Regarding comic strips

April 26, 2007

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There are those habits that you persist in continuing out of what seems like sheer obligation. Obligation to what, I don't know. Perhaps it's an obligation to continue merely because you've been doing it for so long already. That's a lame-ass reason, I know.

For me, one of those habits is reading certain comic strips in my daily newspaper. I do this daily. If I miss a week, even two, I generally go back through my old papers and read them. Some of these comic strips, to be sure, I hate. And yet I continue to read them. Why? I'm not completely sure. I suppose because reading comics strips do what it do.

If I had to honestly break it down, I think it's because of the positioning of the comics on the page. The two I like the most are near the top, then there are a couple toward the bottom that I also like. I tend to start at the top and then read down, and yet I feel compelled to read the crappy strips in between. It's like I'm uncontrollably drawn to see how much the bad ones suck today.

I don't read The Family Circus, but the speech by the Todd Gaines character in the movie "Go" was the best speech anyone could've come up with to describe my feelings on The Family Circus: "Bottom, right-hand corner, just waiting to suck." That's how I feel about The Family Circus — as well as some of the strips I actually read.

I'm limited to what my local paper prints. I'm not a big comic-strip aficionado, so I don't go seeking out other comics on the web. I read what's in front of me. My paper only publishes one page of daily comics, so there are countless strips out there that I've rarely or never read. When I was a kid I used to read the Sunday comics, but that's a practice I've long since given up, especially since the serialized storylines of most comics generally don't hinge at all upon the Sunday entry (because of the nature of syndication).

So let's run through the comics I read and my general thoughts on them. I'm going to start at the bottom and work toward the top. That way I'll end on my favorite strips.

Baby Blues by Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott

This is a decent strip. I occasionally get a chuckle out of it. It probably works better for those who can relate to the whole "parents of young children" thing, but what works for me is the acerbic one-liners from kids where you wouldn't necessarily expect such a clever line. I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to read this strip, but it's likable. Sometimes it's a little too cute. To my surprise, it's written by two guys. For some reason I'd pegged this as a woman-written strip.

B.C. by Johnny Hart

This is where I turn mean. B.C. sucks. A lot. This strip should be pulled from all newspapers immediately on general anti-hoariness principles. There might have been a time — long, long ago — when B.C. served as clever commentary (though I can't contemplate such an era), in which current-day references cleverly find their way into caveman times. But the joke is over, folks. The author of the strip, Johnny Hart, died a few weeks ago. All due respect and all that, but, much to my dismay, the strip will continue, apparently to be written by his successors. Why, oh why? Can't we let this lame strip die? Day after day the jokes are pallid, obvious, trite, unfunny, obvious, lame, obvious, perfunctory, obvious, and — oh, yeah — obvious. My reaction to B.C. when I read a punch line is usually, "Did he really go with that obvious a punch line? Come ON!" I laughed when a recent episode of "Family Guy" had Stewie point out, in no uncertain terms, that B.C. is LAME. It's the only strip I can think of that honestly believes puns are hilarious.

It's gotten to the point that the lamer B.C. is, the better I feel about it, about myself, and about my day. I think to myself, at least something in the universe is constant! Several months ago, I came across a B.C. that actually made me chuckle and it was like a shock to my system: Check that shit out (fig. 1). My whole day was thrown for a loop. If B.C. could make me laugh, what else was in store for me? Would I get hit by a bus? Perhaps struck by lightning?

Zits by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman

What's not to like? Zits has got to be among the funniest of current comic strips. We've all been teenagers, so we can all relate. Zits is current, fresh, funny, and true. The interaction and sarcasm between Jeremy and his parents reveal the best and funniest of teen-related clich├ęs. This is the rare comic strip that can actually make me occasionally laugh out loud. The authors understand humor, which might be more rare in comics than one might think (see B.C.).

Garfield by Jim Davis

Back when I was a kid — and I'm talking about grade school here — I liked Garfield. It was my favorite strip. I had over a dozen, maybe two, of the books. There was something amusing about Garfield's world view, which was unapologetically narcissistic and hedonistic, and for anything that didn't fit into that world view there was apathy and sarcasm. Sounds like the American way.

But the fact of the matter is that this strip has long outlived its usefulness and is now tired, recycled dreck. Based on the strips of the last decade, Jim Davis strikes me as a total hack who is going through the motions and prolonging a concept merely for the paycheck. While I can't blame him for prolonging the strip artificially, I can blame him for not coming up with any fresh ideas in the meantime. One of my favorite parodies documenting the lameness of Garfield is on Maddox's site. (Maddox, let it be said, is far meaner than I could ever be.)

In Davis' defense, over the past year or so, he has been running an experiment by having Jon successfully dating (i.e., not getting dumped) his longtime crush, Liz. The results are no more funny than the typical Garfield strip (yes, Jon is a hapless loser; we get it), so it's sort of a wash. I also can't necessarily credit Davis with finally pairing Jon and Liz. I presume that he decided to cave in and try this because the movie (from what I've read; I wouldn't waste 90 minutes of my life) paired Jon/Liz for the purposes of, no doubt, fulfilling the usual movie formula requirements.

While we're talking about Garfield, I just have one question for anyone familiar with old-school Garfield. Just what exactly happened to Lyman? Lyman was Jon's roommate (or something) back in the very early days of the strip. He eventually vanished without explanation. Wait, I just Wikipedia'd it. Here's the explanation. I guess I don't have to speculate anymore. Wikipedia and its instant answers take the fun out of everything. Damn you, Wikipedia! No, prasie you! Or, oh ... I can't decide!

For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston

This is the reason I read the comics page at all. It's also the reason I go back through my old papers if I haven't read the comics for the past two weeks. The strip is addictive and I don't want to miss any key plot points.

For Better or For Worse is actually not all that funny. In fact, one thing that occasionally annoys me about the strip is that it feels the need to add a punch line to a strip out of obligation. In reality, the strip doesn't need punch lines. That's not why we read it. We read it because it's a fascinating serialized document of fictional characters that has been ongoing for nearly 30 years.

First of all, I don't consider myself an expert on the strip's history. I read the strip only sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s. But since about 2000 I've read the strip religiously. There's something compelling about characters that age in real time and have typical family experiences and problems. The true-to-life nature of the strip makes it a superb empathy machine.

What will be interesting, however, is that the characters will become frozen in time this September when Johnston semi-retires from the daily grind. After 30 years of growing up and growing older, the characters will become trapped.

That's sort of a bittersweet compromise from Johnston's original idea of retiring the strip. It also gives me a weird feeling that I can't fully articulate. While this is simply a structural change for a fictional story medium, it's stranger if you stop and think of it in more philosophical terms.

Here are these characters who have pasts. They think they have futures. But they won't. They will become trapped in a state of non-development forever and won't even know it (unless Johnston makes some sort of fourth-wall-breaking gesture within the strip itself, which seems unlikely). Mike grew up in the strip, but now his kids won't. April will stay a teenager for as long as the strip continues. I'd call it Kafkaesque, but I don't want to get too absurd here. (I know; too late.)

The Pattersons, which had diverged for a time, are now all under the same roof again (mostly because of the fire that destroyed Mike and Deanna's apartment), and the story is setting things up such that Mike and Deanna will live in the Patterson home while John and Elly move down the street. The things happening now play like the stage-setting leading up to a plot twist in a "Battlestar Galactica" season finale. (And, no, I haven't been smoking pot.) Their reality is about to shift ... but that reality will not be known to the characters in any way. The more I think about it, the more fascinating and creepy it seems.

FoxTrot by Bill Amend

FoxTrot is funny. The daily strip was retired at the end of 2006, so this is no longer part of my daily routine, but this was the ultimate geek strip. Bill Amend bathes in pop-culture references and nerd humor. I put my case in point with the strip below. If you don't get it, that's the way it goes. If you do get it, then you understand why FoxTrot was indispensible.

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6 comments on this post

    Jammer, have you seen the excellent internet meme where people simply photoshop out Garfield's thought bubbles, turning it into a surreal cartoon about a half-crazy sad loner who talks to his cat all day? It's brilliant and completely restores Garfield- do check it out:

    Mmm...I go for trek and click a link here... I much like you had those garfield books....still do. Its a shame to see it go so downhill. I also very much have to recommend Calvin & Hobbes. I was saddened it wasn't on this list. Many regard it to be the absolute best comic to ever exist. I am inclined to agree. Although I so rarely got to see it in newspaper... Huuzah for compilations and the internet.

    Lately I have been trying to find any kind of information for my project, but unsuccessfully. Now it seems like I finally found a lot. This is the greatest site among all internet-sources.

    B.C. actually used to be funny. In - I don't know, the 70's, or whenever it started. It was never very topical, but it was funny. Hart had some excellant comic timing. I can remember a strip where a couple of them are watching Clumsy Carp with his head underwater in the river studying fish, expressing surprise at how long he could hold his breathe, and in the final panel they see the anteater walk across the river. Genuinely funny. I don't know when he got all religious and it turned from a vehicke for humour to a vehicle for obvious right wing opinion, but it wasn't always that way.

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