Weasels at Work

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Enron. Arthur Andersen. Dynegy. ImClone. Global Crossing. A lot hashappened in the business world since we last checked in with Dilbert. The beleaguered, bespectacled office worker was oppressed during the downsizing era. He "was feeling his oats a little bit" during the dotcom boom and "became a little more insolent and sarcastic at work," in the words of his creator, Scott Adams. Now, says Adams, Dilbert has "reached a depth of cynicism." That cynicism is on full display in the first new Dilbert book to appear in four years: Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, about to be published by HarperBusiness.

The book, a mix of sardonic text and cartoons, describes what Adams has dubbed the Weasel Zone--"a gigantic gray area between good moral behavior and outright felonious activities." Adams says he came up with the concept when he realized that "weasels had gone from being the exception to the norm, kind of infested all of society, from the cubicle next to you to your boss to the government, obviously, where it all started; then it was in the church, and maybe it's Martha Stewart — you don't know — and pretty soon it's everywhere." In chapters like "Financial Weasels" and "Weasels Are from Venus," Adams gives the Dilbert philosophy a fresh spin for the age of corporate scandal. "The worse things get for the world," he says, "the better it is for the Dilbert world."

The Dilbert world is certainly thriving. The comic strip is carried in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries. Ten million copies of Dilbert books have been sold. Adams, 45, is doing well enough to have forsaken the office world himself, working entirely out of a studio in his home in Danville, Calif., east of San Francisco. He's not making "weasel ceo money," he says, "but it's not bad."

Growing up in a small town in New York's Catskill Mountains, Adams wanted to be a cartoonist at age 6. He started drawing satirical pictures of classmates and teachers but never considered it more than a hobby. "My grades were good, and it didn't look like cartooning was a high-percentage play," he says. He went on to get a bachelor's degree in economics from nearby Hartwick College and headed to San Francisco. "My first job was as a bank teller. I got robbed twice at gunpoint. But it was worth it," he says with amusement, "because I was making $735 a month."

He climbed the corporate ladder at Crocker National Bank and Pacific Bell before the office culture began to wear him down. Again he took a look at cartooning. "I had always been a doodler, and people were looking at cartoons that I would draw on my whiteboard at work," he recalls. "People said, 'You should try to get that published.' I was just playing the odds. It seemed like the corporate life was safe and cartooning was wacky. But wacky started looking better." He sent samples to a syndicator and hit the jackpot.

How does a guy who works at home keep up on the latest gripes of the cubicle-bound drones whose lives Dilbert's is supposed to mirror? Adams says he monitors hundreds of e-mails a day from spies in the working world. He has noticed an uptick inthe message volume since the onset of the recession. "People are a little more bitter and angry," he says, "so they're far more interested in not only embarrassing their boss but using company time to do it." Not that a little plunge in the stock market is going to alter the basic dynamics of the worker-boss relationship. "It doesn't change that much," he says. "You put three people in the room, and one's in charge, and the other two are going to be disgruntled."