking consultant or technical support. He is cynical but at times has pulled his master out of tight spots.
Catbert is the evil director of human resources who was supposed to play a cameo once. But the audiences loved him so much that he came back as the HR director.
Asok is immensely intelligent but naïve about corporate culture. He is optimistic and the strip shatters his illusions frequently. He is obviously Indian and has graduated from one of the IITs.
Elbonia is an underdeveloped, made-up country that is a reflection of any country as seen by typical Americans.
Dilbert is a highly successful comic strip that appears online and in 2000 newspapers and magazines in 65 countries and 25 languages. The popularity has seen many merchandise opportunities spawn off the original brand. There are computer games, hand-held card games, board games, video games and calendars. Besides these obvious merchandise choices, there is also a vegan microwave burrito that comes in four flavours, a limited-edition ice cream flavour, and a line of Dilbert mints.
Dilbert goes digital
In 1995, Dilbert decided to go online. It was the first syndicated comic strip that was published for free on the internet. Adams puts his email address in each strip, creating a ‘direct channel to customers’ which allows him to make changes to the strip based on their feedback.
In April 2008, Adams took this collaboration a step further by announcing an interactive feature on Dilbert.com which would allow fans to write speech bubbles themselves. This, according to Adams, ‘makes cartooning a competitive sport’.
Whatever the future holds for Dilbert, it can safely be said that this strip has had a massive influence on many webcomics that followed it and helped establish the ‘nerdcore’ genre.