It’s never been easy to make a successful comic strip, but it’s even harder these days. Shrinking newspaper space, shrinking interest in newspapers — heck a decline in newspapers in general — combined with a general refusal on the part of readers and editors to get rid of moldy, ancient “legacy” newspaper strips (remind me to tell you sometime about what happened when the newspaper where I work tried to get rid of Rex Morgan, M.D.) have resulted in what I can only describe as a hostile environment for new, let alone quirky, work.
More than ever it seems clever, funny strips are rarely given a chance to find an audience, let alone thrive. Here are six vastly under-appreciated strips from recent years that ended far, far too soon.
1. Franklin Fibbs by Hollis Brown and Wes Hargis. One of the more imaginative and original strips of the past ten years, Franklin Fibbs centered around the title character, a cantankerous old man who told unbelievable whoppers, much to the amusement of his incredibly tolerant wife. Despite displaying a keen wit, the strip failed catch on, only selling to about 25 papers. The pair tried to revamp things by turning Fibbs into a kid and renaming the strip “Little Fibbs,” but to no avail and the strip came to a close in 2006 after a short two-year run. Supposedly the finale was quite inspired, though online samples are hard to find and the strip was never collected into a book. It’s exactly the sort of strip newspaper needed in order to liven up their
2. Top of the World by Mark Tonra. Tonra probably best known as the creator of James, a much-acclaimed, minimalist little boy strip done in a similar vein as Skippy and Mutts. Prior to that however, Tonra created this off-beat strip set in a prison that ran for about two years (1998-2000). It focuses mainly on two nameless convicts that routinely attempt to bust out of jail to little or no avail. It’s the sort of thing . Tonra’s angular, almost geometric line worked really well with the slapstick, rim-shot gags, which would frequently head into absurdest directions. Unfortunately, while readers seemed to love the strip, newspaper editors were less enthused, as Tonra noted in this TCJ interview:
Whenever we got Top of the World in front of readers, they loved it. The hard part was always getting it past the gatekeepers, the editors who bought it in the first place. A lot of them just chickened out. They liked it enough to buy it, but when it came time to put it on the page, they got scared. They couldn’t get past the prison thing. People like to blame the syndicates, but really, it’s the newspapers themselves who are destroying the comics.
Tonra found a bit more success with James, but I kind of miss the frantic antics of Top of the World.
3. Spot the Frog by Mark Heath. I’m normally distrustful of cute, but Spot the Frog (2004-2008) was cute in all the right ways, an utterly charming strip about a little frog, his amphibian friends and his human caretaker/owner. Plus, it was genuinely funny. I’m not sure why the strip failed to catch on. It’s exactly the sort of strip that could appeal to a wide variety of readers without pandering or seeming bland. The good news is the strip was collected in two books before its cancellation, Spot the Frog and It’s Hard to Comb a Grass Toupee.
4. Bo Nanas by John Kovaleski. Another whimsical funny animal strip, this time involving a big-eared monkey Bo Nanas followed the title character as he tried to make his way through the human world, usually coming a-cropper of some truly bizarre and deluded characters. I thought it was pretty funny (and my daughter agrees with me) but the strip never gained a sizable enough audience and ended in 2007 after a four-year run. Kovaleski has since put out two Bo Nanas collections, has contributed to Mad Magazine, and is currently serializing a webcomic about his adventures as a parent, Daddying Badly.
5. Lucky Cow by Mark Pett. The world of a fast-food restaurant seems the ideal place to set a strip (or a television sitcom for that matter), as it certainly lends itself to a variety of colorful characters both behind and in front of the cash register. That seemed to be the general inspiration for Lucky Cow, which began in 2003 and ran until 2008, and dealt with the cheerful owner of a burger franchise, his surly, shiftless daughter, the dim-bulb co-worker and a host of other assorted oddballs. It was a cut above the usual ensemble gag strips but wasn’t able to find a large enough audience for Pett to keep the strip going.
6. Oh, Brother by Jay Stephens and Bob Weber Jr. It’s often said these days that kids don’t read the newspapers anymore. Exhibit A in that supposition might be this charming strip, created by the brains that brought you Shylock Fox and Jetcat. Oh, Brother was decidedly aimed at a younger audience, but it didn’t talk down to its audience and the fact that it was primarily aimed at the elementary school set didn’t stop it from winning over adult fans either. But, as usual, not enough newspapers opted to pick up the strip and Stephens and Weber decided to close up shop after little more than a year rather than attempt to struggle onward. As with all of the strips listed here, it deserved a better fate.