That Joke Isn’t Funnies Anymore

I grew up reading the comics in the afternoon paper. Good lord, doesn’t that sound like the reminiscence of a 75-year-old? But even in the 1970s and ’80s, the newspaper funnies were still an intrinsic part of childhood. In early 2000, as the ’Net was on the rise, newspapers were on the wane, and Charles Schulz was meeting his maker, I sensed that the whole comics universe in which I'd immersed myself as a boy was on the brink of obsolescence, so I tried to reach as many of the old-time syndicated cartoonists–such as Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker and The Family Circus’s Bil Keane–as I could. I would like to say that my criticism of Garry Trudeau in this piece–that he’d lost his initial passion and allowed Doonesbury to become stale–is no longer valid. The Iraq war reanimated his muse, and his strips about B.D., the injured vet, are good stuff.

For any American born after 1950, the comic strip Peanuts was as intrinsically a part of life as the sun’s rising; you woke up, the earth had rotated, and there in the newspaper were Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, et al. So when Charles Schulz put an end to the daily strip in January, then died a month later, the effect was jolting. The sudden disappearance of both cartoon and cartoonist pulled us abruptly into the reality that even the funnies—as comfortingly staid and unchanging as they seem—are as subject to change as everything else.

The strange thing about the comics page, given its youth-associatedness, is that it has long been anchored by men of the World War II generation. The Family Circus’s Bil Keane is 77, the same age Schulz was at his death; Mort Walker, of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois fame, is 75; Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham is 80; Tiger’s Bud Blake is 82; and B.C.’s Johnny Hart is 69. These old-timers have displayed a remarkable stick-to-itiveness over the years—no wussy Garry Trudeau sabbaticals for them!—but frankly, they don’t have that many working years left. As for the younger talent, it’s much less reliable, tending toward either mediocrity (Luann, Sally Forth, One Big Happy) or supernova brilliance that burns itself out after a decade or so (The Far Side, Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes, all of whose authors—Gary Larson, Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson, respectively—have quit and retreated into Salinger seclusion). A few members of the old guard, such as Keane and Walker, have arranged for their children to perpetuate their strips beyond their lifetimes (as Blondie’s Chic Young and Hagar the Horrible’s Dik Browne did before them), but this model isn’t likely to persist. “Comic strips are more of a personal statement than they once were,” says Lee Salem, the editorial director of comics giant Universal Press Syndicate. “Most strips will not continue beyond their creators’ desire.” It all adds up to a time of transition: Realistically, there’s bound to be some sort of shakeout in the next few years, and a new direction for the comics.

Salem and Jay Kennedy, his counterpart at rival King Features Syndicate, use the same word—“edgy”—to describe the tenor of the new strips they’re developing. “We have Zits, Mutts, Baby Blues—lots of edgy strips in their formative years,” says Kennedy. “Zits is the fastest selling strip in the 105-year history of comics. It’s a contemporary-teenager strip, very in touch with youth culture. And we just started a new one called Six Chicks—six days a week, each day focusing on a different woman character.” As for Universal Press, Salem touts an “edgy new comic to watch” called The Big Picture and has already scored a hit with The Boondocks, a controversial year-old strip detailing the adventures of two wisecracking black kids who’ve moved to the white suburbs. The Boondocks is the creation of Aaron McGruder, a 25-year-old self-described “member of the hip-hop generation.” He, for one, applauds the syndicates’ new direction. “We need to get away from oversanitized strips,” he says. “I don’t want everything to be like South Park, but there’s room for provocation and even vulgarity, as long as it’s not just vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake.”

Actually, I’m not so sure about this. To me the most remarkable and endearing thing about the comics is that they’re the last remaining cell of popular culture not to have been infected by the prevailing in-your-face, attitudinous, willfully vulgar ethos of our era. In Blondie, Hi and Lois and Beetle Bailey, and even in newer, allegedly hipper strips such as Dilbert and Get Fuzzy, the vibe remains reassuringly Eisenhowerean. Families are nuclear, hair is short, the milieu is picket-fence suburban, and the humor tends toward the gentle and anti-ironic. Even in the 1970s, when I was growing up, there was a queer out-of-time-ness to the funnies: to the neat Levittown lines of Peanuts’ nameless suburb; to Aunt Fritzi’s radio-chorine ’do in Nancy; to the helmet-like flip worn by The Family Circus’s mom (which Keane updated only four years ago); to the very army-barracks premise of Beetle Bailey. These elements have been in place for so long now that, far from seeming backward, they seem iconic. And by sticking to the everyday rather than the topical, and adhering to a clean, uncluttered, correspondence-school drawing style—by being so resolutely un-edgy—the older cartoonists, wittingly or not, have created a kind of timeless ComicsWorld, governed by its own set of rules. Who cares if every other adult in the country takes showers? Taking a bath is just what Dagwood Bumstead does.

Dean Young, the author of Blondie and the man who sends Dagwood to that tub time and again, sent me a current promotional booklet that includes a history of the strip from its 1930 inception by his father, Chic, to the present day. Young concludes the booklet with a mini-manifesto headlined “Advice to Aspiring Cartoonists.” “A comic strip,” it advises, “should not lend itself to propaganda, its sole purpose being the amusement of the reader. Politics, religion, and racial subjects should be avoided for obvious reasons…. References to liquor should be avoided…. Divorce, infirmities of the body, sickness, and other such unpleasant subjects do not lend themselves to satisfactory humor for comic strips and should not be used. The material used should not be localized. Remember, when it is snowing in New York, people are swimming in Florida and California….”

Now, you’d think that any strip that hews to such tenets would be the most joyless experience in the world, but, in fact, Blondie has a delirious screwball energy, and is terrifically drawn to boot; it’s like a little loop of Preston Sturges every day. (I have a particular weakness for any plotline involving Dagwood’s boss, Mr. Dithers, the pince-nez’d forebear of The Simpsons’s Mr. Burns.) No other cartoonist holds himself to Young’s extreme credo, but a lot come pretty close. “We syndicated cartoonists pride ourselves on being the last frontier of good, decent, clean American humor,” says Bil Keane, whose Family Circus is rife with Christian morality and smiling apparitions of dead grandparents. This cleanness is partly a function of the cartoonists’ sensibility and partly a function of the medium their work appears in. “We have to keep in mind that a newspaper appeals to a broad readership,” says Salem. “When I watch TV, I’ll watch something different from what my mother-in-law watches, but when we both pick up The Kansas City Star, our eyes are falling on the same thing.” The result is that the syndicates, loath to offend, err on the side of caution. “The standard for what you can get away with in comics is completely different than anywhere else,” says Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. “I just saw a Web-site commercial where a guy was saying, ‘This movie really blows!’ If I put a line like that in a strip, the wouldn’t run it. They won’t even let me say ‘heinie’ in my strip.”

The older cartoonists pride themselves on staying topical—“I take care to mirror contemporary society: Dagwood’s got a computer,” says Young—but it’s topicality that causes their weak moments. Peanuts’ rare forays into pop-cultural references, as when Snoopy pronounced his love for Twiggy and Charlie Brown brought up the name of Olivia Newton-John, were always jarring and ill-considered, while Beetle Bailey’s much-ballyhooed tackling of social issues seems forced, an unwelcome intrusion by the real world on ComicsWorld. When leering old General Halftrack underwent sensitivity training three years ago to get over his lust for Miss Buxley, his comely young secretary, it made for a good news story, but it was a blow to the strip. “I’ve lost a lot of fun in that—making fun of old fogies who are over the hill but not over the thrill,” admits Mort Walker. He explains that in his case, a lot of the up-to-date stuff is done under duress. A couple of years ago, Kennedy, his editor, responding to protests by women’s groups, ordered him to eliminate Halftrack altogether. Walker was within a hairsbreadth of doing so—“I wrote a series of strips getting him out, retiring him and replacing him with a new, younger egotistical general, a Patton type,” he says—when his sons intervened. “They sad, ‘Dad, he’s one of the readers’ favorite characters!’ ” The sensitivity-training story line was a compromise.

Walker complains that there’s a double standard at work as the syndicates try to keep up with the times. “The other day in Zits,” he says “they had a kid farting into the telephone. I called Jay Kennedy and said, ‘How’d you let the cartoonist get away with that?’ And he said, ‘He’s more cutting-edge than you—it’s part of what he does.’ ”

I get what Kennedy and Salem mean when they say they want “edgy”—they want stuff that’s engaged in the present day and not as dorky as Garfield—but I’m also wary of anything that consciously tries to posit itself as “cutting-edge.” The magic of the late, lamented Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes was that they were innately weird and iconoclastic strips, authentic reflections of their oddball creators’ oddball psyches—they were the dream hybrids of old-style innocence and new-style funkiness that everyone’s casting about for. Whereas the current legion of Far Side rip-offs—The Quigmans, Bizarro and The Fusco Brothers, to name but three—are transparently, desperately self-conscious, straining fruitlessly to re-create Gary Larson’s skewed, bovine freakiness. They’re also dated; like faded wine-cooler posters in a liquor store, they seem the last sorry embers of a trend begun in 1986. As for the vaunted Zits, it’s ugly to look at, unfunny and as repellent as its name. Of the “cutting-edge” strips, only The Boondocks seems to be the genuine article: distinctively, attractively drawn (in a style its author describes as “Japanimation blended with Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson”) and simultaneously funny and astute. McGruder, like Chris Rock, doesn’t buy into the P.C. notion of a solemn, perfect black brotherhood and has made delicious fun (and bitter enemies) of Bob Johnson, the head of the BET network, and Ward Connerly, the black anti-affirmative action campaigner.

That said, McGruder has his work cut out for him. As Mort Walker notes, “Cutting-edge strips attract attention, but only for a short period,” invariably because their authors can’t sustain their initial freshness and intelligence. Even the smart, hyper-engaged Doonesbury has succumbed to staleness. Garry Trudeau’s strip was amazing in the era of Watergate and Vietnam, but in this apolitical age it’s merely spinning its wheels: the retread-retread adventures of debauched old Uncle Duke have grown pretty tiresome, while the look-at-me-I’m-current plotlines about L.A. talent agents and the Net are just lame.

Any debate about the content of the comics becomes academic if no one’s reading them. And while the funnies are not under any imminent threat of extinction, there is cause for concern. “The newspaper editors have a feeling that kids read the comics, That’s not true—kids watch television,” says Walker. “It’s different from back when I grew up, when the only entertainment we had from day to day was comics and going to the library.” A few months ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette conducted a survey of its reader’s comics preferences, and of the 11,000-plus people who responded, only 4.2 percent were 18 and under. Granted, these were the results of an unscientific survey rather than a scientific poll—and Kennedy blithely asserts that adults have always made up the better part of the comics-reading audience—but I can’t get over my nagging suspicion that comics readers are a finite resource. In thirty or forty years, when we start to lose the last generation of people who grew up reading the funnies every day, will anyone want the funnies anymore?

The unignorable subtext of this question is this country’s declining newspaper readership, and its dwindling number of newspapers. (The afternoon paper, which was where I got my after-school comics fix, is in particularly steep decline, from 1,141 papers in 1989 to 781 in 1999.) You could argue that in the future many people will turn to the Web to read the comics—The Boondocks, in fact, started out online before it made it into national newspapers—but the Web is user-driven, meaning you go in and choose which cartoons you want to read, whereas in a newspaper you read whatever selection the paper’s editors have laid out for you. As such, it will only get harder for new, unheralded strips to gain a following. “The window is shrinking every year,” says Adams, whose Dilbert, a rudimentarily drawn but cleverly observed chronicle of corporate-cubicle life in e-mail America, is the last strip to have caught on big time. “Even Dilbert wouldn’t have broken,” he says, “except that it hit the Zeitgeist at just the right time.”

I suspect that it will also be harder to hook people on a simple, four-panel, black-and-white comic strip in an every more high-tech, bell-and-whistle-filled world. Already some newspapers have decreed that a black-and-white daily comics page is a primitive twentieth-century nuisance not to be countenanced in the twenty-first, and have used their shiny new printing plants to colorize the daily strips (much to the chagrin of a lot of cartoonists). This is probably just the beginning. For all his declarations of fealty to the old format, Kennedy, one of the most powerful men in comics, envisions a day when there will be on-line strips that are not static but “five-second animated cartoons—animated jokes.”

This sounds rad enough, but it would be horrible if the pen-and-ink comic were consigned to quaint antiquity like the general store and the bootblack, superseded by some widgety electro-gimmickry that owes no debt to Charles Schulz. The comics deserve to persist in their slow-moving, square way, as a safe haven where coolness is moot, irony is anathema and happiness, indeed, is a warm puppy.

September 4, 2006  Link  GQ  Share/Bookmark

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