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Pipeline2, Issue #130

THE COMICS STRIP COLUMN

The funny pages are an abysmally unfunny recycling of material that's decades old. As much as I'd like to see things change, I doubt anything can be done. So pardon me for a few minutes while I rail against the fate of this once grand tradition. I need to get this out of my system.

My morning routine over the course of the past years includes reading the comic strips with my breakfast. It's a diversion from the 8 and a half hours I spend in the cubicle for the rest of the day. And, hey, they're comics. I'll take comics in any form I can get them.

The event that brought me to the realization that newspapers haven't a clue as to what they're doing with the comic strip page(s) is when my local paper removed "B.C." (not a bad decision) and replaced it with --

"Marmaduke."

Who the $#%*$ gives one good $&%*#^ about $#%*$ing Marmaduke? Could the thing possibly be any less funny without being "Cathy"?

The only way I knew how to vent my frustrations about this whole sad debacle is to write a column about it.

Being the editor in charge of the comic strips section of the daily newspaper has to be one of the worst jobs in the world of newspapers. Nobody is ever going to be happy. For any one person who's happy with the new strip you add, you're going to get 10 nasty letters from people who are upset that you canned the strip you did to make room for it. The demographic for the comic strips is so wide and varied that you can't just program them on one straight line and please anything close to a majority of people. You can try to skew your strips to a certain audience, but I doubt that's going to add readers.

Let's face it - the strips are probably read mostly by older readers, since they're the vast majority of newspaper readers left in a day and age where the younger demographics flock to the web for everything from news to comic strips. The rest of the readers are probably their grandchildren, so you need to keep the strips clean and pure for their ears.

In so doing, you've just annoyed the demographic most popularly wanted - those 18 to 35 year olds.

(I'm not so terribly sure I agree with that concept of demographics, but that's what those in power so often use to justify their jobs.)

Let me live in a dream world, though, where I had total control of the comic strip page. In my local paper, The Bergen Record of Northern NJ, we get two pages' worth of strips. In that alone, I should feel very lucky. It wasn't all that long ago that the Record only had one page of strips. I probably get exposed to more strips a day than most newspaper readers.

"Marmaduke" is the last straw. The comics page has turned into a benign spot for repetitive and dull strips. Innovation is dead. "Bloom County" and "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" are all gone. "Peanuts" hasn't been revolutionary in decades. There's not really an adventure strip worth reading.

And they add "Marmaduke"?!?

The mind boggles.

THE RUNDOWN

Here's my scorched earth policy towards my paper's comic strip section. I'm going to go through every strip they include and why I'd get rid of most of them.

"Snoopy" is done. Charles Schulz is dead. It was a whimsical nod to human foibles. It was a groundbreaking format in its day. Its imitators are legion. Its exploits are legendary. But the strip is done. Schulz is gone and he made sure nobody would replace him. So why rerun the strip ad infinitum? Let's move on. If I want to read "Peanuts" I'll go pick up a book on the TIME Magazine Top 10 Comics list.

"Blondie": Time to go away. I don't know how many different art teams the strip has had by now, but nothing's really changed in a long time here. Dagwood naps. Mr. Dithers is bi-polar. Blondie has a catering business, which is ignored and then occasionally brought back to recycle the same two or three jokes with. It's done. It's over. It had its day. Let it go.

"Ziggy" and "The Family Circus." I lump these two together because they stand next to each other as gag panels and have about the same level of humor in them. None. "The Family Circus" is great to have on there for family reading, presupposing your family has six-year-old children. The panel is utterly uncontroversial. It's also not funny, if it ever really was. And those kids can't be that age forever and not inspire anything more than repetition and boredom. "Ziggy" doesn't repeat itself quite as much as other strips, but it's not that funny, either.

"Rose is Rose" works really well as a comic strip which functions well using both verbal gags and art gags. It's a dreamscape strip, using the drawings as a key element to the gags, as Rose goes from housewife to biker chick and back. The artist has a nice style that's easy to fall into. The problem is that after you've read this strip for a month, you've read all there is to read. Nothing new can come of it. This one's been saved from the graveyard more than once already. I think it's time to let Pat Brady draw something else.

"Zits" is one of my favorite strips. It, too, uses great visual elements in its gags. It's very good like that. The big different between it and "Rose Is Rose" is that you can read it far longer than a month without predicting every punch line after the first panel. It's a funny strip that - to be honest - does repeat on itself every now and then, but doesn't rely on the same three jokes. It's a strip about a high school boy and his two parents. You can see some of the humor that is coming from that, but it's not going to annoy you. The jokes are clever and the visuals (by famed editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman) are inviting. Even the Sunday strip is great, in part because the title panel includes a little sketch layout for one of the panels. (Jerry Scott is the writer.) The kid from "Zits" also gets bonus points for being included as a minor background character in the last SIN CITY book.

"Dilbert" is still funny to me, but I know a lot of people who just can't deal with it. Nevertheless, an office comic strip is a good idea, so I'd keep this one classic.

"Beetle Bailey," "Hi And Lois," and "Hagar the Horrible" are three strips that are older than dirt and no longer quite as funny. They've each milked their three jokes dry. "Hagar" has even gone so far as to clean up its act and not show Vikings drinking to make the strip safer for kids. Well, I feel better. I can't even give "Hi and Lois" a break for its occasional comic book references. All three of these strips should be put out of their miseries. Create something new, please, children of Walker and Browne. I dare you.

"Cathy" was never funny. And it relies on the same old three unfunny jokes. Kill it. Please, put us out of our misery now.

"Six Chix" is an anthology strip, drawn by a different woman each day, with a six day loop. It's not a bad panel, but I'd let the woman who draws it on Thursdays take the whole thing over. She's got a great style that I'd love to see more of. (I'd fire the artist who draws the comics on Saturdays. Trust me; you could draw something better.)

In the realm of "Strips That You Might Think Are There to Help Broaden the Demographics": My paper carries both "Jump Start" (about a black couple - one a nurse and the other a police officer) and "Baldo" (about a middle class Hispanic family.) I'd keep them both not because they fill a quota but because they're both funny strips that haven't repeated themselves to death yet. I think they both also have nice clean art styles. (And I love the mother on "Jump Start" when she plays grammar cop.)

"Non Sequitur" is a keeper. It's funny. Occasionally, it shows a political side that I could do without, but is otherwise a good strip that strives to be more like "The Far Side" with each passing month. It's also got a very nice art style. And pay special attention to any day when the recurring young girl character makes an appearance. She's always hilarious. It's also the only strip I've seen that is available to the papers in both a gag panel format and a strip format. The artist just slightly redraws/adds material based on the shape of the strip the paper wants. Pretty smart thinking.

"Adam" always looks sloppy to me. The artist needs to work on the basics, like keeping his figures from touching the panel edges. The work-at-home Dad gag of the day gets pretty formulaic after a while, though. It still strikes me as funny, so I'd keep it but maintain a close eye on it. If it starts getting to repetitious, it'd be gone, too.

"Doonesbury" is on the Op/Ed page where it belongs. I'd keep it, but join it up with "Mallard Fillmore" for balance.

I'd definitely keep "Fox Trot." Not only is it a sentimental favorite, it's also one of the funniest things I've ever read. Only "The Far Side" could ever me laugh as hard as consistently. Bill Amend does a wonderful job tracking geek chic for Jason and keeping the family relationships in order.

"Dinette Set" is one of the most incomprehensibly unfunny gag panels ever created. On the other hand, "King of the Hill" has never done anything for me. Maybe I'm just out of touch with trailer trash humor?

"Funky Winkerbean" is still good because it's a completely different strip now than when it first started. Tom Batiuk made a stroke of genius move in jumping ahead in time on the strip and presenting the characters all grown up. They've gone through some very serious and very adult themes in recent years. No doubt about it - it's a new and better strip. The repetitious marching band gags come across now as quaint tradition rather than the sure sign of a sleepwalking creator.

"Crankshaft," on the other hand, does little to nothing for me. But it does neatly fulfill the crusty old curmudgeon strip that the editor of the paper has got to love. That may be all it needs to save it. It's either this or "Pickles." ::shudder::

"Sally Forth" plays nicely with my mother, so who am I to judge it? It mixes both the family life comic strip with the office life strip. While the father is a mere supporting character in the strip, it still rings true more often than not. I just don't find it all that funny. ::sigh:: I can't go against my mother, so as editor I'd keep it to fulfill the Mother Quota.

"For Better or Worse" is part adventure strip and part gag-a-day strip. It's a nice mix that keeps the strip interesting and lively. Plus, it occurs in nearly real time. The characters age and change and die. Yes, death in a comic strip. It's astounding, and handled tastefully off-panel. It's probably the best of the comic strips circling around a single family.

"Garfield." I'm a bit torn. It's a sentimental favorite. I like the sheer zaniness of it. I like the artistic style. But I know Jim Davis probably hasn't soiled his hands on a strip in years, and maybe it's time to put the cat out to pasture. We'll always have Mark Evanier's excellent Saturday morning animated series to look back on.

Speaking of pet-centric strips, "Marmaduke" sucks. Did I mention that yet?

"Mother Goose and Grimm" has a nice style to it and its occasional yearnings to be a gag panel keep it interesting, even if some of the gags and puns are groan-worthy. (Who am I to complain? I love that kind of humor, too.)

"Mary Worth." Yes, I tried reading it. Read it for two months. The story didn't move much further than an inch, included more characters than I could keep track of, and eventually lost me. Someone's trying to get revenge on someone else by setting her up with a fake boyfriend. And it takes a full month's worth of strips for two people sitting at a dinner table to dream up this scheme. I gave up. Came back a month later and things have progressed past that dinner table, but it doesn't appear that anything new has happened.

Dramatic strips are tough. They have three panels to move the story along every day. The form usually consists of the first panel recapping part of the story, the second panel advancing it, and the third teasing the next, or leaving it at some sort of question mark to drag you back the next day for an answer. That's the great thing about serials - you don't dare miss one. But it also means you can't move forward too quickly.

"The Phantom." My paper dropped the daily but kept the Sunday column. The Sunday is drawn by Graham Nolan. Otherwise, there's not much remarkable about it. I think it ran through two storylines in the same time that Mary Worth's characters were sitting at the table concocting their plans. However, the "Phantom" stories just weren't all that gripping or spectacular. They weren't poorly written or drawn, but I just didn't care what happened one way or the other.

"Brenda Starr" at least moves its storyline along at a decent clip and includes some beautiful art from June Brigman. Of the three adventure strips, it's the only one I'd keep without blinking twice.

Now back to the "humor" strips:

"Close to Home" is not bad, but the art isn't anything special. It makes Gary Larson look like Leonardo da Vinci.

"Get Fuzzy" and "Monty" seem to be part of a newer breed of comic strips that are pretty far out there. One features talking pets and the other includes a talking monkey and an alien. Just bizarre, which is part of the reason I like them. Both have the potential to go just about anywhere on any given day. And "Get Fuzzy" gets bonus points for its tribute to Douglas Adams after his death.

HOW TO FIX IT ALL?

What's the solution to all of these horribly bad comic strips? I think one good idea is to let the strip die the instant the original creator wants nothing more to do with it. Another idea is to have short-run strips. Have a strip that only sticks around for 6 months or a year before the creator moves onto a different idea. Don't let him or her fall into a trap of diminishing returns.

This is all pie-in-the-sky, though. The realities of the syndication business are such that these ideas would cause too much work and a loss of revenues. If "Peanuts" can be in 3000 or more newspapers, why cancel it just because it's been around too long or because some small number of people (like me) is complaining? It's tough to sell a new strip to a syndicate because they don't know if it will catch on. If it's a limited time thing, then it may not have enough time to catch on and gain enough momentum to pick up enough newspapers interested in carrying it. (This is solved, of course, by selling the 6-month package to a newspaper. No matter when the paper picks it up, they'll always start with the first strip. This means competing newspapers might be carrying the same strip at different points. This means the secondary paper might be less inclined to buy it on the theory that they'd be running "reruns" of the strip from another paper.)

It's not like comic strip readers are going to have any memory for creators that they'll follow them from strip to strip. Can you tell me the current creative team on "Sally Forth"? Or even "Hi and Lois"?

In the meantime, don't let me hear you complain about the state of comic books today. It's never been better. Even the books starring the same characters from forty or sixty years ago seem to have new life these days, thanks to outstanding creators. In the world of comic strips, though, repetitive storytelling is key and creators who can ape those that came before them are considered gold.

Don't tell me comic books are screwed up. Take a look at the funny pages sometime first.

Now pardon me while I go off to read around the speed bump that is "Marmaduke."

It could all be worse. I just noticed that there's a "Mr. Potatohead" comic strip. I kid you not.

You can view most of the strips (if not all of them) on the web at either http://www.comics.com or http://www.comicspage.com.

Don't forget -- Pipeline Commentary and Review will be published during the weeks of Christmas and New Years. They'll be up on Wednesday, though, instead of Tuesday. Friday's Pipeline2 will continue as usual, also.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 350 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.

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