Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Funnies Page: Your Five (or Three or Two) Must-Read Strips

Like most people, I imagine, I've always been a selective reader of the funnies. Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly desperate for distraction, I'll take on the entire comics page as if it were the TLS--as if, that is, I'm getting bonus points for reading THE WHOLE THING. In such moods, I valiantly slog through Garfield, Gil Thorp, and the aptly named Hagar the Horrible, a task made bearable only by the leavening presence of reliable stand-bys, those strips that I may not read every day, but whose drawings and gags immediately draw my eye as it passes over the page.

When I was quite young, my favorite strips were Garfield, For Better or For Worse, Blondie, and Beetle Bailey. Garfield was explicable by three notable facts: mine was a cat-owning family, it was the favorite strip of a girl that I wanted to impress, and of course, back then, Garfield was funny. My For Better or For Worse fixation had similarly autobiographical origins--though it was also drawn so differently from other strips at the time that its "realistic" detail was immediately attractive to a boy who, in adolescence, would worship the pencils of George Perez. I also liked the art in Blondie--so much that the strip's rather old-fashioned jokiness didn't bother me--in fact, it may have been part of the appeal.

And Beetle Bailey? Well, what can I say? It was a funny strip, too, back in the day. But I suspect that, once again, it was a love affair born of identification with the luckless, bossed-around protagonist. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud notes that the simpler the drawing, the fewer its individuating details, the easier it is for a reader to identify with it. Highly detailed portraiture obviously repels our unconscious processes of identification for the same reason that Charlie Brown or a stick figure invites them. Hapless Private Beetle Bailey was an image that spoke particularly to me, perhaps because we never see his most individuating feature--his eyes. Sad case, wasn't I?

At any rate, my tastes changed. Some of them, anyway. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I began to keep a scrapbook of three amazing new comics that I cut out of the newspaper every night: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. I was still avidly reading For Better or For Worse, so it made it into the scrapbook too. The scrapbook (an old telephone book, actually) was, in effect, a primitive sort of comics blog. And like a blog, it immediately developed encyclopedic ambitions. Before long, I was cutting out many more comic strips--in some cases, pasting them in with my ink smudged fingers and my Uhu glue stick without even reading them!

One curious side-effect of my snipping and hoarding was that, because I read the comics page religiously, I began to follow the serials: Spider-Man, Gil Thorp, and Annie. I was already a comic book fan, so it might seem odd that I hadn't been reading Spider-Man already. But remember how dull those strips looked--barely a supervillain in sight! It was just panel after panel of Peter Parker talking to Mary Jane. Still, I got into it. Even the gothic world of Annie began to seem interesting, though I was never really able to fool myself into thinking that the jock drama of Gil Thorp was cool.

And now? I barely recognize the comics page anymore. Zits? Get Fuzzy? Grand Avenue? And these aren't even the cutting edge, fresh off the truck strips. (I don't even know what those would be!) Are they funny? I don't know. I can't seem to compell myself to read them. This will come as a shock to regular readers, I'm sure, but my eye just keeps drifting back to those older, more recognizable strips:

Despite the ritualized viewing of tv specials like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas as a kid, I didn't "get" Peanuts until much later. Now it is the first strip I read. I especially enjoyed today's:

One often feels this way when reading parenting manuals, I'm finding.


My home town paper The Winnipeg Free Press used to run Doonesbury on the editorial page, so I didn't discover it until quite late either. It's still sharp as ever--and though it's not a political gag, today's comic is priceless. One of the great surprises of my adult life was how much I enjoy teaching, and don't get me wrong--I love my students. Except these ones:

For Better or For Worse
I won't go on about this one any more than I already have, except to say that Supert Teddy rules. Deal with it.

I miss the exquisite nostalgia of Mutts, and keep intending to read Opus online, which is where I sometimes catch Sylvia as well. I still enjoy Dilbert, though not as much as I once did.

These are, I suppose, my favorites. What are yours?


Matthew E said...

My favourites aren't that unusual - Dilbert, Foxtrot, some of the ones you mentioned - but you are in the right physical and temporal location for me to ask you about this one:

Furtree High. Remember it? Used to appear in the Ottawa Citizen? Drawn, I believe, by a local guy? I used to read it in the mid-'80s when I lived in Cornwall. My favourite strip was the one where the kids are talking about their science projects, and they ask the one kid who's kind of a burner what he's going to do.

"I'm going to turn this science classroom into a dog!"


He clicks off the lightswitch. "See? Now it's a black lab! BWAH-HAH-HA!"

It worked on so many levels, you see.

Jim Roeg said...

Hi matthew - it does! That's a great gag. Unfortunately, I'm a recent transplant and wasn't in Ottawa when Furtree High was running, so I've never seen it. Google turned up this follow-up tidbit though: it seems that the cartoonist is still working, albeit in a different vein.

ShellyS said...

I never was all that selective a comics reader. I loved the funny ones like Blondie, all the way to the serials like Steve Roper, Steve Canyon, Mark Trail, The Phantom, and a few others whose titles escape me.

We used to get 2 newspapers full of comics and I read most of them. The Long Island Daily Press was the full size type of paper the way the NY Times is and there were 2 full pages of comics. And we got the tabloid-sized Daily Mirror which had a lot of wonderful serial comics. When they folded, the Daily News picked up much of those comics, so we started getting that. My father appreciated comics -- he had a lot of cartoon collections from the '30s and '40s, and I own those books now. Nothing can quite beat a Charles Addams cartoon, except possibly Gary Larson.

I love most of the ones you mention. I enjoy Zits (nicely drawn and yes, funny) and Get Fuzzy (which is a bit subversive in its own odd, sweet way). And I'm a big fan of single panel comics like F Minus, the much missed Far Side, Close to Home, etc.

Jim Roeg said...

Shelly - I envy the comics selection you had at your disposal! My main source was the Winnipeg Free Press, which had many of the classic humor strips, but few serials. The most interesting-looking serials were published by the Winnipeg Tribune, a competing paper that my parents didn't buy and that had already gone out of business by the time I was a regular reader of the comics pages. The fantastic thing about "The Trib," as it was known, was that it published a Sunday comics colour supplement that was bound (stapled?) as a booklet. The booklets were highly collectible and were staples of doctor's and dentist's offices in Winnipeg. No doubt some collector has a nifty collection of these somewhere!

ShellyS said...

Yeah, I was lucky. These days, the pickings are a lot slimmer and we don't really have anything that really qualifies as a serial.

Those booklets sound very cool.

Anonymous said...

Ah-hmm. Well, now reading the Vancouver Province comics page is a lot like doing the Sudoku: forget laughing, you're just trying to figure out what the hell you're looking at. As for the Sun -- pffft, I barely remember the days when the Sun was worth a look for comics, you need a compass to find the comics in there now. And a magnifying glass. Sad. And remember when the Post first started up, and they had Carol Lay strips in there? And Mordecai Richler as a columnist. Those were the days...

Peanuts I'll read wherever I see it, of course. But currently on the Province page there's such a dearth of strips I even recognize as strips that I just gravitate to anything I can recognize as a strip, that has some element of humour or a punchline in it: Dilbert, Blondie, One Big Happy...I even look forward to Hagar now in that sense, and although B.C. had stopped being remotely comprehensible sometime in the early Nineties I'd even give it a look. Just trying my best not to accidentally scan Sherman's Lagoon or (shudder) Luann...

Well, but maybe that's just me.

As a kid I read most everything, and loved it all: even Fred Bassett (though I drew the line at Marmaduke). But those were in the days when Animal Crackers and The Wizard Of Id (and Beetle Bailey!) ruled the full-colour Sunday pages...and Andy Capp, of course. And Prince Valiant, although for some I guess peculiar reason I never cared for it much...I think if it'd been a book instead of a strip I would've liked it better. It was so slow! And, maybe, too realistic to fit my idea of what a strip should look like? Garfield was still a ways off (and when it finally arrived I took to hating it immediately), but before Davis' advent there was already (if I remember the order of events correctly) Herman and Shoe, and Doonesbury.

I miss Shoe. Never seen a Shoe collection in a bookstore, not once.

Sigh. What a terrific intimation of what I could expect from my own adult life it was.

In the Eighties, I found the blight of Garfield was ameliorated by the presence of The Far Side, and to a lesser extent Bizarro. But, that's also when readable strips first started slowly disappearing, so pretty soon it practically became Garfield, The Far Side, and nothing in between on that continuum. Comics popped in and out with some rapidity, as various New Brooms got applieded around the Province offices. One bright spot was Robotman, a local offering that I thought wasn't too bad at all -- I believe it's long since been rechristened Monty, and I very rarely see it these days. But the rest...ugh, the rest. So many homegrown comics that were absolutely third-rate, you don't know. I still can't understand it, I don't even remember their names, I don't know whose idea that was. But in and out they went through the Eighties, in and out and through, and I'm glad they're gone. Still, Luann? I'd bring back the worst of them if I could just get rid of Luann. But I can't remember their damn names...

Oh! Chubb And Chauncey, that was one. My God, what a groaner...

Then came Calvin, and that was much better. For some reason I tired of Bloom County after a little while, but I didn't tire of Calvin, so as long as it was around, I was good.

For a short time I also enjoyed Back Bench, in the Globe.

But I may be remembering all that out of sequence, because for about the last ten years I've been getting my major must-have comics fix from the Westender, neighbourhood paper from downtown Vancouver now sadly retooled as celebrity/real estate oriented gee-whizzery. Open the cover, and on a semi-regular basis there it was, in all its glory: Teen Jesus. I don't even know who did it, but I miss the hell out of it: the new Westender of course has no time for such subversive/unprofitable stuff, much less on the very first page. Meanwhile on the back page, past the escort ads, Ted Rall. This was a pretty decent match-up, and I liked it better than I'd liked most of the running strips in the venerable Georgia Straight weekly over about the fifteen years previous. What heresy! But it's all true, I swear.

Why can't we get some of the better American strips up here, though? I've often wondered about that. The States are overflowing with genius strips, and we're right next door, and yet most of 'em I've only learned about through The Comics Journal.

Somewhat scattered thoughts, but there they are.

Jim Roeg said...

plok - I remember Robotman! That was a pretty fun strip--I particularly liked the art, which looked almost like a Crumb comic at times. Everyone in the strip seemed to have been excreted from somewhere...but in a good way.

B.C. is an odd one. The heavy-handed Bible-study angle of that strip always irked me (even moreso when I read a lengthy interview with Hart), yet I've always kind of admired the strip's visual gags. I mean, it was basically THE metastrip of it's day, wasn't it? So many of its jokes basically hinged on violating cartooning conventions.

I totally agreee about Shoe. I had forgotten it because my local paper doesn't carry it, but that was a gorgeous strip--one to which Bloom County and its various derivatives would seem to owe a degree of inspiration. We need some Shoe collections!

Thanks for sharing--I love hearing about this kind of thing.

ShellyS said...

I read Shoe through one of the online comics services: Comic Alert! I read a couple of others that way that had been dropped from my newspaper: Pooch Cafe and Tina's Groove. The newspapers had added them, got me hooked on them, then dropped them. In the old days, I'd really hate that. Now I go looking online for them and hope I can get them via an rss feed. I have to go click on the links in my feed reader, but it's worth the extra clicks.

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks, Shelly--I've just added Shoe to my iGoogle page!

ShellyS said...

You're welcome, Jim. :)

David Golding said...

As a kid I was pretty all-consuming of the newspaper strips, though I guess I loved Garfield the most, as it's the one I managed to end up with a book of. I read Doonesebury, of course, it was a comic, but I didn't think it was funny. (It only got one strip in a weekend-only paper, which damaged its comprehensibility, but I don't think I would have got it, anyway.)

As teens, my first sister and I used to fight for the right to cut out Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I'm not sure what she did with hers, but mine accreted in decks of flimsy newsprint around my room.

At uni I got into Dilbert. Well, I am a programmer! But I liked it less once I actually started working in an office (though it is not unbearable, like, say, TV show The Office).

The form of strips transcends newspapers, of course, and there are many web comics I like, but Bruno by Chris Baldwin always evoked a particularly strong newspaper strip association.

But one of my most powerfully treasured comic strips (in memory only alas, having lost my cutting during a move many years ago) is from my uni student newspaper: Bob Doesn't Change The Lightbulb. This involves a light blowing, Bob getting up on a ladder to change it, and falling down and breaking his neck. This was followed by many great strips such as Bob Still Doesn't Change The Lightbulb, Bob Doesn't Feed The Dog, Bob Doesn't Water The Plant, Bob Doesn't Make His Furniture Repayments, etc...

Jim Roeg said...

david - thanks for adding your memories to the mix, and thanks especially for the reference to Bruno by Chris Baldwin--I've been reading his site all morning. Utterly charming.

Y'know, I once tried my hand at a newspaper strip with a buddy in the campus paper. It wasn't very good!