Thursday, January 20, 2005


He reads the comics so you don't have to

I have to admit a certain longing for the glory days of the newspaper comics pages. And I mean the old-school glory days, long before we were born, when strips were huge (especially sundays, when Tarzan or Flash Gordon could be up to half a page, and the Spirit got an 8-page insert), adventure strips (again, see Tarzan and Flash Gordon, as well as the Phantom, Superman, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, et al) were still a viable genre, and an event like the wedding of Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae could make headlines.

By the time I discovered what my parents inexplicably called "the funnies," they were already in decline, with shrinking strips and the lovingly-crafted works of art giving way to repetitive filler like Marmaduke and the Born Loser. As a kid, one of my favorite issues of Mad magazine was a Super Special reprinting some of their best comic strip parodies, including the "Mad Comic-Strip Musical," with Dick Tracy fighting to rescue Blondie from the evil Rex Morgan M.D., featuring just about every comic strip character ever, all expressively rendered by the great Wally Wood. The entire mag was a door into the past, exposing me to long-forgotten characters like Snuffy Smith, Andy Gump, Henry, the Yellow Kid, Maggie and Jiggs, and dozens of others who will never get the reverential treatment given to, say, Peanuts.

Snuffy Smith. I just love saying Snuffy Smith.

By the 80s and 90s the comics pages were a shadow of their past glory. Yes, there are those three modern classics: Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes. And yes, Peanuts kept chugging along until Charles Schulz retired (and died, like, the next day). But come on, the strips themselves kept getting smaller and smaller, not that that's such a bad thing when the pages were clogged with mediocre dreck like Curtis or 9 Chickweed Lane. And sundays became downright depressing, with strips not much bigger than the daily ones, and more and more space being given over to ads or kids puzzles. Only the reclusive genius Bill Watterson was able to negotiate a larger format for sunday Calvin and Hobbes, possibly the last gasp of great comic strip art.

But of course, Calvin and Hobbes is gone now, as is the Far Side. And while Berke Breathed has dipped his toe back into the water with Opus, it's still a far cry from the daily dose of Bloom County that got me through the 80s.

And god help you if you still love adventure strips. The few that remain plug along out of sheer inertia. Flash Gordon is still competently drawn, though a far cry from the glory of Alex Raymond and Al Williamson, while the Phantom is an incomprehensible mess. When Steve Roper and Mike Nomad recently ended, my only reaction was, "you mean it didn't end twenty years ago?"

There are still bright spots. There's Dilbert, of course (though that, by Scott Adams' own admission, can hardly be considered great art), and the Boondocks, and occasionally Mutts. But beyond that, it's the same old; Cathy is still insecure (and still binges to the "eat, eat, eat" sound effect), the Family Circus still thinks childish malaprops never cease to be funny, BC is still an ongoing chronicle of Johnny Hart's slow descent into religious insanity. And don't get me fucking started about Garfield.

I read the comics so you don't have to is a blog for comics page geeks like me. Josh Fruhlinger writes daily about the comics, from the relentless averageness of Sally Forth (smirky does not mean funny) to the eternally out-of-touch-with-real-teenagers Luann (who's been in junior high since I was in junior high) to the strangely anachronistic soap opera Gil Thorpe (me neither). It's not for everyone, but if you love--really love--the, ahem, funnies, if the name Ernie Brushmiller means a damn thing to you, check it out.

Snuffy Smith. Snuffy Smith. Snuffy Smith.

What's your take on Webcomics? PvP is wonderful... There are other good ones, too.
I love PVP, and Penny Arcade, and there's an adventure strip called Athena Voltaire that could have come right out of 1933--and I mean that in a good way.

Longer-form stuff--the equivalent of comic books as opposed to strips--seems to be having a harder time of it, since I can't really decide if it wants to hew closely to the established comics format, or go totally freeform, or something in between. There's an award-winning series called Broken Saints (created by an instructor from CDIS) that uses Flash to come up with something halfway between comics and anime.
By the way...

Snuffy Smith.
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