I was recently given a belated birthday gift by a couple of my gaming buddies, Dave and his lovely horse obsessed bride Erin. It was a cup, with a little grey cartoon rat on it that said “People are idiots and I hate everyone.” An ideal gift for me, as that is, by and large my philosophy in life. Also included in the gift bag was a treasury of “Pearls Before Swine.” strips called “The Crass Menagerie”, which is where this little cartoon Rat came from. “If you aren’t familiar with it or aren’t a fan, you soon will be” Dave assured me.
I have been plowing through it over the last couple of days, and I have to say, by and large I do enjoy it. I can see where someone might think the LOLspeaking Crocodiles would wear a little thin, but I kind of dig them. The Crocs go after the Zebra the way Charlie Brown goes after the football. Yes, I’m quite enjoying Pearls before Swine. I like how the characters know they are in a comic strip, and break the fourth wall, like this strip here…
Sometimes even going so far as to include the author in a few strips. I think Rat and Pig balance each other off nicely. And I especially like it when he takes potshots at other strips. This is a guy who loves the fine art of the comic strip and hates watching what it has become. In short, the comics page of the newspaper has been dominated by mediocrity and franchises that have gotten way too comfortable for way too long. It got me thinking about how much I love the art of the newspaper daily, and how much I will miss it when print finally goes the way of the dodo.
We talk a lot about comic books here on the Correctness, but we don’t often talk about comic STRIPS. They used to be called “The Funny Papers” back in the day, because once upon a time they were actually funny. I grew up in a golden age. There were not one, not two, but THREE amazing comic strips in newspaper syndication, not to mention the fact that Peanuts, arguably the greatest comic strip of all time was still running, with the original artist and writer at the helm.
Say what you want about merchandising, Shultz always kept a firm hand on that strip and never allowed creative control to be passed to anyone but himself. I have always been a Peanuts fan, so much so I bullied my wife into making the new baby’s room completely Snoopy themed. I even wrote a short play about grown up Peanuts last year (If you care to have a look it’s in the archives…right HERE in fact) I recently bought some of those “Complete Peanuts” treasuries from the 70′s, and remain amazed at how surreal, melancholy, and smart the strip was. This was clearly not intended for children, but there is still an innocence and warmth that permeates everything Charlie Brown that kids can still relate to it. And every once in a while, it even has a little bite.
The aforementioned “Golden Three”, I’m sure will surprise no one. Berke Breathed’s sharp and whimsical Bloom County, The towering temple of weirdness that is Gary Larson’s Far Side, and Bill Watterson’s love letter to childhood, Calvin and Hobbes.
Bloom County was huge influence growing up…both politically and with regards to my sense of humor. In fact, I’d say there is more than a little of the self effacing Opus in my stand up stage persona. Breathed was one of the FIRST to take shots at some of the other strips…in fact Bill the Cat was originally conceived as a big old “Fuck you” to Garfield. Check out the last few strips of Bloom County, there is quite a brilliant run of strips where the gang ends up getting jobs in other strips. Perhaps its more of a gentle goodbye to his peers, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s very effective and very funny. Bloom County had great characters, and a point of view without ever taking itself to seriously. Unlike it’s contemporary “Doonsbury” Bloom County never forgot that funny takes precedent over any political message, and always had room for some over the top silliness.
Check out my Casting Couch for a fictional Bloom County movie Here.
I can’t think of a better compliment for Gary Larson’s Far Side than to say that people actually have FAVOURITES. Ones that they remember and can recite verbatim or describe in detail. This is my wife’s favourite…
I always liked the one where Igor is being taken to task for shoving a Wolfman Doll in Frankenstein’s face. “God, sometimes you are really bizarre!!!” But I couldn’t find that one, so here is a runner up…
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder at any comic than I have at the Far Side. Larson is like the Stephen Wright of the cartooning world. He is wholly original, often imitated never duplicated. In fact, there was a Far Side Tv special I recall that was just as brilliant. I tried looking it up on you tube but couldn’t seem to find it. If you can, do it’s totally worth it. Imagine a series of farside cartoons all linked together , overlapping backtracking and interconnecting like a Mr. Show episode. Gary Larson is the closest thing to pure inspired genius the comics page ever had. And anyone who argues that point will probably use Calvin and Hobbes as their candidate.
Combining equal parts chaos and whimsey, Calvin and Hobbes has a rabid following, and with good reason. There are lots of strips about childhood, but very few that actually get it. Dealing with the tedium of school, the joy of the snowday, the all important ramp up to Christmas, this is the stuff I remember about being a kid and Watterson taps into it brilliantly. It’s a love letter to the imagination, which is why I get so angry everytime I see a decal of Calvin peeing on a Ford logo. I can’t concieve of missing the point of Calvin and Hobbes more than that. The strip is beautiful, especially some of the Sunday strips that give Calvin’s imagination all the watercolor spectacle and scale it deserves. The decal is petty, and ugly, and disrespectful.
Is Hobbes real? Who cares? He’s real enough to Calvin, and since it’s the world through his eyes, that’s all that matters.
Check out our Correctness discussion topic on Calvin and Hobbes HERE.
The one thing these three have in common is that they all quit while they were ahead rather than let their strips go stale or corporate. To be fair, Breathed continued in different formats for awhile, but at least he was changing things up. Today the comics page is tiny, derivitive stale and worst of all, largely unfunny. Admin Rock suggested to me that the reason is because most of the more cutting edge and interesting artists have fully embraced the webcomic…that the funnies aren’t over, they are just in a new medium. He may have a point. Despite the shitstorm of hate it stirs up on Cracked.com, I quite like Basic Instructions
XKCD is enormously popular, if a little niche oriented, and shows that there is still good writing out there. But notice in BOTH of these cases, the artwork has gone by the wayside. One features traced xeroxes, and the other stick people. My fear is that as the print media dies out, so to will the care and craftsmanship that went into the artwork. The internet demands immediate gratification, and very few artists have the time it takes to create a great looking strip. One that tells a story with the art as much as it does the writing.
I suppose this comes off as another “Back in my day, you young kids today” thing, but that was not my intention. We still have the treasuries, and a few entertaining stragglers like Foxtrot and Pearls Before Swine, but I think it’s important to aknowledge the transition period we are in…and reflect on what we are losing as well as what we are gaining with the advent of the webcomic.
If only I could draw some humerous, poignant cartoon to illustrate my point better…