Of Free Will and Suggestion Boxes

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Numskulls

I’m currently working my way through Paul Gravett’s1 recently-published (and much-needed) Great British Comics, and enjoying the numerous memories it has been stirring up.

For instance…as I lay in bed the other night, lost in that half-asleep/half-awake reverie in which 'odd' thoughts often form, what should pop unexpectedly (and vividly) into my head but a vision of "The Numskulls".

For those who don't remember them (or don't remember that they remember them) "The Numskulls" were large-headed, thin-limbed homunculi who lived in the head of a central human character known (to them, and us) as "Our Man". Each 'section' of the head – Ears, Nose, Mouth, Eyes, Brain – was controlled/maintained by an individual numskull,with the various 'departments' communicating through (I kid you not) an intercom system.

The story first appeared in The Beezer, where "Our Man" was depicted as a balding, moustachioed, single worker living in a terraced house (or some such). It was here that my encounters with the strip began and ended though apparently – following the folding of The Beezer (1990) and its merger with The Beano – "Our Man" became "Our Boy", and thus it remains to this day.

Since The Beezer generally concerned itself – like most of its competitors – with stories detailing mischief-making, the eating of "slap up feeds", and the beating of children with tartan slippers – "The Numskulls" stood out (even to this child's eyes) as something of an oddity. The curious appeal of the story is hinted at by its Wikipedia entry, which details a typical "Numskulls" story.2

"Our Man" is pictured asleep in the first panel and in the second we see Luggy in the Ear Dept. awoken by the sound of the alarm clock next to "our Man's" bed. Using an intercom system Luggy sends a message to Brainy that the alarm clock is ringing. Brainy, in turn uses his intercom system to wake up all the other numskulls and feeds the written message "SWITCH OFF ALARM!" into the suggestion box. We then see "our Man" thinking "Noisy alarm! I'll switch it off. Where is it?" In the following panel we see Luggy informing Brainy that the alarm is still ringing whilst Brainy reads a print-out from the computer "WHERE IS IT?".

It transpires that Blinky, who is in charge of the man's eyes, has neglected his duty by staying in bed. The other two numskulls burst into his department and force him out of bed. Grumbling, Blinky opens the man's eyes with a hand-crank whilst Brainy and Luggy stow his bedding in cabinets under the eyes. In the last panel we see "Our Man" reflecting that he couldn't open his eyes this morning and now he has bags under them (caused by the bedding).

The philosophical mileage which could readily be…er…extracted3 from a strip in which tiny creatures control a character's every thought and deed by inserting messages into a "Suggestion Box" (a sort of fax machine-cum-tissue box4) remains curiously untapped. Nowhere in the course of my three undergraduate years studying philosophy in Galway (under the tutelage of Markus Worner, Joe Mahon, Paschal O'Gorman et al) was any mention made of "The Numskulls" and their importance in regard to debates about free will, mind/body dualism etc., etc. Something of an oversight on UCG/NUIG's part I’m sure you’ll agree.

Numskulls

Let us return to Wikipedia once more:

The above description is typical of the Numskull's formula. The Man (who represents 'us') is totally determined by the decisions and actions of the numskulls. He has the freedom only to reflect on what has occurred, all his decisions are made by Brainy [The numskull in charge of the "brain department"]. As all the thoughts sent from Brainy's 'suggestion box' appear to "our Man" as his own he little suspects the existence of the numskulls. Much of what he reflects on is actually a consequence of the Numskulls' free will, rather than his own.

All of this seemed to suggest that the numskulls were the true instigators of human action and desire, but an obvious question raises itself…as noted on daily chump.org:

The thing that used to really bug me was whether the numskulls were operated by their own, smaller, numskulls, and so ad infinitum.

The mind boggles. If, like Russian dolls, there is always a smaller numskull within a numskull then where does the trail end? If Aristotle had read "The Numskulls" (and 'tis a pity for him that he didn't) then I'm sure he'd have suggested his "Prime Mover" (the universal numskull) as an answer.

Finally, for you comic nerds out there, I should add that it was Malcolm Judge who (memorably) illustrated the story in its heyday. His other most notable creation was "Billy Whizz" – a super-fast poster child for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. In Grant Morrison's splendid "Zenith" (2000 AD) a nod is given to Billy in the shape of "Jimmy Quick", a character brutally slain (like so many of his 'classic comic' colleagues) by the trans-dimensional, demonic 'Lloigor'.

Nice.

P.S: Many thanks to Peter Gray for sending me the 'head cross-section' image seen above. Peter also mentioned a Numskulls-esque story that appeared in The Sparky: "The Wonderful World Inside Ma Kelly's Telly". Had never heard of it before but it's a bizarre concept. Check out one of Peter's scans here for further details.

Footnotes
  1. Director of the recent Comica in London’s ICA [back]
  2. In this case "An Alarm clock gives them a shock" which appeared in The Beezer Book 1980. [back]
  3. Can one extract mileage? [back]
  4. I do realise I've just said the words "cum tissue box" by the way… [back]

December 2, 2006

26 responses to Of Free Will and Suggestion Boxes

  1. Kevin said:

    Ah, it’s good that you’re back, and great that Twin Peaks is getting more air-time somewhere. I too am revisiting it, having discovered in college one other person who has seen it.

    As far as the untapped philosophical material of the Numskulls goes, I will make ensure my philosophy lecturer, Vasilus Politis, has the chance to, as it were, tap the Numskulls.

    As I type, I notice Oscar Peterson in the sidebar as well, which is also to be encouraged.

  2. fústar said:

    Thanks K.

    Tis a shame that Twin Peaks season 2 has yet to be released (and may, in fact, never get the same careful treatment that season 1 got) but it’s far less consistently effective and satisfying than the first season. For a start it was far too long (20-something episodes), plus it lacks season 1’s (seductive) clarity of vision.

    Tell Dr. Politis that he shouldn’t overlook this opportunity to appear ‘hip’ and pop culture savvy. There’s a juicy paper in there for anyone willing to step inside the head of “our man”.

    Oh and lovin’ the Peterson/Getz. Like soaking in a warm musical bath.

  3. Ah, they were great. They had all kinds of levers to pull, like in a railway junction box and as a kid I simply loved them. Are you sure they were called Numskulls? I think they were actually the Numbskulls, but I’m not completely certain of that.

    Billy Whizz went on to form a band called the Communards, if I’m not mistaken.

  4. Bob said:

    Nah definitey called the ‘Numskulls’, they still appear in the Beano and I buy it evey few issues. I’ve always been fascinated with them. The cross section of them all in their compartments is something I’ve never stopped drawing since I was around 7.

    You should check out the contemporary version, really iffy jokes about diarhea and snots

  5. foolhardy said:

    I remember them well. In fact, I think they lead to a life long habit of sticking things in to my ears.

    Anyone remember the name of that French cartoon from our youth (well, mine – RTE only upbringing) that featured a Numskullesque cast of characters whizzing about the human body being all educational while simultaneously fighting infection? The abiding memory was that all of the good guys looked alike (us) as did the baddies (them) – the big nosed freaks!

    Also, this reminds me of the scene with Burt Reynolds from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
    If, citing flagging sales, they take on sponsors from the pharmaceutical industry I can imagine the Beano giving us their take on premature ejaculation – This weeks Numskulls is brought to you by Pfizer, proud manufacturers of Jizzplugger™

  6. fústar said:

    Bock,

    Bob’s right. They’re “The Numskulls“. Click on the cross-section pic for proof.

    Something I forgot to mention is that they all slept in hammocks (if I remember correctly). That – coupled with the round ‘walls’ and intercom system – lent “Our Man’s” head a submarine-like air.

    Now I think of it, the ‘tubes’ (or whatever they are) inside Ma Kelly’s Telly sleep in hammocks too. See here.

    Something very exciting and exotic about hammocks. They definitely appealed to me as a kid.

    Oh and the similarity between Jimmy Sommerville and Jimmy Quick is entirely deliberate apparently.

  7. fústar said:

    Anyone remember the name of that French cartoon from our youth (well, mine – RTE only upbringing) that featured a Numskullesque cast of characters whizzing about the human body being all educational while simultaneously fighting infection?

    I remember it well. It was called Il était une fois… la vie, or to we non-French speakers, Once Upon a Time…Life. Funnily enough not directed by Sergio Leone…

    Episode 18 – “The lymphatic system” – must have had the kids legging it home from school to watch.

    “Oh boy! The lymphatic system! Can’t wait!”

  8. copernicus said:

    Once Upon a Time…Life was obviously produced by the same stable as Ulysee e ee ees and was essentially the same thing, but in the human body rather than amid the cold reaches of interstellar space.

  9. foolhardy said:

    copernicus,
    how right you are.
    Personally I’d go for that latter over the warm reaches of intestinal space any day. Although, now that I think of it….

  10. The Beezer and the Topper were the two comics with a large format, unlike the Beano and the Dandy. I don’t know why I liked them better, but I did. Somehow, there was a feeling of getting more value for money.

    The other comics – which I also loved – were in hindsight no more than propaganda vehicles, but that didn’t stop us hoovering them up. The likes of the Victor and the Hotspur would be considered quite offensive today by the likes of myself, though I couldn’t get enough of them at the time.

    I think it hadn’t much to do with the quality of the publications. It probably had more to do with the drabness of Irish life at the time, when anything colourful was a welcome relief. In fact, we were a kind of Albania behind our cultural wall, with our censorship boards and our Legion of Mary apparatchiks.

    What do you reckon?

  11. Simon McGarr said:

    There was a whole sequence of Once upon Lifes, including ouat… Space, all sharing the familiar cast of charaters.

    It is an illness of mine that I am unable to forget theme tunes from the telly of my youth (could do Ulyssees-ees verbatim now) but have no memory of the OUAT melody.

    Ulysses 31, together with a faded cloth bound book of Greek myths in Dundrum library were largely responsible for my choice of degree subject.

  12. fústar said:

    Simon,

    Just in case there are any Ulysses-related gaps in your memory…have a listen:

    http://themes.kitjunkie.org/Themes/Ulysses_31.wav

    My favourite bit has always been the frantic “bringing-peace-and-justice-to-alllll!” which is ham-fistedly wedged into the tune. Possibly a result of unsatisfactory translation.

    Speaking of unsatisfactory – No-No (the nail-eating robot) was a wildly irritating sidekick…straight out of the Jar Jar mould.

  13. James King said:

    “The thing that used to really bug me was whether the numskulls were operated by their own, smaller, numskulls, and so ad infinitum.”

    Yes, they did. There was a strip showing exactly that. It made a great impression on me as a child and I can clearly remember it over thirty years later.

  14. fústar said:

    Yes, they did. There was a strip showing exactly that. It made a great impression on me as a child and I can clearly remember it over thirty years later.

    Oh to have a copy of that story in my greedy hands…

    Did they merely suggest that our Numskulls had their own Numskulls, or did they also hint at the mind-boggling possibility of infinite Numskullery? If the latter, then the strip really needs to be the subject of some serious scholarly attention!

  15. James King said:

    It was infinite. Numkulls in Numskulls in Numskulls ad infinitum – or at least to the limit of printing resolution.

    Seriously, that comic strip changed the way I thought about and saw the world around me. I wish I had a copy.

  16. fústar said:

    It was infinite. Numkulls in Numskulls in Numskulls ad infinitum – or at least to the limit of printing resolution.

    I’m sure if you’d subjected the pages to examination by an electron microscope you’d have seen ever tinier (quark-like) Numskulls disappearing away to the boundaries of the infinite. The closing monologue in The Incredible Shrinking Man comes to mind.

    I’ll ask around. Someone, somewhere may have that strip.

  17. niall said:

    Ulysee e ee ees

    Wow, those few extra Es were all that was needed to invoke the theme song, flashy art and the homicidal despair of trying to get it out of my head again. This post is like a distress signal from a haunted, malevolent frigate.

  18. fústar said:

    Wow, those few extra Es were all that was needed to invoke the theme song, flashy art and the homicidal despair of trying to get it out of my head again.

    Ease off on the Es. All drugs lead to “homicidal despair” – or so the meedja tells me.

  19. Captain Cohen said:

    Wonderful to have gone back to the 170s with yu folk by reding the comments. I’m 51 and I loved the Numskulls – and remeber the Numskulls within numkulls. It seemed so logical for there to be wheels within wheels ..

    Thanks folks for the uploads, the comments and the realisatio that my memory was NOT playing tricks on me…

  20. Captain Cohen said:

    oh, dear – so sorry about the spelling aove .. Typing in a hurry. Blame it on my numskulls!

  21. Barry said:

    52 and suddenly I felt the urge to look up comics I used to read in the late sixties, and visualising the numskulls as one of my very favourite strips, I could not, however, for the life of me, remember its name. Tried a few keyword searches, came across History of Comics and lo and behold Numskulls was mentioned. Bingo! Then to my surprise there were a number of hits on Numskulls and then this Blog! So many other people with the same nostalgic feeling of the Numskulls’ charm and inventiveness!

  22. lol said:

    I loved numskulls. I hope i have some of my own. I wonder if my cats do.

  23. Stinky the Bumskull said:

    I always wondered if there were nether-region numskulls. I asked my kids if there was a Stinky numskull or similar and they just showed me a recent Beano with a gas-masked character referred to as “The Bumskull”. Glad to see the Numskulls is as anarchic as ever…

  24. Pingback: Father’s Day | Damian Trasler's Secret Blog – Do Not Read!

  25. Missing Hen said:

    I found this website by Googling after watching tonight’s Doctor Who. I’ve always been gripped by the idea of how far down the numbskulls go, as you can see from this sketch we made last year:

    http://bit.ly/nuTeYK

  26. Paul Moloney said:

    In common with the other to this blog, the Beezer helped to brighten up many a dull afternoon, in my childhood. In regard to the lack of academic / philosophical attention devoted to the Numskulls: I did in fact mention them in my recent book, called The Therapy Industry, The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure and Why it Doesn’t Work. Here, I was trying to critique the conventional (and largely incoherent) ideas about will-power and self control, which crop up within almost all forms of psychotherapy and counselling. The numskulls sprang straight to mind, as one of the best illustrations of this problem.

    Best Regards

    Paul

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