07 April 2007

Are the funny pages funny?

I always liked comic strips when I was a kid. Not enough to make a point of reading them every day, but I usually scanned them whenever I picked up a paper. I preferred to read anthologies, particularly of strips whose writers tended to develop storylines over the course of a few weeks. Bloom County remains my all-time favourite. I still pull out my old books and re-read the entire series start to finish every few years, and I still get choked up over the final installment.

When I moved to New York, if I read the paper at all I read the Times, which has no funny pages. At first I found this wearyingly pretentious, as though they were somehow too good for comics. But in time I came to respect the Times for their snobbish air, particularly when I traveled the country and spent a few months reading a different sorry excuse for a local paper every morning.1

I would read the comics occasionally when I picked up the Daily News, but by then the best ones from my youth (Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side) had been retired and nothing new had sprung up to replace them.

Since relocating to Philadelphia, I now have the Inquirer delivered on Sundays, which means I get six pages of full-colour comics. On Saturday, no less. So every week I get to sit back and further debunk my youthful memories of the funny pages being remotely funny.

Granted, the daily strip is a restrictive format, so it doesn't really bother me that the comics page during the week is so God-awful. But given that the Sunday format is where cartoonists have an opportunity to stretch out and shine, it's depressing to see how utterly mediocre most of the Sunday section is. Really, if you can't even raise a smile once a week given so much space with which to work, have you chosen the right career? This is the lineup to which I'm treated once a week:

Page One

  • For Better or for Worse, Lynn Johnston
    Let me preface this complaint by saying that I have a certain respect for For Better. Johnston consistently justifies her decision not to incorporate cartoonish exaggerations into her strip by producing, year after year, what amounts to the comics page equivalent of a quality prime-time drama. Like, I don't know, thirtysomething or The Gilmore Girls.2 It's one of the only strips in which the characters age in real time, and they face realistic decisions and problems with which most of us can readily identify. It's usually not laugh-out-loud funny, but tends to strike a steady balance between a good chuckle and a warm, knowing sigh.

    Having said that, I think its position in the lead-off spot says more bad than good about the current state of newspaper comics. When I was a kid, the top spot was reserved for heavy-hitters like Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes. Having For Better up front is like having Jay Fiedler as your quarterback: he's supposed the be a veteran stopgap while you train the hotshot first rounder on the bench, not the long-term answer at the position. Due respect to For Better, but its prominent spot really tells me that there's just no other strip worthy of the honour these days.

  • Opus, Berkeley Breathed
    After retiring Bloom County to focus on a Sunday-only strip, Breathed brought back many of Bloom's characters in the short-lived Outland. After seemingly retiring again, this time for good, he apparently found himself unable to shake the urge to revisit his most beloved creation, the overly-sensitive Oedipal penguin Opus. While Breathed certainly isn't the same acid-tongued social observer he was in his prime, we're still lucky to have him in the comics pages, as even his recent, lesser efforts manage to outshine that of two-thirds of today's younger cartoonists.

    Breathed's also one of the only cartoonists working today who can really be called an artist first. He's one of the few who bothers to explore the possibilities of the Sunday format, particularly in terms of its layout. Whereas most others simply fill their allotted slot with identical panels, Breathed considers the space as a whole, filling it with uneven panels, silent between-panel motion and nonlinear story construction. Despite whatever misgivings I may have voiced about his current work in comparison with his catalog, as far as I'm concerned he can keep going as long as he pleases.

  • Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley
    Easily the most popular new strip of this decade, Get Fuzzy already has at least half-a-dozen anthologies, oodles of merch, a movie in the works... and, bafflingly, no official website. At least that I can find. Presumably it's being groomed as the most likely candidate to replace For Better above the fold.

    While I've never been especially enamoured of the strip, I can understand its appeal beyond just the woeful state of its competition. It's a fairly typical pets-do-the-darnedest-things premise, with a cat in the role of the runaway id, a dog as his hapless ego, and their human owner the exasperated superego.

    What gives Get Fuzzy an extra edge over the rest of the funny pages is Conley's acerbic wit, which he seems to be still figuring out how to deploy most effectively. The main complaint I have about the strip is that the narrative is often haphazardly constructed, with a few funny (and occasionally hilarious, a rarity for the comics these days) one-liners leading up to a too-often limp punchline. It's as though, rather than working towards a closing zinger, Conley just writes goofy ramblings for his characters until he runs out of space.

    But I'm willing to write off these flaws as the awkward adolescence of a larger body of work. In the best-case scenario, Conley's comic sensibility has the potential to develop into a highly influential style, one derived from the slacker-comedy indie film boom of the 90s, in which the classic set-up/delivery structure of comedy is replaced by steadily funny but ultimately aimless dialogue.

    Worst case: the success goes to his head, he gets lazy and complacent, runs out of ideas and starts mailing it in3 every day. But while that's happened to almost every successful cartoonist who's ever come before him, I'm optimistic about Conley. Rather than settling into a comfortable routine by repeatedly revisiting each characters' stable of quirks, he continues to have new ideas. Considering how much the strip has evolved since its inception4, he seems to care about his craft more than most.5

Page Two
  • Baby Blues, Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott
    Apparently rather successful, though I can't imagine why. It's been around since 1990, has dozens of anthologies and was even made into a short-lived sitcom by the WB6.

    This is presumably one of those strips in which the entertainment value is dramatically increased through demographic similarity to its characters. Think grizzled ex-army dudes chuckling into their coffee over Beetle Bailey every morning. If I was the parent of an infant or toddler I'd probably think Baby Blues was a lot funnier. The best comics transcend this (i.e., you don't need to work in a soul-sucking cubicle to appreciate Dilbert); Baby Blues does not. It's not terrible, but never rises above the middle of the pack.

  • The Family Circus, Bil Keane
    Ah yes, the ageless melon-headed cherubs and perpetually unsmiling parents of the Circus. Even as a kid, I understood how lame this strip was. Who made a mess in the kitchen? Not Me and Ida Know! Get it?

    Having said that, it's kind of surprising how much vitriol the bland, inoffensive aren't-kids-cute-isms have inspired in popular culture: a lengthy monologue in the film Go; a series of jabs in David Cross's electric scissors routine; and others I can't remember offhand. Other than the vaguely Christian overtones (guardian angels, smiling ghosts of deceased grandparents), there's really very little to distinguish it.

  • Dilbert, Scott Adams
    Dilbert may be the only strip ever to achieve major success while featuring artwork so bad it frequently detracts from the humour. It was a genuinely funny strip for a while, but it's way past its expiration date. The whole thing's based in 90s IT-boom culture, so the sensibility's pretty dated. Even beyond that, Adams has been repeating himself for years now. Next.
  • Sally Forth, Franciso Marciuliano and Craig Macintosh
    Man, talk about completely undistinguished. Greg Howard7, who created this strip, doesn't even write it anymore. Did you notice the subtle shift in the characterisations? Did anyone? I have no idea who reads this strip (according to its sydicator's website: "working mothers"). It occurs to me that there could only be 365 Sally Forth strips and they keep recycling each one year after year. I can't imagine anyone would call them on it.
  • Classic Peanuts, Charles M. Schultz
    You can never go wrong with a little dose of Charlie Brown and the gang. Still, this functions as the same aforementioned warning sign thrown up by For Better's Sunday pole position: if this is the best they've got, comics are in trouble. You can't find any strip better than a bunch of re-runs from forty years ago? Worrisome. Remember that joke on The Simpsons where the ACE award for best new show on cable goes to "old Starsky & Hutches"? That kind of worrisome.

    Speaking of The Simpsons, Schultz holds the distinction of being the first daily cartoonist to ruinously water-down his brand with excessive merchandising, making him a proto-Krusty of sorts.

    Having said all that, the strips themselves are timeless, and will always be better than half the strips on any funny page.

  • Rhymes with Orange, Hilary B. Price
    Often single-paneled, and without any recurring characters (that I've noticed), Rhymes seems to be a second-rate imitation of not so much The Far Side as Mr. Boffo. Price musters up a quirky laugh now and then, but the strip's hackneyed structure and amateurish artwork make it seem like the kind of nice-try-but-not-quite strip you might see in some campus paper, and serves mostly as an example of the low standards of comic syndication these days.
  • Bizarro, Dan Piraro
    An object lesson in trying too hard. Another strip with no recurring characters, Bizarro seems hell-bent on being the new Far Side, but its forced zaniness completely misses mark. The droll tone that made The Far Side such a consistent success seems to elude Piraro.
Page Three
    Garfield, Jim Davis
  • Considering that Davis openly admits to creating the slothful feline primarily as a marketing concept, Garfield was actually kind of funny for a while. A long time ago. Today, having thoroughly exhausted the comic possibilities of lasagna fetishism and dog-torture, Davis (or, presumably, his staff; it's hard to imagine that Davis has penned a single gag in the past ten years at least) soldiers on humourlessly like a comic mercenary, recycling the same tired gags and repackaging them ad nauseum. The strip's 43rd anthology is due out this summer, but that figure doesn't include countless omnibuses of repeats.

    Garfield may be boring, but its appeal is transparent, so it's hard to hate. It's still the most popular strip in the world so... good for Davis. Can't knock the hustle.

  • Hägar the Horrible, Dik Browne
    Baffling. This is one of those strips that's been around since before I was born whose appeal is utterly lost on me. I mean, I understand that WWII vets read Beetle Bailey every day, but who the fuck reads Hägar? Vikings? I guess it's just been around long enough that it's reached that familiar status where nobody reads it but everyone assumes that someone else does. Not that it's entirely unfunny; the idea of a fearless warrior who goes off to rape and pillage, then comes home to be a henpecked husband is sort of amusing. Plus you gotta respect a guy with an umlaut in his name. But really, my whole reaction to Hägar can be summed up in two words: so what?

    Interesting trivia note, by the way: Hägar had his own soda pop in the early 80s. It was a complete flop, and apparently no one who bought it actually drank it, they just stashed away the unopened cans and sat around waiting for someone to invent eBay.

  • Pickles, Brian Crane
    Without competition the most forgettable strip in the paper. I don't even know what it's about. Old people, I guess. According to this, it won an award for the best comic strip of the year a few years back. I'm not sure if this is confusing or depressing. Am I missing something? Moving on...
  • Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey, Mort, Greg & Brian Walker
    Yes, that's really how it's billed in the Inquirer, a sure sign that this enterprise is strictly about propping up the dying cash cow; remember when the much-loved Pogo became Walt Kelly's Pogo? Maybe not.

    Based on the writing credits, I'm going to assume that Greg and Brian are Mort's faithful sons, who sit around all day listening to the old man mumble the same old war stories into his oatmeal, looking for some detail whence they can squeeze one more tired gag about sneaking naps in the trunk of a Jeep. I've already mentioned my theory as to the strip's enduring popularity.

    What's truly disorienting, and even depressing, about Beetle is the strip's utter detachment from current events. It's one thing to laugh about soldiers lounging around the base during peace time, but our country is at war right now; the Walkers never even hint at this, let alone acknowledge it outright. It's more than a little discomforting to read a story about soldiers dying halfway around the world on one page, then flip to another in the same paper and see gags about Beetle trying to weasel his way out of kitchen duty again. It's as though ol' Mort got his discharge, went off to draw cartoons in a cave and never picked up a paper again.

  • Overboard, Chip Dunham
    Incomprehensible. This is another one of those strips in which potential humour might be getting sunk by shitty artwork. What the hell is that thing on main character's head? It took me a while to figure out he's some sort of sailor; there are occasionally boats involved. But most of the strips revolve around the main character's relationship with his unfunny dog. I can't even figure out the main guy's name.

    Yet another strip without any official homepage, which makes me think: if this guy doesn't give a shit, why should I? Also yet another mediocre strip that won some best-comic-strip type award years ago. Did this used to be good before I ever heard of it?

  • Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau
    Doonesbury's one of those institutions that's become so established that people who ought to appreciate it take it for granted. As a result, it becomes an easy target for derision in the same way that The New York Times does. It's easy to overlook that fact that the strip remains consistently funny and insightful, and has been for 35 years. Mort Walker's sons should try reading it.

    Trust me, if you haven't read it lately, it's still good, and easily the most intelligent mainstream comic strip in any paper. If you're still not satisfied, or if you're one of those types who just loves to bitch about how great things used to be, pick one of the 70s anthologies for a taste of the glory years.

Page Four
  • Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, Gianni and Schultz
    Fuck yeah. Valiant owns. If this needs to be explained to you then you are not worthy of his awesomeness. I read Prince Valiant every week and can't follow a word of it. Look at those outfits! Those haircuts! Of course it's no Alley Oop, but what is?
  • Jump Start, Robb Armstrong
    The token African-American offering, Jump Start is the only ethnic comic not relegated to the back page by the Inquirer. Armstrong forgoes both the hardcore social commentary of The Boondocks and even the urban youth culture satire of Curtis, choosing instead to present a generically wholesome family strip whose characters just happen to be black, à la The Cosby Show. Boring. I'm not saying black cartoonists have to be angry or "black enough", I'm just judging it by the same criteria as all the others, and Jump Start is bland and unfunny.
  • Dennis the Menace, Hank Ketcham
    Appeals primarily to those who hate old people and enjoy seeing them tormented, I suppose. Or old people who hate kids. Mildly amusing, but Ketcham's basically just been repeating the same gags for about forty years now.
  • Ziggy, Tom Wilson
    It's kind of weird that the page linked above, as well as a lot of Ziggy merchandise, depict Ziggy as happy and carefree.8 Everyone knows the whole premise of the strip is that Ziggy's always miserable. No matter how he tries, he always gets screwed. That's the point: Ziggy's life sucks, and reading about it makes you feel better about yours.

    To Wilson's (or, by this point, his staff's) eternal credit, he maintains a remarkably high batting average as far as laughs go. The fact that he can still think of so many amusing ways for the world to shit on poor old Ziggy is a testament to just how many different ways one little thing can ruin someone's entire day. Not the sunniest premise, I suppose, but it still works.

  • Fred Bassett, Tom Graham
    Fred Bassett is almost bizarrely unfunny, to the point where it almost seems to be intentionally mundane at times. This is the strip that I most often find myself trying to figure out exactly what the joke's supposed to be. It's one of the few foreign strips in the paper, so maybe something just doesn't translate, but generally speaking I love British humour. What is it about Fred Bassett that's so consistently lost on me? Maybe it just stinks. It's not always my fault.
Page Five
  • Heart of the City, Mark Tatulli
    Yawn. Kids are so cute aren't they? Completely undistinguished.
  • Pearls Before Swine, Stephan Pastis
    Another cute-animals entry, but devoid of any especially memorable characters save a peculiarly bug-eyed crocodile9. Characterised by a palpable envy of the success of Get Fuzzy, which Pastis addressed directly in last Sunday's installment. Not bad, funnier than most for whatever that's worth, but Pastis is right about one thing: not as good as Fuzzy.
  • Mutts, Patrick McDonnell
    Cute animals again, this one with an odd hippie-ish earth-child vibe underscoring it. Most of the jokes aren't funny, but I kind of like the ones where McDonnell doesn't try to be funny and instead just muses on the zen of the inner lives of animals.

    I've noticed my blurbs are getting shorter; is this because I'm running out of things to say or because the strips grow progressively less interesting towards the back of the supplement?

  • Foxtrot, Bill Amend
    I remember liking this one when it debuted, and it still holds up. The characters are pretty clichéd and they don't age, so it wouldn't have been surprising to see the strip stagnate early on, but somehow Amend manages to consistently squeeze laughs out of the same old material.
  • Cathy, Cathy Guisewite
    I never found Cathy particularly funny, but then I never was a single woman. This one used to be a classic standby, but I think we can all agree that it jumped the shark when Cathy got married.

    Guisewite was the original Candace Bushnell and Cathy was her Carrie Bradshaw, a single everywoman with whom every single woman could identify. I suppose Guisewite made the decision to get her hitched because she ran out of gags about single life, in which case her decision to move on is admirable in a way.

    So she milked the engagement for all the Bridezilla material it was worth; fine. But now that Cathy's married, who cares? She still acts like a neurotic single woman, worrying incessantly about her weight, her mother's approval, etc., only now she just takes it all out on her poor husband. Maybe the strip'll be revitalised when Cathy gets divorced.

  • The Lockhorns, Bunny Hoest & John Reiner
    Haha, Leroy's hitting on some tart at the cocktail party again! Loretta's cooking still sucks! There's something comforting about Mr. & Mrs. Lockhorn going through the motions of their empty, loveless marriage. They seem to stay together because each one is simply too lazy to leave the other.

    The Lockhorns arguably recycles material more shamelessly than any other comic strip, but hey, if it ain't broke...

Page Six
  • Edge City, Terry & Patty LaBan
    Having never seen Edge City before reading it in the Inquirer, I didn't realise it was another ethnic strip until Passover rolled around. Lo and behold, we have ourselves a bland, unoriginal Jewish family comic strip. It's not awful, but considering prevailing stereotypes, you can forgive me for expecting it to be a little funnier. I thought all the Jews who aren't accountants were stand-up comedians. Everyday I am further enlightened...
  • Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller
    Wildly inconsistent, but the good days are strong. This one revolves around a precocious little girl who's best described as a female Calvin10, but sometimes it's just random gags without any of the regular characters, à la Mr. Boffo. The girl's usually good for a solid laugh, but the strips without her tend to fall flat.
  • Baldo, Cantú and Castellanos
    Which brings us to the Latino entry on the ethnic page. Mostly a generic family strip, but with a large extended family who all live together. Not to perpetuate stereotypes or anything.

    Most of the gags are middle of the road and not very funny, but last Sunday one of the main characters (Tia Carmen) was dragged away in tears by gun-toting INS agents and the strip ended without any semblance of a punchline. If this strip suddenly starts tackling immigration issues head-on, it could become one of my favourites quickly.

  • Zits, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
    A strip about today's tech-obsessed teenagers: the main character is often seen using his cellphone, laptop and iPod all at once. And the strip has no homepage on-line. Way to know your subject.

    On the other hand, the focus is more on the generation gap, and the gags tend to be set up from a viewpoint sympathetic to the parents. Perhaps it's really aimed at the parents of surly teenagers everywhere; why bother with a website when most of the strip's reader don't even understand how to use this crazy Interweb thing all the kids keep talking about?

    As for the strip itself, it displays a knowing take on its source material and is usually good for a decent punchline. Approved.

  • Blondie, Dean Young and John Marshall
    75 years. Did you know that? 75 years. You probably could have figured it out, as the artwork still looks pre-war. I've always felt like I was missing some vital piece of the premise of Blondie, like if I knew the original joke about how this slovenly geek scored the hot blonde I would get all the subsequent jokes.
    Nowadays Blondie hardly ever appears, so we're treated to day after day of Dagwood's dog silently watching him build sixteen-inch-high sandwiches. Given that the strip's been around as long as it has, it's reasonable to assume that it was funny at one point, but I think it's safe to say that time has long since passed.
  • Piranha Club, Bo Grace
    I'm honestly not sure if this one's an ethnic strip or not. It mostly revolves around a group of indistinguishable older men who all appear to be of some sort of Mediterranean stock: Italian? Greek? They all wear cheap suits, slouch, hang out and play cards at the Piranha Club, apparently a sort of Elks' lodge for men with pencil moustaches. I suppose this is sort of the Beetle Bailey analogue for greasy dudes from Queens who hang out at the neighborhood mens' club and compare pinky rings.
So I guess I have a positive view of about a third of the strips in the Inquirer, more than I expected. The problem is that I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to a lot of hit-or-miss strips that are unfunny more often than not. In a single week I'll be lucky to get two laughs out of the whole Sunday supplement. Next week I'll probably get one chuckle out of the lot. And I'll read every last one of them.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. The Times is too good for the funnies, and anyone who lives in New York and bitches about the Times (as I've done many times) should read the reprinted wire feeds that pass for reporting in any number of local dailies around the country once in a while to remind themselves of just how good they have it. An intellectual paper has its place, and the Times fills that place quite well. [Return]
  2. Neither of which, I must confess, I've ever actually watched a full episode. But you get the idea. Not that I'm so above television, mind you, I just don't watch quality dramas, I watch(ed) The O.C. [Return]
  3. Figuratively speaking, of course. I would assume all cartoonists submit their daily strips via email nowadays. [Return]
  4. Obvious example: Rob (the human) used to wear large opaque glasses. Conley got rid of the glasses and has developed a far more expressive range in his renderings of Rob's face. [Return]
  5. Conley also gets extra props for stirring up a bit of controversy. He received a shocking volume of hate mail from the Pittsburgh area after implying in one strip that the city smells bad. His response was a back-handed apology in which he insulted the city further. He later made a crack about Boston television sportscaster Bob Lobel being intoxicated on air. Most of the Boston-area papers that carry the strip censored it, and Lobel filed a libel suit which was reportedly settled out of court. Anyone who pisses people off in public gets a modicum of respect from me. [Return]
  6. Trivia note: one (or more) of the baby characters on the show was voiced by the guy from The Drew Carey Show who was in Office Space. He also played the Rex Kwan Do guy in Napoleon Dynamite. Step to that. [Return]
  7. Unfortunately not this guy, which would have made Sally Forth my favourite strip ever. [Return]
  8. Check out, for instance, this utterly incongruous image of Ziggy in b-boy gear. [Return]
  9. Alligator? [Return]
  10. (as in and Hobbes) [Return]

No comments: