On Comic Strips…
You know what aren’t nearly as clever nor as funny as when I was a kid?
The Comics pages in the newspaper. Yes, there are some really solid one’s out there like Get Fuzzy but the really good, creative ones are few and far between. Hell I think the last really good one was Boondocks and while we all wait on season 3 of the animated series, I do miss Aaron McGruder’s daily strip a hell of a lot. In fact it isn’t just Boondocks that I miss, as Foxtrot has also slipped away into the night. Sure Doonesbury trudges on and I use the word ‘trudge’ in a negative connotation like you have no idea. Sure Gary Trudeau can still get a good zing in now and then but the third generation of characters really do nothing for me to be honest. So this begs the question “Why aren’t Funnies as good as they used to be?”
Let’s take a look at what I grew up with as far the Comic Page goes. First, there were the already established classics like Charles Schultz’s Peanuts and Chic Young’s Blondie (for the record, I still like Blondie though I still think it was better as a serial) were still putting out solid stuff, but man alive the 80’s were a like golden age for comic strips. I mean is there a strip that is more full of life than Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes? Has there been such twisted genius presented on the pages of newspaper since Gary Larson ended The Far Side? Why is there nothing as socially skewering as Bloom County? WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE GOOD SHIT?
Sure there were other strips but c’mon, B.C. was never funny nor was The Wizard Of Id. Mother Goose & Grimm used to pack a punch back in the day but limps along today, though like Doonesbury, it gets a good zinger in there now and again. It seems the bad comic strips never end. I mean Boondocks is gone but I still have to see Marmaduke or The Lockhorns everyday? I swear, when to comes to me wanting to laugh be entertained God opts instead to laugh AT ME!
I mean let’s look at Calvin & Hobbes. Such pure joy and imagination went in that strip that it was a delight to look forward to everyday. I mean Bill Watterson was such a magnificent cartoonist and there was so much love in every strip he put out. I mean you have the misadventures of a boy and his stuffed tiger powered through sheer imagination… lord that stuff is still amazing! I mean every strip is funny but I don’t think any strip marketed to children ever dissected the American Family dynamic better than Calvin & Hobbes did. I mean you have Calvin’s mom who has to manage with her spazz of a child and acts as his chief disciplinarian. Then there is Calvin’s father, who actually subtly undermines Calvin’s mom in his own attempts at discipline. Hell at times Calvin’s parents are just as spastic as he is. The voice of reason in all this is Hobbes, the inanimate toy that is run on Calvin’s hyperactive imagination. He provides the cautionary warning when Calvin embarks on some insane new adventure. Of course he also doesn’t heed his own advice most of the time and goes along with the game or scheme Calvin plots. Watterson ended the strip in 1995 due to numerous circumstances, not the least of which was Watterson’s outspoken criticism of lack of space on the comic pages themselves for cartoonists to really express themselves. When the strip ended though, it ended on a a simple premise that the adventure never ends as long as imagination is there to power it. God I miss Calvin & Hobbes!
Then there is the The Far Side. It takes a very twisted mind poke fun at our own culture the way Gary Larson does. His sense of humor is both intelligent yet utterly macabre. If there were a cartoonist whose sense of humor was as twisted and funny to match Larson it would be the late Charles Addams (one of Larson’s own heroes incidentalyy). There is no overreaching story in The Far Side. It is solitary, it is apolitical and it is utterly brilliant. No man has ever made cows as funny as Larson did. He managed to take a stick and poke fun at every genre and make me laugh every-time. I can’t point to one strip of The Far Side that is ‘The Best’ because everything Larson produced made me laugh out loud. In fact I’m pretty sure of all the strips I used to read, the one my Dad minded the least was The Far Side, simply because it combined some very clever intelligent humor with the most ridiculous of concepts. The beauty of The Far Side was that you didn’t have to be super smart to get the jokes being made but it certainly didn’t hurt your appreciation of it either. I’m convinced that when the Aliens from Gastronomix 47 arrive on planet Earth (Oh make no mistake… THREY’RE COMING!) that they will stumble across a collection of Larson’s strips and determine our society of talking cows, gorillas and dinosaurs will make our planet unconquerable. For this I thank Gary Larson for saving the human race in advance.
Lastly, let’s tackle my favorite strip of my youth, Bloom County. Bloom County was the perfect device to help a boy entering his pre-teen and teen years get exposed to political thought and popular culture. Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed always found a topic that resulted in a laugh. Whether he was telling a serialized arc or just doing a one-off gag, Breathed always found something about our society or our world as a whole to make fun of. The thing is, Bloom County captures a specific point in the American psyche. It is a snapshot of what exactly the 80s were like. How insane the 80s were making everyone. Breathed attacked American politics. Breathed attacked the Cold War. Breathed attacked celebrity with the concept of what happens when certain celebrities (and their fans for that matter) take things to far. He used Bloom County to address race relations, science, drugs, gender politics and good old American greed. There isn’t a single character in Bloom County that doesn’t represent an entire group of people that were living through the 80s with us. It was a genius comic strip that had its characters embrace excess as means to demonstrate the sheer pomposity of that which was embraced. Bloom County was more than just Opus The Penguin people. Bloom County was America in the 80s, even more so than America was itself. A strip like Bloom County just wouldn’t survive today. It was too outrageous at times. It could be incredibly over the top in being politically incorrect that it would be edited to death or censored to the point where it wouldn’t be funny and you know what… it was just give Breahted one more thing to lampoon… in Bloom County!
The moral of this little ode to the American comic strip and its pages?
Enjoy what you read now. Savor it. The American Newspaper Comic Strip is a dying art-form. The Internet and its crop of new artists are making the current strips look like a weak sister because the Internet gives artists more freedom to be say and do what they want. The Internet is exactly what Bill Watterson always lamented about, not having the freedom to express himself exactly how he wanted to. So enjoy these last dying years of syndicated newspaper strips because in a few more years they aren’t going to matter. No one will cheer for Gil Thorp and no one will laugh at Hagar The Horrible. The sad thing is, as it stands, most people barely do that now anyway.