Saturday, March 20, 2010

Let's check in on the state of the funnies page, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer

My hometown is about an hour’s drive from Cleveland, close enough that the Cleveland Plain Dealer was delivered here, and growing up it was my favorite of the handful of newspapers available.

It had a much bigger and better comics page than that of my local hometown paper, it offered me one of my first windows into the bigger, more exciting world beyond the city limits in places with buildings higher than five stories and populations bigger than 30,000 or so. And, it was the Plain Dealer which gave me my very first professional writing opportunity—Seventeen-year-old Caleb got $20 for reviewing Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the PD teen-written special section back in 1999.

I hadn’t really perused a physical copy of the paper since moving down south to Columbus, Ohio just about a decade ago, and my only real experience with it was online (I’d often check the PD or other Ohio papers because Columbus’ daily, The Columbus Dispatch, is the worst paper in the world, and despite having office right across form the Ohio Statehouse, they rarely had state government coverage to equal that of the PD or the Akron Beacon-Journal.

Well on Friday I found a copy at my father’s house, and it was the first time I read the Plain Dealer since print media had started dying. It looks like they slimmed down their trim size like most newspapers, and adopted a general shorter-is-better philosophy. For example, in their weekend tabloid-format entertainment section pull-out, a column that used to be somewhere between 600-800 words now looked like it had shrunk to about 400 or 500 words, and the movie reviews all looked shorter (and a few were purchased from wire services).

The most striking change was in the comics section though.

Specifically, they don’t even have a comics section anymore, they have a “Diversions” section.

This is filled without about 30 comic strips, plus crossword puzzles, the jumble, a word find, Sudoku, Dear Abby and another advice column, TV listings, horoscopes, a bridge column, some game type of thing called “Public Squares” and an ad for a car dealership, right there on the section front (Ugh).

Actually, perhaps even more striking than the funnies being relegated to a miscellaneous section of the paper is the format of the four-page section. It’s 22 inches long, like the rest of the paper, but only nine-and-a-half inches across, about two inches shorter than the rest of the pages in the paper. Well, the front of the section is nine-and-a-half inches across; the back page of the section is even shorter, about eight-and-three-quarters-of-an-inch across.

They’re also all in color. On a Friday. Weird.

(Above: That's their funnies on the left, next to a regularly-sized newspaper page and my straight edge)

So, of those 30-ish strips, laid out pell-mell up and down the “Diversions” section, most of them are familiar to me as having been in the PD’s funnies since my childhood. There were half-a-dozen new ones that I don’t recall being there my whole life (The Pajama Diaries, Prickly City, Pearls Before Swine, Rhymes with Orange, Frazz and Free Range). That’s at least one-fifth of this comics page that’s changed in the past 25 years or so, and that’s pretty good for the comics pages in most big city dailies, I’d wager.

Well, let’s see if there’s anything to smile about in the Friday, March 19 Plain-Dealer Diversions section. (Hmm, can I still call these the funnies? Or are they now the diversionees…?)

Sally Forth

Sally’s boss (or co-worker? I haven’t read this strip in years) Ralph meets Sally’s younger, hotter sister, and can’t shut up about how bad he wants to fuck her. I think that’s what’s going on here.

This strip is hopefully a re-run from the ‘80s, because otherwise I can’t explain why Sally and her sister are dressed like that. Ralph actually calls attention to their clothes—“Look at your sister, Sal. Now this is how you should dress!”—so I assume here baggy turtleneck sweater with a giant, roll-down collar and huge hoop earrings are meant to be fashionable.

I do like the way this strip is drawn though.

Jump Start

I haven’t read this in so long that I don’t even know who the characters featured in this particular installment of the strip are.

This is the first strip on the page that I don’t understand at all. It’s one of the installments of Crankshaft where I suspect that it isn’t really a sit-com strip about a cantankerous old bus driver and his family, but is a serious drama strip that is published in another country, perhaps Germany, that has been re-dialgoued for American audiences.

I can think of no other explanation for Pam’s facial expression in the second panel.

Nice cross-hatching, though!

Born Loser

The lead character’s boss is wearing what appears to be a black tuxedo—or at least a three-piece suit—and spats. In black and white, it just looks like a nice suit. In color though, the vest is canary yellow and the tie or ascot is purple, so he pretty much looks like he’s wearing one of The Penguin’s old suits.


Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh man, the wait at the doctor’s office sure can be long! And that was so even back in Viking days!


Dagwood and his young cloneling are sitting on the couch watching TV and the television set is one of those thin, flat screen jobbies. It…upsets me, for some reason. I don’t like seeing modern technology in Blondie, as it seems anachronistic and out-of-place. I always assumed the strip was still set in the mid-fifties.

Beetle Bailey
Actual combat appears to be occurring in this strip, for the first time in my lifetime. However, since the combat seems to involve two opposing armies of tanks, I assume it’s just some sort of war game.

Mary Worth

I only read Mary Worth on The Comics Curmudgeon, because I need someone to find something noteworthy about it and explain that thing to me.


Holy shit you guys, I saw a preview of the live-action movie before Alice in Wonderland on Monday and it looks terrible. I mean, when I first heard that they were going to make a Marmaduke movie, I assumed it would be terrible, but that preview made it seem a few thousand times worse than I had imagined.

Speed Bump
My dad laughed out loud at this one, and pointed it out to me.

Free Range

Okay, here’s another one I just flat out don’t get:

I feel there’s a joke about the use of friend as a verb on Facebook and the word “kemo sabe” to be made, but I’m not sure if cartoonists Bill Whitehead made it here. I’m not even sure a joke was made at all.

The Pajama Diaries

No joke in this strip, it’s about cancer. I didn’t know other strips could do cancer. I thought Funky Winkerbean owned it the way Peanuts owned footballs-being-pulled-away-before-they-can-be-kicked gags.

Get Fuzzy

I hate the designs of all the characters in this strip, which often makes it hard for me to enjoy it, but the script isn’t so bad.

Wizard of Id

Hmm…this is even less funny than I remember it being, and I don’t remember it ever being funny…

Judge Parker

Hey, Mike Manley’s drawing now! I didn’t read this strip. I only read Judge Parker when there’s a drawing of a sexy lady in it. This one’s just two brown-haired guys in suits talking.


I think it’s high time to retire the strip. The PD is printing it at about half of the size as the other strips on the page anyway, as if they too know it’s time to get rid of it, and yet they can’t quite commit to going all the way with it.

I think this is the closest thing to a funny strip in today’s section.


Scratch that. This is:
Are you talking about the dog’s bark, or are you talking about your own strip there, Garfield?


I like the lines in this strip a lot, but this particular installment simply has a single panel of Jeremy and his mother standing over a counter top in a white void, while Jeremy says something trite that sounds like something one might see on a t-shirt.


Eh, ringtone humor.

Prickly City
This one’s new to me. A little black girl is talking to someone she identifies as “Secretary Napolitano,” who is only seen in one of the four panels, a long shot in which Napolitano is seen in silhouette. They are talking about Napolitano being bad at her job, and they are in a barren desert for some reason.

Perhaps if I read more strips I would understand the context of a little girl and the secretary of Homeland Security talking in the middle of a desert, and would thus be better able to appreciate what’s supposed to be going on here.

Pearls Before Swine

Sometimes I find this strip kinda funny. This installment didn’t do much for me though. Well, the last panel is kinda sorta clever. One character, picking a fight with another, says, “Care to step outside?” And the threatened one turns and says “Yes. Because I’m leaving.” That’s not bad, I guess.


This is a Mr. Potatohead joke in a one-panel gag cartoon.

Rhymes with Orange

I have nothing to say about this strip.

Non Sequitir

Or this one.

Family Circus

So the dad is standing there holding a newspaper, and the mom and dolly are standing there in identical dresses. The skirts are pink and red plaid, and fall all the way to their feet. The tops look like black tanktops over purple turtleneck sweaters. And Dolly says, “We got matching dresses… … ‘cept Mommy’s came with more curves and things.”

See, it’s funny because one of them is a grown woman who has experienced puberty, and the other is a little girl who hasn’t.

Well, it’s funny in theory.

The Amazing Spider-Man
This is part of a zany storyline in which Spider-Man, the superhero who became a do-gooder after learning that “with great power comes great responsibility,” has decided to flee New York City because super-criminal Sabretooth is there.

This strip is fantastic.

It opens with a completely gratuitous drawing of Mary Jane in a bikini, and the second panel, which seems like it should be occurring a second or so after the first, based on the dialogue, finds MJ now fully dressed and carrying a package under her arm.

Did they just stop their conversation so MJ could take off her swimsuit, get dressed, wait in line and then make her purchase, only to pick up where they left off…?

Comics are weird.


LurkerWithout said...

You should check out writer Marciuliano's online comic Medium Large. Dude has a very dark and twisted sense of humor...

Diabolu Frank said...

About Free Range: Maybe Tonto is being used to comment on the poor grammar of "Unfriend?" It's still isn't remotely funny, but at least that makes sense to me.

Rudy Ascott said...

As an expert in the world of comedy, I'll say that the Lone Ranger comic is supposed to be funny because it takes current vernacular, "unfriend", and puts it in a context that's funny to old people. It's funny, but only if you have a subscription to Reader's Digest.

Joe Hennes said...

This was a nice treat for me, because I'm an ex-Clevelander. And yes, it's pathetic how small their comics section has gotten. Though seeing the quality of those comics, maybe that's not a bad thing...

Glenn and Robin said...

I assume the idea on the Free Range is that Tonto is picking a very inappropriate time to talk about something as trivial as the Lone Ranger un-friending him.