22 August 2005

Comically speaking.........

There's a man in the funny papers we all know...

Is it just me, or has a huge generation gap taken hold on the comics page? On one side you have the "modern" strips like BABY BLUES, ZITS, 9 CHICKWEED LANE, FOXTROT and of course DILBERT. They all have fresh gags, and stay current ... especially ZITS. Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman have created what in my opinion (hey, this IS my blog, after all!) is the best comic strip of the last decade. Another favorite is RHYMES WITH ORANGE ... that creator Hilary Price obviously has a fondness for Public Radio doesn't discourage me from reading, either.

Then in the middle there's SALLY FORTH and FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE. I like the latter in particular because the characters all age, where most others stay in a static anti-timewarp. Some people are hooked on soaps; I've been reading FBOFW as far back as 1989. The character April was born right around the same time as my son, so it's been fascinating seeing April 'grow up' into teenhood. Many features resemble soap operas with continuing stories and even multiple storylines. More on these shortly.

And then ... yup, the "old school." Yes, I'm talking about FAMILY CIRCUS, DENNIS THE MENACE, SNUFFY SMITH, BEETLE BAILEY and .... GARFIELD. Penned often by folks so cooped up in their ivory towers so to have been disconnected from reality for decades. Or cracking a whip over a slaving staff of "ghost cartoonists", pausing only to sign his name after it's done (as allegedly is the case with GARFIELD).

Okay, I grant you, Garfield came along in 1978, perhaps arguing against my pigeonholing the cat among the "old." Perhaps not in letter, but in spirit - absolutely! GARFIELD made waves when it debuted over a quarter-century ago, and was among the hottest comics in the early '80s. Remember all the books?

Of course, GARFIELD wasn't the first comic strip to take advantage of the power of marketing; look no further than the late Charles Schulz's PEANUTS. From the first Charlie Brown special, A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, leading to many other "CBS Special Presentations" throughout the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, to the licensing of characters for Interstate Brands (Dolly Madison Snack Cakes and various regional bread labels like Millbrook), Schulz raked in the big bucks from all the ancillary merchandising. Oh yeah, and Snoopy donning a hat and telling people "Get Met. It Pays." Which reminds me of a Mad magazine parody: "Get Mutt. You'll Pay."

I truly can't put my finger on the difference — Schulz somehow managed to keep from getting his reputation dirty with all the HYPE! Jim Davis has done nothing but cash in. And rest on his laurels while his subordinates keep cranking out incredibly mediocre strips. Good grief!

Nice work if you can get it.

It's evidence of a grossly unfair and sad world when first-rate cartoonists like Bill Watterson (CALVIN & HOBBES) and Berkeley Breathed (BLOOM COUNTY) quickly kill their comic features out of fear of getting stale. While the hacks keep cranking out chucklers (I'm being very nice here), one right after another and jealously digging in their heels. The jokes you read in today's BEETLE BAILEY probably originated in 1962 and repeated in 1978, 1985 and 1996 before its latest retread.

I close with some observations and assorted opinions about comics today:

BIZARRO — Dan Piraro's one-panel gag strip has obvious influence with Gary Larson's famous THE FAR SIDE. Funny as I find that, BIZARRO makes TFS look like FAMILY CIRCUS!

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE — At long last, it looks like Elizabeth and Lawrence are on their way to connecting. It remains to be seen how Lynn Johnston will frame a divorce between Lawrence and Therese in order to allow E. to come in and be a loving wife and stepmom.

CURTIS — Curtis, my man, Chutney might not be perfect, but she's quality! Let Michelle go. That snob'll get hers. And Barry really needs the shitsu kicked out of him. Either that, or force him to smoke your Dad's Luckies. Oh, and your hair's getting a little long ... time for another trip to the barber. I enjoy the occasional barber shop storylines (not to mention the "hidden record store" gags). CURTIS creator Ray Billingsley is among the greats of the present day.

SALLY FORTH — Ted, ever the p-whipped husband. Nuff ‘sed.

CALVIN AND HOBBES — Bill Watterson, you let this one go too soon. You were nowhere near jumping the shark! Now, a decade later, a whole generation of kids are growing up thinking Calvin does nothing but pee on Chevy or Ford logos on pickup truck back windows!

BLOOM COUNTY — It's been out of production since August 1989. And I still miss it terribly. Lucky for us, some elements have been revived in the weekly Sunday strip named after BC's main penguin character, OPUS. Bill the Cat (a delicious parody of GARFIELD) is around, and recently Steve Dallas made a triumphant return.

DENNIS THE MENACE — Jay North was better. This is a textbook case of the dangers of commercialization. In the early-ish ‘70s DTM was licensed to Dairy Queen ... and even today you can still see the strip's characters gracing drink cups and wrappers. Otherwise, it's a comic strip that saw its best days before I became a twinkle in my Mom's eye.

SNUFFY SMITH — It amuses me when I see this one in some papers still billed as "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith." Barney Google hasn't been a regular presence in this strip since, ohhhhhh, the ‘50s! This is about as funny as one of Jay Leno's monologues.

BEETLE BAILEY — "Ummmm, Mort Walker? 1970 called; they want their storylines back." The military is a subculture just begging for a DILBERT-style treatment! But this dreck continues. Could this be the reason for sagging troop morale? "Your choice, soldier: A poorly-armored vehicle in Iraq .... or reading nothing but BEETLE BAILEY day in and day out. No other reading matter. Just Beetle." I dare say Iraq looks pretty damned appealing.

FAMILY CIRCUS — Notwithstanding the occasional (amusing) joke with dotted line plotting the travels of one of the kids through the neighborhood, this must be hanging around only because people over 90 like a good chuckle.

PEANUTS — Mr. Schulz died in 2000. Why do newspapers insist on rerunning old retreads??!! It takes up space better suited for a new, up-and-coming strip. Good gawd on a POGO strip, if you're gonna serve up reruns, how about some classic CALVIN & HOBBES???

I'm gonna go read the paper. Ciao for niao.

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