Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Comics commentary

In a recent post I seemed to deride the comics section of the daily newspaper, which was not my intent. I'm a big comics fan. In fact, in some ways I think the funnies are one of the most critical parts of a newspaper, since it's the entry point for many young readers. I started reading the comics before I could even read words. Later I read them entirely, and branched out to the features section surrounding them. Then I decided this front page thing is worth a look. By the time I was in college, I read the whole newspaper every day.

Kids who read comics grow up to be adults who read newspapers ... or, at least, newspaper web sites.

My all-time favorites are "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Bloom County." I was very sad to see them retire. For Christmas, my wife gave me framed copies of the final strip from each comic, which I'd been saving for years.

There are a lot of great strips out today: "Jump Start," "Pickles," "Rose Is Rose," "Zits," "Baby Blues" among them. Of the current crop, I would say "Pearls Before Swine" is my favorite. The artist is really mixing things up with the format, breaking the fourth wall (between the reader and the comic by being self-referential) and even dissing other cartoons.

There used to be a gentlemanly agreement amongst comic artists not to use characters or stories from another strip, and on the rare occasion that they did so, to put a humble "With apologies to so-and-so" note at the bottom. Not anymore. A lot of the newer, edgier strips seem eager to kiss off the older strips -- and I think that's great.

If I was editing a comics page, my first order of business would be to retire all the dead artists. By that, I mean I would get rid of "Peanuts," which has been running in repeats for a decade now after Charles Schulz' death. In addition, I would discontinue any strip that was taken over after the original artist's death or retirement. An astonishing number of the mainstay comics fall into this latter category -- everything from "Hagar the Horrible" to "Brenda Starr." I think "Blondie" has virtually become a generational project, like a widow whose husbands keep dying off.

My reasons for taking the ax to such dearly beloved strips is simple. They may have been great once, but now it's time to step aside and give a newer strip a shot. I loved "Peanuts" like everyone else -- I literally grew up with it. But imagine if 60 years ago Charles Schulz couldn't get his comic published because a bunch of tired old strips were being recycled year after year. It's time to give the young 'uns their shot.

The quality of a strip can rise and fall over time. A few years ago I served on the comics advisory panel at the Star, and I fought to include "Get Fuzzy," which I thought was a groundbreaking strip. Now I think it's meandered in recent times, content to be weird for its own sake rather than funny. I didn't think much of "Candorville" when it debuted, but the artist's style and voice have evolved. "Luann" used to be a fairly straightforward teen-joke strip, but has added some longer-form storytelling with great success.

One comic strip I'll be watching in the coming years is "Doonesbury." Garry Trudeau's a master satirist, but he seems willing to only turn his sharpest wit against those with whom he disagrees politically. If you consider the long history of the strip, he focuses almost exclusively on politics, or stories that touch on political issues like homelessness, when there's a Republican administration in the White House. During Democratic regimes, Trudeau falls mostly silent and concentrates on story arcs of his central characters' lives. Consider that "Doonesbury" hardly did any jokes about President Clinton, despite some pretty glaring opportunities.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that "Doonesbury" is at its best when there's a GOP president.


  1. Agreed! It was in middle school that I started reading the comics every day. I even had my family save the paper when I'd go to summer camp or was otherwise away from home for a day or two. I don't doubt that those early impressions carried over to my view of newspapers as an adult.

    I vote for keeping Peanuts but booting Beetle Bailey and Family Circus.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ade.

    I could be convinced to keep "Peanuts" around, since it holds a special place in comics history. And, since there's so many of years of it in archive, you could run it end-to-end chronologically for a new generation to discover and enjoy.

    I wonder about it from the perspective of newspaper publishers, though, who are essentially being forced to pay twice for the same product.

  3. As you may remember from my Russian Club campaign posters, I was a big Bloom County fan in high school. The only thing I've liked as much since was Calvin & Hobbes and the early days of the online comic Sluggy Freelance.