Comic Justice

The Thinker by Rodin

I will admit that newspaper comics, like sports, really do not mean anything. Sports exist for our mindless entertainment. If you watch enough sports though you start to care about whether a team wins or loses. However, if all sports went away tomorrow, we would adapt. The same is true with newspaper comics. They entertain, occasionally preach, and on extremely rare occasions enlighten, but they do not matter either. Comics are like drinking coffee. Once you have the habit, giving them up is like going through nicotine withdrawal.

Comics are also one of the major reasons the Internet has not killed the newspaper. My newspaper, The Washington Post, understands this. Its circulation is decreasing, but not as quickly as many other newspapers. A vital comics section is part of its long-term business survival strategy. It is so important that it has three full pages of comics in our daily newspaper. Apparently, most people buy newspapers for the sport section, the advice columnist and the comics. That stuff on the front page matters only to the relatively few news junkies like me. My wife will typically ignore the front page, glance at the Metro section, but she always reads the Post’s Style section (which includes the comics) from first to last page. While eating her breakfast she is also dutifully digesting the comics section. My daughter has picked up the same habit. Now, even if I wanted to get rid of our subscription, there would be a family uproar. My wife would simply not permit it. No Get Fuzzy daily fix? What is the point of getting up in the morning then?

For my wife, comics are a means to engage life’s clutch. Before she faces her fifteen-mile commute, before she gets that first frantic phone call when she reaches the office, there is that mindless fifteen minutes or so over breakfast where she can worry about the family dynamics in For Better or for Worse or bitch to the cat that Zippy the Pinhead is being lame again.

Our Washington Post comics’ editor is not afraid to make changes. Many of the recent changes have been the result of comics that retired. When The Boondocks went on hiatus (and was eventually killed by its author), we went through three series of test comics in its place. Readers were encouraged to share their feelings about the comics. Comics may be good for a few laughs, but they are serious business at The Washington Post. Readers are encouraged to call their Comics Hotline (202-334-4775) or to email the comics editor with all their vital comics issues.

Now, their comics’ editor is at it again, this time with some major comic pruning. Biting the dust this time are Mary Worth, Cathy, Broom Hilda, The Flying McCoys and The Other Coast. Good riddance to all of them, I say. Mary Worth is the only senior citizen I know who actually gets younger (and trimmer and more of a babe) every year. The dialog is so stilted it is almost like reading Shakespeare. This and its weird “camera angles” have inspired a parody. No one talks this way. I have not read her in twenty years. Cathy was funny for its first ten years, but everything is now a retread. Frankly, Cathy and Irving deserve each other, but we comics’ readers do not deserve to be subjected to their neurotic lives any longer. I never understood the appeal of Broom Hilda. Maybe you have to be of kindergarten age to appreciate it. Broom Hilda and Cathy were rarely funny, so they are out of here. Please do not come back!

Appearing Monday will be Agnes, Brewster Rockit: Space Guy! and Brevity (alternating with Close to Home). I have no idea if these comics will be an improvement over what they are replacing, but it is hard to see how they could not be.

Pooch Cafe is a recent strip the Post started running when Foxtrot went Sundays only. Without a doubt, this is the unfunniest and most annoying strip introduced in the comics section of the Post in the last ten years. Yet for some reason the Post is keeping it. Other strips we are subjected to on a daily basis deserve to die. The comics’ editor has repeatedly tried to kill some of these strips, but the readers have not let her. Zippy the Pinhead, for example, was funny twenty years ago, when it was avant-garde. Now it is just lame. For nearly five years straight Zippy did hardly nothing but wander the country talking to statues. That is funny? Poor Bill Griffith just could not think of anything else for Zippy to do.

What really amazes me is that there are people who think that Mark Trail is a good comic strip. Don’t they know that Brylcreem went out about the same time Marlon Brando gave up his motorcycle? It should not only offend Republicans, it should even offend the ones wholly detached from reality, like Jerry Falwell. I mean, it is nice that Mark is an environmentalist and all, but he makes Al Gore look animated. The Amazing Spiderman is another comic whose time is long gone. It is hard to care about anything since he married MJ. Without a doubt though the most annoying comic of all times that refuses to leave is The Family Circus. I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to strangle those annoying kids. Truly, child molesters would be doing society a favor by going after them! There are other comics that could easily go because, at best, they make you laugh maybe once a month. These include Dennis the Menace (so 1950s!), Hagar the Horrible (who is actually just another hen pecked spouse with no sense of style), Curtis, On the Fastrack (Dilbert is so much better), Classic Peanuts (at least the three panel version, which is what we get — the good stuff was the four panel version from 1955-1965 or so), Big Nate, The Wizard of Id, Sally Forth and Judge Parker. Even the venerable For Better or for Worse is wearing on me. It has become too darn serious for my taste, too soap opera-ish and annoyingly preachy.

Pearls Before Swine makes my wife foam at the mouth, but I find it occasionally amusing. The best comics are consistently good, no matter how long they have been around. These include Tank McNamara, Zits and, yes, even Blondie. I still smile most days reading BC, because of its consistently wry humor, although it too can get preachy. It is clear that Johnny Hart feels it is okay to use the strip as a means of proselytizing on high holy days. Johnny, it’s a comic for crying out loud!

One thing I have noticed over the last thirty years is that cartoonists have become uppity. It all started when Gary Trudeau insisted that Doonesbury had to be shown full size. Then he started going on vacations and gave readers repeats. At first it was only a week or so a year. Now it is at least once a quarter. Others have followed suit.

I am sorry, but I find it hard to develop much sympathy for these poor overworked comic artists. I am sure creating a comic is not simple. However, it is only three or four little panels six days a week, plus one big cartoon on Sunday. In my eight-hour day, I juggle hundreds of emails and make dozen of decisions from major to minor as well as deal with people’s sensitivities and eccentricities. However, even though I have a comfortable salary, I make a small fraction of what Scott Adams makes while expending probably ten times the effort. All they have to do is find one joke and carry it across a few panels. If they lack inspiration, there are plenty of writers who will sell them ideas; Hank Ketcham has not written anything original in decades. It sounds like the ideal profession for the lazy person. After all, Dilbert is quite amusing, but it is not hard to draw. Heck, I could draw Dilbert.

I should probably become a cartoonist in retirement because apparently drawing ability is no bar to entry. Rhymes with Orange is usually quite amusing but goodness, any fifth grader can draw better than Hilary Price. It is too much to expect a comic author to have at least some artistic talent?

I realize the comics are designed to appeal to mass audiences. Not all will tickle my funny bone. Many, like Prickly City, will probably annoy me. Nonetheless, it strikes me that overall, we expect too little from our comics. They can and should be much better than the pablum we are served up on a daily basis. There are millions of potential comic artists out there, and this is the best we can get? I don’t think so!

So kudos to the Washington Post comics editor for getting rid of some comics that really died decades ago. Many of these have become institutionalized and serve solely to feed the coffers of syndicates and future generations of the artist’s family. Fortunately, more comics’ artists are coming to realize they need to stop when they are not funny anymore. Bill Watterson (who drew Calvin & Hobbes) eventually realized that he had said all he could about a weird five-year-old kid and his stuffed tiger and retired. However, others, like Berkley Breathed, are like vampires. Breathed keeps coming back, even though he has lost his edge around 1989. Opus, like Outland before it, is a pale imitation of the outstanding Bloom County. Breathed should retire permanently. I get so wistful when I see how far he has fallen compared to the sassiness and brilliance he had in the early 1980s. We comics’ readers need a way to give the artists feedback that is more direct. When they are washed up, we need to tell them. There is no reason to kill trees to feed our minds with such mediocrity.

I will look forward to my new and hopefully improved Washington Post comics section on Monday. Now I must email its comics editor again. That Pooch Cafe has got to go!

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