In a comic frame of mind

The Thinker by Rodin

Since retirement is on my mind, what to do next is also on my mind. Here’s what I won’t be doing:

  • Playing golf. I never tried, but it’s expensive and since it requires agility then I am likely to do as well at it as I dance. (I have little sense of rhythm or balance.) So I figure I would prove to be spectacularly bad at it.
  • Ski. See playing golf. Plus I imagine myself in casts and walking around for weeks in crutches.
  • Sitting around the house all day. I get cabin fever after a few days. I figure I need a dog in retirement. They always want to go outside. And while I love my spouse, too much togetherness is not good. I saw what it did to my parent’s marriage. They would have been much happier if they spent much of their days apart.
  • Not working. I don’t want to work full time, but I want to do something productive at least part time. Teaching at a community college, which I have done off and on for many years, is doable but it doesn’t pay much. I’ll want to supplement my retirement income by more than teaching at an adjunct’s salary.

Ideally you spend your retirement doing things you like to do, but doing it on a schedule that suits you and hopefully making some money at it. I’ve done IT management for fifteen years or so. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but it could be worse and it pays great. In retirement I’ll be glad to put that behind me. It seems a shame to waste my IT skills, because I still think IT is fascinating. So I am thinking of writing some mobile apps, once I learn how to do it. It’s not an easy market though. You have to find a niche plus everyone and his brother is doing the same thing and selling them for ninety-nine cents on Google Play. The vast majority of apps have no buzz and languish in obscurity.

I am obviously a political creature, given the nature of this blog. So combining social action with something I enjoy sounds like a good way to spend my time. If it can be profitable, it is even better. So I am thinking of creating a comic strip.

I have noticed that being able to draw doesn’t matter much anymore. Dilbert is a great example. Scott Adams is a millionaire and he cannot draw worth a damn. What he had was a clever idea and he was fortunate enough to work it until it took off. Dilbert is an example of a comic strip that is minimalistic and this type seems to be more popular these days. The online strip xkcd is a better example. If you are creative enough and hit a new and emerging market then the ability to draw is irrelevant.

Based on my research, creating a comic is a lot like selling a first novel. Many try but few succeed. Also, the market is declining, at least for comics on newsprint. Still, there is something about being a creative force behind a comic that appeals to me. I like that, when successful, you can get paid a lot of money for doing so very little. (At least that’s the way I perceive it.) I’ve come up with two comic ideas and curiously both arrived in the middle of the night.

Going with the existential, minimalist, “I don’t need to actually be an artist to write a comic” theme, my first idea for a strip was “A Pile of Ants”. Three frames for every strip during the week of course. All you see is a pile of ants represented by a lot of dots on a surface. One ant talks to the other. It’s an ill-formed idea, but it occurred to me that ants could articulate things that humans cannot and get away with it. Like Monty Python, most people would not “get” it, but those who did would find it hilarious. That you actually never see any of the characters would make it singularly unique, sort of like radio was when you had to picture the action and characters in your mind. However, after a few days I realized I doubted I could sustain this idea for very long, and it was unlikely to be marketable. And it probably wouldn’t do much for social action.

The second idea, and one I am considering pursuing with a friend that can at least draw, is a strip about life in the retail world. It has the virtue of never being done before. Most of us have had the retail experience in our careers, and found that it sucked. So it would be a strip that most could relate to, which might make it marketable. Of course, it would be all about life in retail, probably a fictional big box chain that seems like some amalgamation of Walmart and Target. In my days it was a Montgomery Ward, now defunct. The experience though does not change much from decade to decade. Clerks and salespeople are used, more often abused and occasionally recycled. Customers frequently act pissy, managers thrive on exploitation and staff turns over so frequently you can’t keep up with who is supposed to be working on a given day. In general, in the retail business every effort is made to keep costs low primarily through the infliction of pain on retail employees. At least, that was my experience in about two years working retail after college but before landing a government job. And from reading sites like Not Always Right, which documents customer abuse in the retail world, stupid customer syndrome has not abated.

I don’t have a working title for the strip yet. I want to keep details private until I find out if this thing can fly, and given the odds it probably won’t. But I am a decent writer, and I can write good characters. While artwork is less important than it used to be, I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I am hoping I can find an artist who might take it on. My friend Tom from childhood gets first dibs, if he has time for the project. We worked on comics together as teens and he has a lot of natural talent plus he works in advertising. If I need inspiration there are plenty of places online to find it, but also plenty of material to dreg up from thirty years ago as well.

The main task right now is to flesh out the strip, sort of the way screenplays are done: with a treatment. I need to set up the whole thing, the main characters, the big box, the staff, the managers, how they interact, etc. When I find an artist, we’ll prototype the characters until we have a set that we both like. We’ll then create a month or so of strips and shop them around to various syndicates. There they will likely get ignored, but you never can tell. And if I find it doesn’t seem marketable in print but is still interesting enough to spend time on, like xkcd it may be an entirely on-line thing. Any income generated from publishing it solely online is likely to be marginal at best, with most income coming from merchandising.

In any event, the strip will be there to entertain but like M*A*S*H on TV it will have a surreptitious purpose. For the first several years the idea is to keep it light. Have characters interact and generate a lot of humor. Once it is established, or when I get to the point where there is not much to lose, I’ll give it more of a social action focus. I’ll highlight just how marginal life in the retail world actually is. I imagine a character that sleeps in his car and runs his social life from sitting in a McDonalds parking lot. He has with a flaky laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter and accesses the Internet using their free WiFi.

Dilbert has sort of plumbed this material for the tech world through characters like Asok and Tina the Tech Writer. However, their pain does not begin to match those who inhabit the retail world. We are getting a glimpse of it from the scattered strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmarts across the country. It’s clear to me that these employees have their backs to the wall and simply cannot endure it anymore. It is actually even harder today than it was when I worked retail, and it was soul crushing then, just paid marginally more. The right comic can help broadcast the injustices faced by these vital but abused workers. If I can market it, the timing seems right as well because the subject is topical.

We’ll see if I can get it together. Wish me luck.

Rockit Man

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever have a guilty pleasure? Actually, I have quite a few, and one of them is reading the comic strip Brewster Rockit.

There is no reason to like this comic strip. Yes, there is no reason at all, except it appeals to those of us with a juvenile sense of humor, which I must have acquired somewhere in my life and never succeeded in shedding in adulthood. So I am coming out of the closet. I may try to be witty and sophisticated on this blog, but I still am a fan of grade school humor. Truly, this is a comic for the barely prepubescent, and yet I still like it. In fact, in getting my daily Brewster Rockit fix, I often laugh aloud, sometimes with tears running down my face.

Why do I like Brewster Rockit? Probably for the same reason I enjoyed Looney Tunes and Bullwinkle when I was a kid. I did not have to think too much to laugh at it. I never have to worry about whether the “plot” makes sense or not. It never will. Take today’s “plot”. Brewster Rocket, the titular commander of the R. U. Sirius space station, has been on humanitarian mission to rescue The Doughnut People. These walking, talking sugary snacks are apparently marooned on some planet and have begun to cannibalize each other. I tell you, humor rarely gets more sophomoric than one donut taking a bite out of each other. This humor is so middle school that I should not laugh at it at all. Yet I do. Frequently.

Things never make much sense on the space station R. U. Sirius. Trying to make sense of the strip is ultimately self-defeating, but the frame of the story (such as it is) is that the R. U. Sirius orbits the earth both to welcome aliens (presumably the friendly kind) and guard the earth from evil aliens, all while keeping us on the earth ignorant of all the aliens out there. Putting the empty-headed Brewster Rockit in charge of this space station is like electing George W. Bush to be President of the United States, in other words, not a good idea, but sort of fun seeing the village idiot trying to manage an impossible job.

Not to worry too much though, because there are signs of intelligence on the space station. It comes complete with an evil mad scientist Dr. Mel Practice, whose sadism seems unbounded. Perhaps not coincidentally, he looks a lot like Dick Cheney. The only sane person on the station seems to be Lieutenant Pamela Mae Snap. Her job seems to be to correct Brewster before he accidentally does something disastrously wrong, which turns out to be a full time job for the curvaceous Pam. Not that Brewster is capable of deliberately doing anything bad. He is always empty-headed and jovial and is usually capable of putting one foot in front of the other. I picture him a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger, only without the Austrian accent. Apparently, he used to have a real brain, but all those alien abductions took their toll. He now lives in his own special Twilight Zone.

Cliff Clewless, the station’s engineer, is sort of like Montgomery Scott had he flunked out of engineering school. Although he sports a large belly, he thinks he has a way with women, despite the omnipresent sunglasses and sports cap. The station even comes complete with children. Mostly we see Winky, a young boy who is regularly about to be devoured by some alien experiment concocted by Dr. Mel. About once a month or so, you know some alien or monster will try to slice into the boy, and he will yell, “Ahhh!! My spleen!!!”

There are a number of other lesser-seen ancillary characters. These include Dirk Raider (a sort of medieval Darth Vader), Bucky the Robot (just a bucket on a coat rack), a PAL 9000 computer (that must be built on the same circuitry as HAL), Oldbot (a robot who has seen better days and destined for the scrap heap) and Ensign Kenny (whose job is to be the station’s red shirt and die repeatedly in evil ways).

The artist and creator Tim Rickard draws heavily on old and not so old science fiction comics, movies and TV shows, as well as, I suspect the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Bullwinkle and Brewster have almost identical intelligence levels and seem capable of saying funny things, which they have no idea sound funny. Like in Star Wars and Star Trek, Brewster’s spacecraft seems unaffected by distance and relativity. He can be on the planet of doughnut people one day and back on the R. U. Sirius the next. Brewster Rockit is simply out for cheap pedestrian laughs, the cheaper and more inane the better.

I feel better now that I have confessed my sin. I guess I am more human than I thought. Whether Brewster is still with the doughnut people tomorrow or not, I know I will be reading the strip and probably chuckling, particularly when Winky is caught by another evil experiment of Dr. Mel’s, and is yelling about his punctured spleen.

If this keeps up, I will be chuckling at The Family Circus next. If I do, please kill me.

The problem with For Better or For Worse

The Thinker by Rodin

It seems that the comic strip For Better or For Worse is ending, sort of. Sunday’s strip will be the chronological end of the story for the fictional Patterson family that creator Lynn Johnston began drawing in 1979. Unlike The Family Circus where Dolly, Billy, Jeffy and PJ stay young children forever, the Patterson children and their parents kept aging just as we aged over the decades. Johnston herself is now 60.

The strip has proven to be an enduring comic phenomenon. My late mother was one of the many people drawn to the fictional yet ordinary lives of Elly and John, and their children Michael, Elizabeth and later April, not to mention their many neighbors and friends. Like Peanuts, it seems to run in every newspaper in the country. It seems though that its author Lynn Johnston has little more to contribute toward the story. Lizard Breath (Elizabeth) just got hitched to her long-time friend Anthony while Grandpa seems about to pass comfortably and nobly into the hereafter. Sunday’s strip will be the last in the series chronologically. Johnston plans to redraw the strips from the beginning with much improved artwork.

When I read this article in The Washington Post, I was surprised to learn one new detail of Lynn Johnston’s life: she is a recent divorcee. After thirty-two years of marriage, she is no longer married to her husband Rod who she used whole cloth when modeling John. Her own two children are also clearly characters in the strip. Actually Johnston is now a twice divorcee, but clearly she expected her second marriage to last the rest of her life. It is the whole premise behind the strip.

Things happen of course. Most married couples intend to hang in there for better or for worse, but the reality is often different. “Worse” turns out to be a lot more worse than many imagined. About half of married couples divorce at least once. It is unclear how many of those who do remain married for life are reasonably happy with their marriages. For the most part, any marital spats between John and Elly were minor. There were no ugly and denigrating screaming and shouting matches in this household, at least that I remember, even though you likely saw them in yours.

On the surface, the world of the Patterson family resembles that of most healthy nuclear families. For the most part the characters feel real, and many of the situations are clearly modeled on incidents in Johnston’s personal life. This is what made the strip so compelling to read: we could readily identify with her characters. As life is messy, a comic strip modeling family life should be messy too. Johnston’s strip was perhaps the first example of a family comic strip that was actually plausible. Most of the time, she found the right mixture of the serious, the not so serious and the humorous.

Still, it is hard to write any comic strip for three decades without it devolving toward mediocrity. Overall, the artistry improved over the years while the story lines degraded. For the last ten years, I have read the strip only sporadically. I lost interest in many of the characters. It felt more soap opera-ish than realistic. Particularly in the last few years, while Johnston’s marriage was likely unraveling, it felt saccharine.

Was there any doubt with such sterling parents that Elizabeth would marry that loser fly boy? No, of course, Johnston would insist that she have more common sense. So in time she would come to her senses and marry devoted and dutiful Anthony, even though he brought some baggage from his failed marriage. It would follow a predictable script where Elizabeth was morphed into the sweetest woman in the world. Elizabeth, who used to be shown with a button nose, is now a glamorous young woman with a thin physique and a cute, upturned nose. She’s both hot and an ideal woman. Maybe she is doing Jenny Craig.

My stomach was queasy this week as I watched her wedding play out. Of course, immediately after the wedding she would have to dash to the hospital to see her ailing grandfather. Grandpa could not conveniently die a few weeks after the wedding. Moreover, of course grandfather would be doted on by his second wife who epitomized compassion and selflessness. The story of the Elly and John could not wholly model her own marriage. While Lynn Johnston is divorced, it is clear that Elly and John are happily married for life. Michael and his wife even get to start their own married life in their parents’ old home. Heck, Michael even married a girl he argued with in grade school. How likely is that?

Perhaps it is best to stop. Twenty-nine years is a good, long run for a comic strip. The strip was widely admired and occasionally chastised when it fell into controversial areas like Michael’s gay friend Lawrence. Johnston’s relatively liberal Canadian values did not always align with America’s more conservative values. Clearly though the strip was tired. As it aged, it drifted more obviously toward implausibility.

The Pattersons are her universe to define, of course. Yet, if Johnston was going to lift so much of her life and insert it into the strip, perhaps she could have modeled the dissolution of her own marriage and put that in too. It would have been appropriate, under the circumstances and realistic. The society in which the Pattersons interacted was plausibly portrayed, but it ends on a slightly surreal note with all the principle characters a bit too surreally moving toward happily ever after.

At least For Better or For Worse was far more plausible than The Family Circus.

For the love of Dilbert

The Thinker by Rodin

There is good news for us Dilbert fans! The latest compilation of Dilbert comic strips, Positive Attitude is out. In my family, we depend on our Dilbert compilations. We keep a stack of Dilbert books in our bathroom for our leisure reading. The only problem is we have virtually every comic strip its creator Scott Adams has ever written. We can quote from them like some people can quote Shakespeare. So Positive Attitude was very welcome, although it too has been quickly consumed and memorized.

Dilbert is the comic strip for us white collar Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers. The artwork may leave a little something to be desired, but the cast of strange characters feels very familiar. They are parodies of the sorts of denizens that we who inhabit cubicle-land meet on a daily basis. I identify with all the characters, which by itself is rather scary.

As a software engineer, I identify the most with Dilbert himself. Fortunately, my success rate with women is somewhat better than his is. Although no one would mistake me for Cary Grant, I can confidently say I am much more attractive than Dilbert. Nonetheless, I know his geeky world like the back of my hand. Until 2004 when I got a management job, I spent my white-collar career in a cubicle. For many of those years, I too was an impotent project manager and technical leader. Like Dilbert, I had the responsibility, but not really the authority, to accomplish my many tasks. Puppet masters far up my chain of command made regular ill informed and counterproductive pointy haired boss type decisions. A few, like this one, I have documented. Like Dilbert, I am socially awkward. I feel much more comfortable in front of a computer than at a party. I still do not understand why brutal honesty should be so frightening. Moreover, like Dilbert I know that even if I were not married, a real babe would no more fall in love with me than with Genghis Khan.

I also identify with the Pointy Haired Boss, not only because I have worked for more than a few of them but also because I am now one myself. I hope I do a better job of managing than the Pointy Haired Boss. However, since I have a position of power, I suspect my underlings must be whispering at least a few uncomplimentary things about me behind my back. I can guess what some of them are. Like the PHB, I must suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, for I seem to have a very limited attention span. I cannot see the trees in the forest most of the time. I am a big picture type, generally not interested in the messy details of actually accomplishing major goals. I also like to please my bosses, so I have a tendency to over-commit my resources. I hope I am not as susceptible to flattery or as terrified of the CEO as the Pointy Haired Boss, but I am hardly in a position to assess myself. So I may be a PHB too.

I love Alice because she when her hormones take over she can do or say things about which the rest of us can only dream. When her hormones are not raging, I admire her for her professionalism and fanatical devotion to her work. It is hard to know how she manages given her many fruitless projects. Even after all these years, every time Alice’s uncontrollable fists of death comes out, I laugh hysterically.

I also love Wally, the ultimate slacker. He should be a civil servant like me. I hasten to add that civil servant slackers are actually quite rare, but not so rare that they cannot be found. At least in the corporate world, the Wallys of the world tend to quickly be discovered and discarded. Thankfully, I now work at a highly functional agency. I can honestly say that no one I work with regularly is a Wally type. Yet I have known a number of Wallys in the other agencies I worked at during my 25 years in the civil service. With their tenure, they skate by on minimally satisfactory performance ratings. I even knew one coworker from my days in the Pentagon who, like Wally, could not be bothered to bathe. I will confess that even though I had a reputation as a hard worker, there were times, particularly when my management became progressively dysfunctional, when I slacked off like Wally. What I love most about Wally is how he revels in his slacking. Slacking is both his religion and his reason for being. He has refined the ability to skate through life to a fine art. Nothing motivates him. He seems to live on caffeine and popcorn.

I love the intern Asok too for his wide-eyed naivety. He does not quite understand cynicism and still operates under the illusion that his lowly efforts matter. He takes delight in the stupidest things, like being a “product process owner”. He is obviously so smart that he could run the company all by himself. The irony of course is that he is isolated into the most meaningless position imaginable.

Carol, the pointy haired boss’s secretary, is a very familiar character too. She should be married to Wally. Vain and vindictive, she is evil but is forced to exert her evil in small but nefarious ways. Without Carol’s continuous obfuscation, Dilbertland might occasionally work. She acts as the block that ensures total dysfunction.

In addition, what is not to love about Catbert? He reminds me of our late lamented evil cat Squeaky, but he is much more selfish and evil than Squeaky was. The more misery that he can dish out as Director of Human Resources the happier he is. He loves wandering around the cubicles and finding sadistic ways to make the employees apprehensive.

Rather than being immoral, Dogbert is simply amoral. He is the ultimate con artist. He has a sixth sense on how to exploit people and he does it with ruthless efficiency and genuine joy. Like Catbert, he can be cruel, but cruelty is not his primary motivation. Rather he thrives on exploitation.

Without a doubt, my favorite character is Ratbert. He never fails to crack me up. I love his tendency toward masochism and his total gullibility. He is gloriously unaware that his potential is so minuscule. Consequently, he is unafraid to step into assignments way over his abilities. He thrives on being immature and easily distracted. He reminds me a lot of George W. Bush.

Even the ancillary characters are fun. Tina the Tech Writer’s anxiety complex is always close to the surface and a source of frequent laughs. Anyone ever notice Ted? Ted has no personality, but he shows up a lot. It is always Ted who is invariably about to be fired, or was downsized, or will be played the fool. Phil, the ruler of Heck is a sardonic, low class and dispirited manifestation of the devil, sort of a Catbert-lite. Bob the Dinosaur plays a general buffoon.

The result is a brilliant comic strip where the cubicle denizens are always oppressed, incompetence is rewarded and ruthless exploitation is glorified. In Dilbertland, life is always futile. It is a consistent nihilistic vision of office life yet it is funny at the same time. The strip is nearing twenty years old. While it probably reached its peak in the mid to late 1990s, it remains quite fresh. With so many real life experiences coming in from his readers, Scott Adams should have no trouble finding sources of inspiration in the years ahead.

Scott may well be the cynical, amoral man he projects into his characters. I just hope he does not decide to retire prematurely. With the success of Dilbert, he must have made his fortune many times over. We cubicle workers need Dilbert. It is as vital to us as our daily jolt of Starbucks coffee. Dilbert gives us a means to laugh at our relatively tame office chaos. We are better with Dilbert in our life. For if the strip goes away we will find ourselves stuck forever in Heck. Yet with Dilbert we can somehow cope.

Keep them coming, Scott.

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!

Getting Fuzzied

The Thinker by Rodin

About once every 5-10 years a truly great comic strip comes along. My list may not exactly match yours but I bet it comes close. Note that some of these comic strips were great in their prime then quickly became stale, mediocre or evolved into something downright bad. Sometimes they emerge with new flashes of brilliance then disappear again into mediocrity. Some like Calvin and Hobbes just disappear – the artists knew they had no more to give.

Starting arbitrarily around 1970 I would say these great comic strips were (in chronological order): Doonesbury, The Far Side, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and Dilbert.

Of course there have been lots of other really terrific strips. Current strips that I really enjoy include Zits, The Piranha Club, The Boondocks, For Better or For Worse, Tank McNamara (and I don’t even like sports), Mutts, and Rhymes with Orange (not for the artwork, but for the ideas). Even when I am very busy I will make the time to read these strips.

I am amazed by how some strips have withstood the test of time and how others haven’t. Classic Peanuts, for example, shows Peanuts strips from the 1970s and 1980s when the strip was no longer funny. Truly classic Peanuts cartoons can only now be found in anthologies. Between 1955 and 1965 the strip was brilliant. Unfortunately back then the daily strips were in four panels. Newspapers won’t show four panel strips anymore … they consume too much real estate. On the other hand Blondie should have flamed out at least thirty years ago. Yet I still find it regularly funny even though the original artist died long ago. It is the same yet always fresh. Amazing.

I think a new comic strip has joined the league of truly great comic strips. A few more years will tell for sure. The strip is Get Fuzzy.

It’s almost in every newspaper now so chances are you are already reading it. If you aren’t reading it you can read the daily strip online. You won’t want to miss a single day.

The humor of Get Fuzzy is hard to explain. A lot of people don’t get Zippy the Pinhead. (Frankly even I am sick of Zippy’s talking to statues and fascination with diners.) Get Fuzzy grew on me. I read it for weeks and thought, “What’s with that weird cat Bucky Katt and that dopey dog Satchel Pooch? Why does their owner Rob Wilco always wear a backwards baseball cap on his head? What does he do for a living anyhow? He hardly ever goes anywhere. He looks like some college guy whose apartment consists of stacks of pizza boxes.” (According to the web site Rob is an ad executive … go figure!)

And then one day I tittered a little bit. The next day I tittered a little more. Then I started laughing. Then it became hilarious. There were times when I laughed so hard I really was ROTFLMAO. Now it’s a home run out of the ballpark at least three days out of five.

Why do I love Get Fuzzy? Mostly it’s because of the cat Bucky: the heart of the comic strip. Readers may remember my reminisces about our difficult cat Squeaky who passed away in June. There was something inherently evil in Squeaky — something very disturbing. But occasionally she could be a sweet cat. There is none of this ambiguity in Bucky. Bucky is the sort of cat you are grateful is not a human being. If Bucky were a human being it would make Hitler look like an amateur. But Bucky is not just a nasty and evil cat. Bucky is cat with an acid tongue that makes the most startling observations.

Satchel the dog is Bucky’s polar opposite: sweet, unassuming, wholly trusting, so naive that if it were run over by a car once it would gladly do it again if so directed. Satch is totally transparent. Bucky is diabolical. It lives to sin. But Bucky cannot sin in an ordinary manner. It must sin in extraordinary ways. Everything Bucky does is to bring more and more attention back on itself and demonstrate it is the nastiest, orneriest, meanest, most twisted cat that ever lived. Both Dogbert and Catbert can take lessons from Bucky.

Rob plays the “whatever” pet owner who seems to accept his fate with these two animals. He carries a look of resignation on his face most of the time. Satch of course utterly adores Rob and Bucky. Bucky wants to see both of them dead in the most horrific way possible and for no reason whatsoever … it is never treated meanly. Rob though knows how to return zingers to Bucky’s comments that skews this bizarre little world inside their apartment in a compelling kaleidoscope of weirdness. It’s a synergy of a sort between the man, the dog and the cat that ricochets in the oddest directions.

The author and artist Darby Conley can pull humor from the most mundane things. Rob’s precious collection of Star Wars figurines, for example, is of course sold by Bucky behind Rob’s back to some ferrets it hates down the hall. Bucky does it for money but the ferrets start turning the action figures into little Bucky voodoo dolls. Hilarity ensues. Bucky of course has the attitude from Galaxy Quest: “Never give up! Never surrender!” And so it tries to compound the evil deed, always with a kicker rejoinder than often has me ROTFLMAO.

It is my considered opinion though that this is not a Republican comic strip. This is a Democratic comic strip. Although both parties can be very evil a good Republican would be too sanctimonious to read the strip, let alone enjoy it. Democrats though are allowed to be multidimensional. It’s okay for us to revel a bit in our evil side. And what better way to do so than to project our nasty feelings into Bucky, our innocent sides into Satchel, and our weary “I don’t give a flying f***” sides into Rob.

I hope Darby Conley can keep it up. I have a feeling he won’t be able to sustain this level of energy very long. That’s often the way it is with the best comic strips. So perhaps we must enjoy this spectacular firework of a comic strip while we can. Its ascent may be into the stratosphere but it may flame out quickly.