Headbloom Blog

Dilbert: a contemporary American cartoon

Dilbert is a smart, 30-something, white American engineer. He is hard working and ethical, but he works for a corporation full of stereotypical characters: an evil HR director (named Catbert); a short, balding, unintelligent manager (Pointy-Haired Boss); a smart, organized, highly competitive colleague (Alice); a lazy colleague who tries to skip meetings and get through the workday with no responsibilities, only drinking coffee and eating lunch (Wally); a young, naive, vaguely Indian-looking engineer (Asok); various other quirky employees and clients; and his talking pet Dogbert who also develops unethical schemes to become rich and defraud others.

The Dilbert strip is a parody of modern corporate America. It covers topics like downsizing, inferior company products, sales and marketing lies, incompetent management, and all the human foibles which exist in the workplace. Dilbert unstylishly wears glasses and a white short-sleeved shirt, representative of the nerd culture of engineers. His necktie, which constantly bends upwards, represents his inability to control his immediate environment. He is likable, and readers suffer with him as he goes through the absurdity and frustrations of work life, stress, dating, and the relationship with his aging mother, among others.

Above: Pointy-Haired Boss, Dilbert, Alice, Wally

Dilbert is written at a very high language and culture level, incorporating American slang, contemporary business culture, and historical cultural references. I often recommend it for my advanced students to enhance their understanding of American workplace language and behavior.

The author, Scott Adams is a former employee for a large American corporation; during his employment, he had a chance to witness first-hand the absurdities of work and human interaction, and so he began to write the Dilbert strip in 1989. He was later downsized (polite word for “lost his job” ) and took up writing full time. He has published many books about corporate life as well as collections of past cartoon strips. His work has been animated for TV, he has won several writing awards, and his characters are licensed in various formats (teeshirts, calendars, coffee mugs, etc.) You will see many Dilbert strips posted among the offices and cubicles of American corporations. If you’d like to read Dilbert online, here is Scott Adams’ website. If you’d like to follow his cartoon strip, you can read it in most daily newspapers, including my local Grand Rapids Press.

Alan Headbloom