Saturday, June 07, 2008

If they called them “The Saddies,” even fewer people would read them


As a kid, I used to love the funnies. They were my favorite part of the daily newspaper; in fact, they were the only part I read. I can remember my parents reading them to me and, as I got a little bit older, helping me read them myself, as I’d sound out the words in the bubbles. I imagine the same holds true for most Americans my age or older, and maybe even younger (although fewer and fewer of those who are younger).

My father was a big newspaper fan, and we used to get the two daily newspapers throughout my childhood: Our hometown paper and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This meant two sets of funnies. They overlapped quite a bit, but each page had some strips the others don’t.

Peanuts, Animal Crackers, Garfield, B.C., Andy Capp, Blondie, The Wizard of Id, The Family Circle, For Better Or For Worse, Beetle Bailey, Hi & Lois, Hagar The Horrible, Dennis The Menace, Marmaduke, Funky Winkerbean, Spider-Man, Doonesbury…I remember these all being pretty consistent in the papers I grew up with.

I remember when new strips came, like Calvin and Hobbes and Jump Start and Dilbert and Fox Trot, and when when others left, like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side and Bloom County and Pogo. I remember when Born Loser mentioned my hometown Ashtabula in it, and I remember clipping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles out of the paper every day, when a Jim Lawson strip was running in the local paper (at the height of Turtlemania). I remember when Farley died, and when Mort Walker introduced the Asian guy into the Beetle Bailey cast. Rose Is Rose was one of my favorites; it wasn’t always all that funny (in fact, it could be disgustingly saccharine), but Pat Brady was a hell of an artist, and his Sunday strips could sometimes be downright incredible.

Moving away to college brought a new funnies page, but I still read The Plain Dealer’s daily, and when I got a job working for a chain of northeast Ohio newspapers, my daily funnies pages intake was up to three. This third one included 9 Chickweed Lane, which I liked a lot (It was another strip that wasn’t always funny, but was often really well drawn).

There was a time when I was consciously training myself to draw by doing daily exercises, and one of these was to copy the work of a few strip artists I liked a lot and who seemed to draw daily life stuff really well every day. So, for a while, I would redraw For Better or For Worse and Zits strips every day (I didn’t much care for the latter’s character designs—at least, it wasn’t a style I wanted to work with—but I appreciated the clothes and sets and set dressing a lot).

When I first moved to Columbus, I got a subscription to our awful, awful daily paper, The Columbus Dispatch, and read it almost cover to cover everyday, in part to get to know the city as well as possible (at the time, journalism was still my chief field). Their funny pages had quite a few strips we didn’t have up north, including Stone Soup, Agnes, Sherman’s Lagoon, The Boondocks, Apartment 3-G, Mark Trail and Judge Parker.

I’m not sure why Columbus had so many of those boring-ass soap opera type strips, but I read them every day, convinced once I figured out who was who I would start to see the appeal. I never really did. I do remember when the Dispatch tried to get rid of Mark Trail, their Editor-in-Chief wrote a column about how the negative reaction was so strong he felt compelled to bring it back.

After a year or two of that, I kind of stopped reading the funnies which, the older I got, seemed to be less and less funny (With the exception of only Doonesbury; that’s one I used to read and never understand as a kid, but which got funnier and funnier the older I got). The best strips—i.e. the ones that were funny and well drawn—could be found in altweeklies and online, and the mainstream strips that I did like (Mutts, Fox Trot, The Boondocks) could also be found online and/or in collections from the library

I’ve long since stopped reading The Dispatch, as it only depresses me. I find it pretty unfortunate that the state capital’s newspaper is so much worse than the ones in Cleveland, Toronto and even Akron.

When I worked for a altweekly newspaper here, I kept an eye on The Dispatch because they were our kinda sorta rivals (but not really; only in so much as my paper also covered Columbus). About three years ago The Dispatch bought that paper, fired 20% of the editorial staff (starting with me) and then redesigned and reformatted it from an arts, opinion, news and local music into a more general entertainment paper.

So I had additional disincentive to read the paper (In a testament to how poor a newspaper it is, I haven’t missed reading it at all. Any national news of import I’ll find online the day it happens, of course; any state news of import will be better covered in state papers also available online; and anything within the city of interest to me I’ll learn about through message boards like Donewaiting.com or via my friends who still work in the local media).

And that’s a brief history of my newspaper reading habits; the only salient bit there is that I don’t normally read the funnies at all anymore.

About a week or so ago, I had some relatives visiting town on their way back to the northeastern corner of Ohio from Florida, and they had brought part of a newspaper with them. It was a tabloid-format weekly pull-out section containing all the entertainment news and event listings for the upcoming weekend (A lot of papers have these, usually on Thursdays and Fridays; the Dispatch’s version is The Weekender; the Plain Dealer’s is Friday).

I was kind of surprised to see that after the movie reviews and concert previews and calendar listings were the funnies. I assume they run in the daily version of the paper too, so it seemed odd that once a week they would be in this thing, but there they were, taking up the first half of each of three consecutive pages, sharing space with the jumble and sudoku and that sort of stuff.

Since it’s been so long since I’ve actually read a newspaper comics section, and since I’ve been blogging about comics, I thought I’d take advantage of this funnies section having found its way into my house to revisit them in their native habitat, the newspaper. And blog the results.

This is the “Weekend” section of the Bradenton Herald, a newspaper based in Bradenton, Florida, from May 22 of this year. Here’s what they have, and my thoughts on them…


Garfield

In the first panel Garfield, Jon and a woman who looks like John in a wig are holding putters, and Jon says, “Darn! I went in the water!”, probably referring to his ball. And Garfield thinks to himself, “Right into the mouth of the giant plaster snake.”

Well, which is it? The mouth of the plaster snake or the water? Or is the plaster snake in the water? Because why would Jon say “in the water” if it’s in the mouth of the snake? Also, why is Garfield playing miniature golf? He’s a cat.

In the next panel Jon walks off, and we hear/see a “SLOSH SLOSH SLOSH” sound effect. Apparently he’s gone into the water after the ball.

In the last panel there’s a loud “YAAAHHHHHH” coming from off-panel, and Garfield thinks, “Wow. I could’ve sworn that was plaster.”

I guess it was a real snake? This raises even more questions. Why is there a giant, ball-swallowing snake that could be mistaken as a plaster statue on a putt-putt course? Was it just laying there, basking in the sun with its mouth wide open? And Jon’s ball just went in its mouth, and the snake neither shut its mouth nor moved in any discernible way after a golf ball landed in its mouth? Is that what we’re supposed to believe?

That’s stupid.


Marvin

Hey, they still publish this comic? This was the first comic I quit reading because it sucked so bad. Around sixth grade or so I remember actively hating it, and I read it until about the start of high school, when I decided, you know what? This comic is totally shitty, it hasn’t made me laugh once in at least three years now, and life’s just two short to spend thirty-seconds a day with Marvein. It was basically, “Hey, what if Garfield was a baby? And Jon was a married couple?” Marvin even looked like an anthropomorphic Garfield, and his dad like Jon with a big long nose.

The art seems quite improved since I’d seen it last (1995, maybe?). Marvin looks less Garfield-like, andapparently he’s a toddler now, since he can walk and speak. His head is bigger and his eyes are wide open rather than half-lidded like Garfield’s. Maybe there’s a new artist? The Herald doesn’t have bylines; many of the strips have signatures in them, but they are so small, it’s hard to make ‘em out.

The joke is that Marvin asks his dad for a cookie, and his father responds, “What did your mother say?” and Marvin storms (well, toddles) away, thinking, “Criminy. He’s starting to wise up.”

Ha!

Kids sometimes ask both parents the same question in the hopes of getting a favorable response from one of them! I’ve never seen anyone point that out before!

I was glad the dog wasn’t in this one. I used to hate the dog; it was weird he and Marvin understood one another, and their rivalry creeped me out. They seemed to genuinely dislike one another and, if I’m remembering correctly, actively try to harm one another. Animal abuse is still animal abuse if a baby does it, right? And child abuse is still child abuse if a dog does it, right?


Hagar the Horrible

There’s Hagar with his beard resting on his meaty hand, and the skinny beardless guy in the turtleneck robe. Hagar says, “Since I’ve been on this diet I can’t think about revenge for a while…” The skinny guy—Lucky Eddie? Is that it?—asks him why.

In the second panel, Chris Browne pulls out a bit so we can see their whole bodies, including the rock Hagar is sitting on and his shield and sword—I always liked the way the Brownes drew weapons—and Hagar says, “Because Revenge is sweet.”

Heh.

I actually said “Heh” out loud at that. This is the best strip so far!


Beetle Bailey

“Greg and Mort Walker’s” Beetle Bailey (that’s how it’s signed) is right below Hagar, which seems weird to me, like they’re calling attention to the similarities in design and the association of the cartoonist families.

This is also a two-panel strip, but the two panels are almost identical. It’s a conversation between Sarge and the cook—I think his name was Cookie. I used to suspect they were brothers, because they look the exact same. Looking at it now, I see Cookie has stubble and a cauliflower ear, but that’s the only difference. This joke is awful. I don’t want to dwell on it.


Hi & Lois

And the Browne/Walker combination strip is right below the Browne and Walker strips. What the fuck, people who lay out the Bradenton Herald Weekend comics section?

I always hated this strip so much. I hate every single one of the characters and their stupid personalities and conflicts and jokes. The only time I ever liked it was when Lois was drawn in her underwear or taking a bath or something. And I like Hi’s outfit. Like, I’d seriously wear that v-neck sweater, slacks and old man shoes combo he wears all the time.

If this strip were just pictures of Hi’s clothes laid out on a bed, and Lois in a semi-transparent negligee laying on the bed next to them, I think I would totally dig it.

It’s not though; it’s the little boy saying some dumb shit about his treehouse. Lois is the only other character in it, and she’s fully clothed.


Curtis

This is the first “black”strip I’ve ever seen in one of the papers I grew up reading (The first of only two, if you Jump Start). I remember it ran in the Plain Dealer for a while, but I don’t think it lasted all that long.

I never really liked it. I never thought Jump Start was all that funny either, but I liked the drawing and the lettering a lot. It was one of those strips I used to like looking at more than reading.

This particular installment of Curtis is two panels. I guess two panels is the new four panels? One is really long and has nine grotesque caricatures talking about the messages on their cell phones. In the last panel, Curtis is sneaking around a corner, looking anxious.

The joke is of the scatological variety, a form of humor too low for the EDILW pretty low standards, so I won’t repeat it. Besides, I don’t quite get it anyway—it seems to be part of some continuity I haven’t been reading.

On its own, it’s not at all funny, but the artist did a pretty decent job of drawing these various human grotesqueries in the first panel. Curtis still wears his hat sideways.


Wizard of Id

This is one of the gypsy strips, where one of the anonymous peasants in the one-piece jumper with hoody consults the gypsy, she sets up an unfunny joke by saying she’s contacted a family member, he asks a question about said family member, and then she delivers the unfunny punchline, and then I feel sad.


Cathy

Wow, she’s still around too, huh? Her six different jokes haven’t worn out their welcome yet?

Let’s see, she’s shopping for a bathing suit and she’s still fat and she’s still not into bathing suit shopping. I thought I’d read that she got married or something and thought the strip might be radically different now or something, but no, it still sucks.

This is funny though.


Peanuts

This is labled 5-22-08, but that can’t be right, can it?

I find it depressing that they’re still running Schulz’s Peanuts strips in so many papers, even though they’re all repeats. I found it even more depressing that there probably isn’t a “new Schulz” who could fill that space with something of Peanuts caliber.


Blondie

This one doesn’t have the title character in it, which is too bad, because I particularly like the ones where she’s in bed with her one strap off her shoulder. I guess both of the comic strip moms I had crushes on both have their strips carried in the Hearld.

I used to wonder why this strip wasn’t called Dagwood when I was little.

Dagwood is in that greasy spoon diner complaining about something, and the guy who works the counter goes back and says something to the cook. I think I’ve read this one before.

The counter guy looks kinda like the cook in Beetle Bailey. I think he has cauliflower ears too. It’s kinda hard to tell because it’s printed so small, and these panels are more of a medium shot than the relative close-ups of the panels in Beetle Bailey (Plus, there’s three panels instead of just two, so each is smaller than the ones in today’s Beetle Bailey). Maybe they used to box each other?


For Better or For Worse

In addition to liking Lynn Johnson’s art so much, I used to enjoy reading FboFW, as Michael was pretty similar to me in terms of our age, the number of younger siblings we had, our field of study and our career paths. Of course, he got married, got rich and famous and had a kid, so now I barely recognize him. Around the time he and Weed got a book deal, our paths began diverging sharply.

Here he and Weed are being stupid yuppy assholes, talking about how successful they are. Fuck you guys.

I was kinda hoping to see the girls. Did they resolve if Liz was gonna marry Anthony or not? Is April, like, in college now? God I’m old.


Mother Goose & Grimm

This is one of those MG&G strips which is a one-panel cartoon, but the one-panel is the size and shape of a whole strip. I used to appreciate the versatility of this strip; sometimes it was like a more horizontal Far Side, other times it was a multi-panel pet humor strip.

In this one there’s a movie theater, and four Star Trek characters—the lady, Spock, the fat guy with the moustache and a guy with sausage nose and pompadour (Is that supposed to be Captain Kirk?)—are sitting there looking surprised as an announcement says, “Please turn off your phasers during the movie.”

I don’t get it; do they make announcements about turning off cell phones at movie theaters in some places? They don’t in Ohio.


Dennis the Menace

Dennis erases Mr. Wilson’s message on the answering machine, explaining to his father, who’s just walked in, “You can’t understand him when he’s yellin’.”

This is exactly why I was so shocked out how sublime the Hank Ketcham cartoons that Fantagraphics has been reprinting in their complete collection of his Dennis work were. I don’t think Dennis The Menace has bee particularly funny or particularly beautifully drawn in my life-time, but the ones in the first few Fanta volumes are wonderful.


Close To Home

We used to have this in one of the papers my family read. I hated the art, and still do. It reminded me of a Far Side drawn by a high school student. In fact, I think they added it to the papers after Gary Larson quit The Far Side. Maybe that’s how the syndicate sold it to editors, “It’s like The Far Side, but with fewer cows!”

The gag here is okay…a guy from Varmint Pest Control has opened a little cage in front of a cartoon mouse hole and a tiny little grim reaper is leaving it. The timing is weird—the figure is already outside the cage, despite the lines and sound effect indicating the cage door just opened—and I don’t get the story behind it (Is that a mouse dressed as the grim reaper? A tiny grim reaper of mice? What?), but it’s definitely a weird image.


Family Circus

I only ever appreciated the Sunday Family Circuses. I’ve never enjoyed the dailies; maybe I have to have kids before I can find them amusing…?


Shoe

I always like the artwork on Shoe, but the conceit of the strip always seemed off to me. Like, the birds had tiny little clothes and desks and stuff, but they didn’t have walls, so their newspaper office was just, like, balancing on a tree limb. And I never saw any bugs or squirrels.

I would probably appreciate the strip more now that I’m a grown-up and have spent time as a newspaper man, but I haven’t read it in years. This isn’t very funny. I see the bird with glasses uses a computer to write on, rather than a typewriter. I wonder if the other bird still smokes a cigar?


Holey Mole

Hey, a new strip! This is the only one I haven’t seen before. In fact, all of the above ones have been around for at least 15 years or so, right? Like, Close To Home seems like it may be 15 years old, the others are probably all older than I am. Peanuts and Dennis are both a few years older than my parents; Blondie is older than some of the states in the union.

Anyway, Holey Mole. There’s a rather abstractly drawn fox in a box marked “Litter.” It’s moving its feet real fast. This goes on for two panels. In he third panel, there’s a sand caste, complete with a little flag atop the tower, in the litter box. Two animals are standing on their hindquarters looking at it. One might be a cat, the other looks a little like Piglet, or maybe a naked, shell- and armor-less armadillo. The cat thing says. “A little overkill perhaps.”

I guess this is funny because cats bury their shit in kitty litter…?


So I guess that’s the state of the funnies in 2008: Even more depressing then I remembered, and I remembered them being pretty damn depressing.

8 comments:

Patrick C said...

Agreed, the comics are certainly not what they were. I also agree about Doonesbury. My dad had collections of all the strips from the 70s, once I read those I began to really appreciate the characters and how its all grown.

And they don't have "turn your cell phone" messages before movies in Ohio?? In NY, not only do you have the messages, but EVERYONE in the theater reaches into their pocket to fish it out, and you see a chorus of lights (I know chorus goes with sound, I couldn't think of a better word) flicker across the room.

And some asshole's phone will still ring an hour into the picture.

corey henson said...

Yeah, daily comic strips seem to be a bit of a lost art form these days. I'm in Houston, where we only have one daily newspaper, so there's not much of a variety to choose from. Of the original strips our paper runs, Pearls Before Swine is easily the best, with Get Fuzzy and Doonesbury right behind. Zits, Sherman's Lagoon, and Baby Blues are funny more often than not. Mutts isn't very funny anymore, but Patrick McDonnell is a hell of an artist, so it's always worth a look. Every thing else is crap.

It's depressing that no one in the ten or so years that Calvin and Hobbes has ended has stepped up to fill the void. Ye Gods, Watterson was brilliant, wasn't he?

And really, how can you be disappointed that Peanuts is still running?

SallyP said...

I'll agree that Pearls before Swine is amusing. There are some others that are pretty good. And as the mother of teenagers, I find Zits to be hilarious.

I do have to say that even though most of the daily comics drive me nuts (like Cathy) I STILL read them every day. Did you know that Mary Worth had a stalker that looked like Captain Kangaroo, but he was killed in a car crash, and now she's had a tiff with her Doctor boyfriend and is lusting after the son of of some old lady that just died? Mary Worth is a piece of work!

Liam said...

We don't have it in comics over here, but apparently a few people found this comic based on FBOFW quite amusing:

http://www.shortpacked.com/d/20070711.html

Troy Brownfield said...

Just for the record, "Family Circus" is not funnier when you have kids. It is, however, funnier when the captions are substituted with either a) the work of H.P. Lovecraft (http://backwardscity.blogspot.com/2005/03/if-hp-lovecraft-wrote-family-circus.html), or b) extreme filth (http://www.theotherfamily.com/).

Kevin Huxford said...

Kids sometimes ask both parents the same question in the hopes of getting a favorable response from one of them! I’ve never seen anyone point that out before!

Really? I've read a lot of those. Are you sure you've been reading comic strips regularly? And paying attention to sitcoms and bad 80s movies? And...

Wait...you were being sarcastic...never mind...

Anthony Strand said...

I occasionally try to read the comics page in The Fargo Forum and, as you found out through this experiment, it just makes me sad. And kind of numb.

The widespread low quality of newspaper comics astounds me. I'm not asking for terrific character development, although many of the great strips certainly had that. But it's such a perfect set-up/punchline format, and no one can even bother to do *that* well anymore.

That said, good work on the Lois Flagston lust. I laughed out loud.

Anonymous said...

I now read my comics through this site - http://joshreads.com/ . The commentary can be pretty funny.

otherwise, the funnies are pretty depressing indeed.

-arch 14