The Funnies Aren't Anymore

A two-week binge on daily comic strips bored this columnist to tears.

Not long ago, I was a zealous reader of daily newspaper comics, devouring at least a dozen strips per day, more when I had the time. But somewhere along the line, that number began to dwindle, with my enthusiasm waning each time favorites such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Bill Amend ("FoxTrot") and Aaron McGruder ("Boondocks") either quit, cut back or went on indefinite hiatus. Recently, I realized there isn't a single strip in the Denver Post that I bother to peruse anymore, and just two in the Rocky Mountain News: Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," which remains strong more than three decades down the line, and Darrin Bell's "Candorville." Moreover, others with whom I spoke seemed similarly dispirited about the current state of comics. The only strip that stirred much commentary was Tom Batiuk's "Funky Winkerbean," because of a wrenching story line starring Lisa Moore, a longtime character who's battling terminal breast cancer. Batiuk has confirmed that Lisa will die this fall.

To find out what else I've been missing, if anything, I read every comic in the Post and Rocky — more than sixty of them — each day for a two-week span, August 13 through 27. The project promised to be an entertaining one, but that pledge was soon broken. All but a relative handful were creatively slack, aggressively unoriginal and about as amusing as an attack of intestinal distress miles from the nearest restroom.

Of course, if I had watched each show on network television over a similar period, I probably would've come away just as depressed. Yet I was still shocked by the dearth of fresh ideas and the overflow of derivative ones. "The Far Side" blueprint — usually one-shot, single-panel gags in which absurd actions of animals and humans are treated in a deadpan way — is the most overused by a wide margin, with a stunning twelve comics qualifying as knockoffs to varying degrees. From my perspective, the best of the batch is Wiley Miller's "Non Sequitur" (in the Rocky), which most effectively channels the Larson style. In contrast, four other Rocky entries ("Speed Bump," "Brevity," "The Flying McCoys" and "Cornered") and seven in the Post ("Rhymes With Orange," "Natural Selection," "Loose Parts," "Close to Home," "Bizarro," "F Minus" and "Bound & Gagged") overwork the style like exercise junkies on meth.

Fred Harper

Other strips were clearly more than just inspired by specific ones that preceded them — although that doesn't mean they're lousy by default. It's hard to imagine Stephan Pastis's "Pearls Before Swine" in a world that hadn't first seen Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County," which ceased publication in 1989, but I found it to be one of the Post's better features anyway. The same can be said of Tony Cochran's "Agnes," also in the Post, which pivots on the sort of back-and-forth banter between kids that can be traced back to Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." Nevertheless, Cochran has a different enough voice to make Agnes stand on her own. Not so "Cow & Boy" and "Prickly City," which seldom step from the shadow cast by "Calvin and Hobbes."

Additional comics tend to fit into broad categories: bland domestic sitcoms-on-a-page ("Pajama Diaries," "Baby Blues"); the stereotypical hijinks of teens or young adults ("Luann," "Zits"); flaccid material aimed at readers who remember voting for Dwight Eisenhower ("Pluggers," "Pickles"); allegedly adorable animal tales ("Dog Eat Doug," "Little Dog Lost"); items featuring precocious kids, with lots of word-mispronunciation humor ("Jump Start" and "Heart of the City," by Mark Tatulli, whose other strip, "Lio," is more promising); character-driven serials such as "Funky Winkerbean," and so on.

That leaves longtimers, most of which should have been mothballed long ago. The routines in recent editions of "Garfield" were exactly the same as ones I rolled my eyes at twenty years ago. Apparently artist Jim Davis is still earning plenty of scratch from the strip, or the prospect of writing another panel about Garfield really liking Italian food would have driven him onto a skyscraper ledge long ago. And would anybody really complain if they opened up the paper and didn't see "Beetle Bailey" (ugh), "Marmaduke" (ick), "Blondie" (aargh) or "Hagar the Horrible" (egad)?

Turns out they would. Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple, who takes a large role in picking comics for his paper, notes that the paper established a comics hotline specifically for funny-pages gripes, and he confirms that it lights up frequently after tweaks major and minor. "Nothing generates more phone calls than moving or dropping comics," he says. "There have been comics we dropped, and we'd get hundreds of calls and have to restore them, even though I thought they were dogs." As a result, Temple is very cautious when it comes to axing evergreens, and he treads just as lightly in regard to trying out new stuff. He'll generally give a strip three to six months to find its feet, and if it doesn't, he'll cut it and then gird himself for a possible onslaught of ire.

In the case of "Diesel Sweeties," by Richard Stevens III, he believes he made the right choice. "We actually got complaints about how dumb the comic was, which is very unusual," he notes. "So we canceled it and nothing happened, which lets you know you haven't damaged the franchise with somebody. If you don't feel strongly enough to call me, it's unlikely you'll change your reading habits over it."

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