Of Free Will and Suggestion Boxes
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.
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'.
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.
- Director of the recent Comica in London’s ICA [back]
- In this case "An Alarm clock gives them a shock" which appeared in The Beezer Book 1980. [back]
- Can one extract mileage? [back]
- I do realise I've just said the words "cum tissue box" by the way… [back]
December 2, 2006