The Funnies Aren't Anymore

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.

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."

Temple acknowledges that it's been quite a while since a game-changing effort like "Far Side" or Scott Adams's "Dilbert" came along, and one possible reason for this lack of innovation could be the many opportunities for comic artists outside of newspapers. With the explosion of TV, film and online illustration and animation, and with editorial cartoonists getting the heave-ho for budgetary reasons at newspapers around the country, young talents may see no reason to devote themselves to what many view as a dying medium. Temple isn't so pessimistic; he points out that there's plenty of money to be made from iconic comic strips via product licensing, marketing tie-ins and more. But until the next blockbuster comes along, he's got to rely on old reliables, and one of them — Lynn Johnson's "For Better or For Worse" — is undergoing some changes. Johnson wants to have more free time, so on September 3, she began using a photo-book flashback device that will allow her to blend what a press release refers to as "old, new and retouched work."

There's no telling if such recycling will please or upset readers. "It's a risk," Temple concedes. "But we're going to stick with it for now, because it's been so popular."

Besides, what's the alternative? "Diesel Sweeties"?

NBA trade: Sportswriter Marc Spears, who's covered pro basketball for the Post since 1999, remains convinced that the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. But that didn't stop him from accepting the opportunity to join the Boston Globe as the head man on the Boston Celtics beat. His last day at the Post was September 4.

While the Globe is "one of the top three newspapers in America" according to Spears, the Celtics haven't been in the top three of anything other than futility of late — but that should change with their recent signings of all-stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. "They first contacted me a couple weeks before they got Garnett," he recalls. "After they got him, it got a lot more interesting. It would have to have been a special situation for me to leave the Post, and this was a special situation." Indeed, Spears praises Post editor Greg Moore and the broadsheet's past and present sports editors "for helping me grow there."

The only hint of something other than gratitude comes in response to a question about the columnist job at the Post once filled by Thomas George, who left to become managing editor at the NFL Network. Spears tried out for the position only to see it snatched up by Woody Paige, returning after moving east to work full-time for ESPN. When asked if failing to get this gig was a factor in his decision, Spears pauses a very long time before answering, "I really enjoyed working at the Denver Post."

Anyone who can't figure out the subtext of that remark should be benched.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts