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The serious business of comics

I don’t know what it says about me but the section of the paper I read most carefully is the funny pages. While I can zip through the rest of the paper quickly, gleaning the gist of articles by quickly scanning and skipping, I slow down and read carefully every word in the comics, even the ones I don’t find funny.

I have always taken newspaper comic strips seriously. The papers in Sri Lanka when I was growing up did not have the multipage spreads that US papers have but they had enough comics to whet my appetite for the genre and I became an addict, faithfully reading them every day to this day. In those days there was a greater proportion of ‘serious’ strips, daily serialized versions of comic book stories. I recall The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, which I enjoyed at that time, in addition to the gag strips (Mr. Abernathy, Bringing Up Father) which were not that funny. Peanuts was the exception, being consistently high quality, with Hi and Lois being fairly good.

Although I have severely criticized the way newspapers in the US cover news, there is no question that they generally provide you with a good selection of mainstream comics. Whenever I travel to another city, I always buy the local papers to see what comics they run, and while I am away the Plain Dealer copies at home are collected and kept for me so that on my return I can read the comics in sequence and get back up to date.

I know I am not alone in my devotion to comics. It is generally conceded that newspaper readers are most passionate about their comics and woe to the editor who drops a favored strip. I have heard editors say that the only time to make any changes to the comics page is just before you leave town to take another job, so that you can avoid the wrath of fans protesting the loss of their favorite strip.

This intense loyalty has the unfortunate tendency to make the comics pages static, with strips continuing long after their creators have run out of ideas, or even died, with their work being carried on by successors. In a shakeup a few years ago, the Plain Dealer dropped Spiderman and Judge Parker but there was such an outcry that they had to bring them back. Since they had no room anymore on the comics pages because of the replacements, they had to insert them into the classified ads section. As a result I don’t read them anymore since Spiderman was an awful strip, with plots dragging on interminably. Judge Parker was better but not enough to make me rummage through the classified section to find it.

It is only when a cartoonist retires or dies that new trips tend to be introduced and this has happened recently with the retirement of Fox Trot creator Bill Amend. The paper said they would run four different strips for a month each and then get readers to vote for which of the four should be the permanent replacement strip. But for some reason, after three months, while the auditions for the Fox Trot replacement was still going on, they suddenly dropped Pre-Teena (which was not bad) and inserted one of the new candidate strips Pearls Before Swine (which is also not bad) in its place.

The death last week of Johnny Hart, creator of the painfully unfunny B.C. and Wizard of Id may provide opportunities for two new strips, once the backlog of his strips is completed.

In general I hate strips that feature children or animals acting ‘cute’. It seems like their creators, rather than aiming for laughs, want their readers to say “Awwww, how sweet!” Family Circus, Marmaduke and Jump Start are the worst examples of this tendency. I also hate strips like Ziggy that are often simply sappy and repetitious, seemingly written as greeting cards.

Garfield, Get Fuzzy, Peanuts, and The Boondocks (the last via the internet) are examples of strips that have animals and children but where they have personalities and are interesting, even edgy. Peanuts is now running some of the early strips drawn in the 1950s and 60s and it amazing how laugh-out-loud funny they are, compared to Charles Shulz’s later works when they became more focused on being heartwarming rather than funny. Linus especially is a hoot and my favorite character, along with everyone’s favorite Snoopy.

Amongst the other current comics, the ones I like are Dilbert, Non Sequitur, Speed Bump, Bizarro, Real Life Adventures, Zits, and Doonesbury. Blondie, despite its age, still has the ability to occasionally be quite funny, as does The Born Loser.

The thing that has changed since my youth is the emergence of the semi-comic narrative strip, which has continuing story lines that do not always aim for a laugh. For Better or Worse and Funky Winkerbean are better examples of this genre, while Crankshaft is tiresome. Although Tom Batiuk is the creator of both Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, the former benefits from having a larger ensemble of varied and interesting characters and story lines, while the latter’s running gags of mothers chasing the bus (sorry for the pun) and Keesterman’s mailbox being destroyed have long since ceased to be funny.

Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and Sally Forth are also strips that I would not miss if they disappeared, being funny only on very rare occasions. Mary Worth is a soap-opera strip that also tends to drag the plot lines out and should be retired.

So what about the four candidates that are supposed to be auditioning to replace Fox Trot? One was Dog Eat Doug, which features a dog and a baby both acting cute, and hence was really awful. Another was Pearls Before Swine which seems to have already usurped the Pre-Teena slot. Another is called Diesel Sweeties about a robot and his human girl friend, which looks like it was drawn using an Etch-a-Sketch. This strip is quite weird and I just don’t get some of the jokes or even the point. The fourth candidate was the first to run and I have forgotten it already.

The comic strip that I miss most is, of course, Calvin and Hobbes. What a brilliant strip that was. But I have to admire creator Bill Watterson for recognizing that after ten years, it was time to stop. It is always better to leave people wanting more than have them wish you would go away.

POST SCRIPT: This should be fun

Richard Dawkins will be interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on Monday, April 23, at 8.00pm Eastern time on FOX. The program will be rebroadcast at 11.00pm. (You may want to check your local listings for times.)

O’Reilly’s shtick is to try and bully and badger those with whom he disagrees. But Dawkins is more than his match intellectually and does not suffer fools gladly.

I have seen many Dawkins interviews in which he is engaged by British TV interviewers who have been sharp in their questions but cordial and civil in their manner. I am not sure if Dawkins has ever been interviewed by someone as overbearing, self-absorbed, and obnoxious as O’Reilly, so this encounter will be like the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Unfortunately I do not have cable and am teaching a class until 9:00pm anyway. I hope the video appears on the internet soon after.

Comments

  1. dave says

    The way I dealt with the issue was by purchasing a subscription to mycomicspage.com.

    For less than $12/yr I can configure which cartoons and editorials I have emailed to me on a daily basis.

    I am able to archive the best comics with tags so I can search later for a comic on a particular topic.

    Besides the benefit of being able to browse comics not carried by the PD, Calvin and Hobbes is available.

  2. dave says

    “someone as overbearing, self-absorbed, and obnoxious as O’Reilly”

    Funny, I would describe Dawkins in much the same way.

  3. says

    Dave,

    I am kind of old-fashioned in that I like to read an actual newspaper at the end of the day. So apart from the Boondocks, I read the rest in hard copy form.

    I would not characterize Dawkins that way. I have never seen him yell at anyone or even talk much about himself. If I had to list his faults, it would be that he can be short-tempered and arrogant and condescending when he meets someone (like Ted Haggard in the program “The Root of All Evil”) who tries to lecture him on evolution without having a clue as to what the theory says.

  4. Joe says

  5. says

    I was always fond of The Far Side and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. Apparently I prefer quirky and/or sardonic to cute. While the artform is limited by space I somehow expect the writers to cram more meaning into those little boxes than they might if writing straight prose.

    Re: Dawkins; he is so clear in his opinions that one might expect him to be pompous, but in the interviews I’ve seen/heard he’s always been quite polite and respectful.

  6. says

    Heidi,

    Yes, I too really like the Far Side and Berke Breathed cartoons. Unfortunately, the former has retired and the latter only does Sunday cartons, which are terrific.

  7. says

    I love that comics have survived in the newspapers all these years. in a way it seems like such a new medium, the funnies that is. Sometimes I even wish the op ed pages were entirely done my cartoonists instead of polemic blowhards.

  8. says

    after reading dc and marvel no only as kid but now i read my sons to the strange looks from my wife, shes gonna be even more suprised when she finds i have been buying up rare collections at autions! well some one has to preserve these works of art.

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