Friday, April 2, 2010

Why Newspaper Comic Strips Suck

I grew up in a house with a newspaper subscription, and every morning before the school bus came I'd get the plastic-wrapped Seattle PI (which is no longer in print) from the front porch and peruse it over my bowl of milk-softened cereal. I never paid much attention to the front page—except maybe on 9/12—and the sports section only got my attention during baseball season and on the Mondays after Seahawks games. The only part of the paper I read with any sort of regularity was the comics page.

Maybe you know what I mean by “comics page.” It's usually in the “Life and Arts” section with the horoscopes and the advice columns—20 or 30 horizontal strips (like the strips at the top of this post, which are all from today's paper) and as many one-panel strips as are required to fill the rest of the space, like this Family Circus:

Some people glance at the comics page every morning and forget about it, but I was drawn to the format in a way that seems extremely strange to me now. I bought collections of strips, I read my dad's old collections of Peanuts and Bloom County and Doonesbury (the latter two I didn't understand because I didn't know who Ronald Reagan and Oliver North were), and I followed my favorite strips like hipsters follow obscure bands—I was angry when the PI didn't carry the excellent Get Fuzzy, and I despaired at the drop in quality of The Boondocks as time went on. We all have subjects we're privately passionate about. For Eric Massa, it's the supple buttocks of his male staffers; for me it was comic strips.

The problem was, I didn't enjoy 95 percent of the comic strips I read. The strips mentioned in the previous paragraph I can read and enjoy to this day, but those are some of the best strips of the last three decades, by which I mean they were funny about a third or a half of the time and the rest of the time the artwork could make up for it. The majority of the time, newspaper comic are like the examples you can see on this page—unfunny or poorly drawn, usually both at once.

Look at Beetle Bailey or Wizard of Id. Really look at them, don't skim over them the way most people do and the way I did when I was 13. Generic jokes, the kind you can get out of a really cheesy joke book, and characters so indifferently drawn your eye just glides past them. Of course, the characters don't really matter, since they exist solely to spout the prepackaged setups and punchlines—does it matter that the wizard is a wizard? Or that Beetle Bailey takes place in the military? (Also, couldn't the wizard just heal himself with magic? And what “work” is he going to?) These strips, by any objective standard, are really, really fucking awful, unfunny things that shouldn't be reproduced anywhere, yet alone in hundreds of newspapers.

These are all “legacy strips,” franchises that had their heyday dozens of years ago and are now drawn by their creators' sons or inheritors. Sometimes they are produced by a team of writers, hard as that is to believe, and they often have surprisingly vast commercial empires—how many stuffed, suction-pawed Garfields have you seen in car windows? They are in the newspaper because they have “name recognition” and because if a newspaper tries to replace a comedic and artistic void like Hi and Lois with something preferable—like escort advertisements—a bunch of people write in to complain about the change. This brings us to the core audience for newspaper comics, who are:

1.People who read them ironically and comment on the Comics Curmudgeon.
2.Old people who read them because they've done so for years and don't care about the artistic or comedic value of comics at all.

The second category is much bigger than the first, which is why newspaper comics are so toothless these days that that adjective doesn't do them justice. They have negative teeth. They are so bad that when The Boondocks appeared, a fairly well-drawn, funny strip with definable characters and a perspective on the outside world, it counted as a revelation for me. You can actually do something with those three panels in black and white! There can be more to this art form than recycled jokes delivered from lazily sketched (in more than one sense) characters standing in undefined backgrounds!

Yeah, that's right, comic strips are an art form. Go back and read some Calvin and Hobbes or Krazy Kat if you don't think that comic strips can be art. Harvey Pekar, the creator of American Splendor—which never appeared in a newspaper—said that comics were “words and pictures; you can do anything with words and pictures!” But in the bleak reality of newspaper strips, no one bothers to do anything interesting with words and pictures. Maybe that's due to the strict deadlines, maybe the good artists are giving up on strips or moving to the web; whatever the reason, newspaper comics—still the most well-known branch of non-superhero comics—serve even less purpose than newspapers themselves. They aren't dead yet, but maybe they should be.

The horrible thing isn't that these strips are terrible. God knows there is plenty of terrible in the world today. The problem is that a kid like me, who reads the comics for some reason, will grow up and think that that is what comics are supposed to be. The form has an incredible amount of potential, and I'm lucky enough to have found some good words with pictures to read. But the way the average America—who still reads the newspaper in this day and age—experiences comics is through the comics page. That's like experiencing gun collecting by being shot. It would be nice if more people could experience comics the way that they can be experienced, but that will never happen as long as Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois dominate newspapers.

Further reading: check out David Malki's hilarious and informative “The Comic Strip Doctor,” especially this entry on Momma, maybe the worst strip ever printed.

1 comment:

  1. The comic strips in newspapers are practically artifacts of another era. One example - Beetle Bailey is so hopelessly out of day that most of the military personnel I work with don't even know what the strip is about. Beetle Bailey seems to be part of the Army of the post World War II era, except occasionally we see the introduction of a ridiculous character like "Gizmo" who seems to be the only person in the entire U.S. Army who knows about computers or cell phones. I could go on and on with other examples. The strip needs to be put out of its misery and retired.