It's Funny, Reading the "Funnies" in a Newspaper in 2020
Wouldn't it be funny if Beetle Bailey spent his time describing his Harry Potter fanfiction to Sarge, or if Blondie's Dagwood spoke like an alienated Beckett character about godlessness and ennui while he assembled an overstuffed sandwich?
I really never intended to start reading the comics page of the Sunday newspaper again. As a kid, I always read the funnies, but when I was old enough to start getting a paper myself, it was the New York Times, which famously has no comics section. But then after Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016 I, like a lot of people, found that I was spending a lot more time reading online articles in various states of panic, anger, and horror, and also decided that the press deserved all the help it could get. So I got an online subscription to my local paper, the Washington Post.
It turns out that, in our particular historical moment, it's significantly cheaper to get an online subscription of the Washington Post if you also agree to let them deliver you a physical copy of the Sunday paper. So I did, and the Sunday paper arrived with all sorts of interesting and archaic items: things like advertising circulars, and Parade magazine—which I thought had disappeared quietly sometime during the Reagan administration—and of course the well-remembered, full-color, read-it-in-your-pajamas comics page, just like when I was in school.
Maybe a little bit too much like that, in fact. A solid third of the comic strips that are published today were already old when I was a kid. Who on earth is still excited to see Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey (inception date 1950)? Or Dennis the Menace (1951, originally authored by Hank Ketcham), Hagar the Horrible (1973, ibid, Dik Browne), Nancy (1938, ibid, Ernie Bushmiller), or, God help us, The Family Circus (1960, ibid, Bil Keane)? (The best description of The Family Circus appears in a lovely bit of dialogue from Doug Liman's 1999 film Go, by the way: "You sit down and read your paper, and you're enjoying your entire two-page comics spread, right? And then there's The Family-fucking-Circus, bottom right-hand corner, just waiting to suck.")
Of all these old-and-in-the-way strips, the oldest is Blondie, original author Chic Young, which began its run in 1930. Although I suppose I should applaud Blondie's longevity, there's really no excuse for this creaky vehicle for outdated gender roles to have hung around for so long.
It's not just Blondie that has overstayed its welcome; you would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of feminist consciousness anywhere on the Sunday comics page (with occasional exceptions like Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury—which, like literally 95% of the Sunday strips, is by a male cartoonist). Maybe this is due in part to the conventions of the mainstream comic strip, since a short graphic narrative ending with a gag is likely to depend on recognizable stereotypes; and as with stand-up comedy, the men-are-like-this-women-are-like-that joke seems to get a laugh every time. But I think the absence of feminist content is actually linked to the presence of all those old-timey strips.
The comics page, particularly the Sunday version, seems to want to create a space that's essentially domestic, essentially nostalgic, and predominantly for a white readership. The "funnies" pages of a newspaper is a sort of cozy living room furnished with fantasies of the American good old days, a place where men and women are dependably tied to traditional gender roles, where queer Americans basically don't exist, where Mom makes breakfast in an apron on Sunday morning while Dad takes a nap or mows the lawn and the funnies are spread out on the floor all day long.
While we're on the subject of the comics page's reliance on old franchises, there's another category of comics that deserves mention. We might call these the unfunnies: dramatic strips like Ed Dodds' Mark Trail (1946), Hal Foster's Prince Valiant (1937), Nicholas P. Dallis' Judge Parker (1952), and Stan Lee and Roy Thomas' The Amazing Spider-Man (1977). There are plenty of humor comics that have been added more recently, but as far as I can tell from my Sunday edition of the Washington Post, no new dramatic strips have been introduced in the last 40 years—and with good reason, as far as I'm concerned.
As a kid I skipped over the dramatic comics entirely—except for The Amazing Spider-Man, of course. I still find them dull, but I must admit that their persistence may bode well for the national character. Since reading a strip like Judge Parker is basically like watching a soap opera that runs a single five-minute episode per week, maybe the average American has a more impressive attention span and ability to defer gratification than anyone has given us credit for.
I assume that the front page of the Sunday funnies is valuable real estate, and therefore tells us something about which comics are most popular, or most valued by the editors. In the Washington Post, the three strips that are usually centered on the front page are a kind of trilogy devoted to the life cycle: Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott's Baby Blues (about parents of small children), Jerry Scott's Zits (about parents and their teenagers), and Brian Crane's Pickles (about retired couples). Maybe this, then, is what Americans most want to see in the Sunday funnies: a version of their everyday lives—past, present, and future—reflected back to them with a slight overlay of humor. (For the record, the art is more interesting in Zits, while the gentle comedy of Pickles is often genuinely funny; but Baby Blues is pretty generic stuff.)
Perhaps we learn something about the demographics of Sunday-funnies readers here, too, because what these three strips really serve up is the life cycle of the white suburban American, and this fascination with middle-class whiteness continues throughout the comics pages. Of the 40 or so strips contained in my paper, I count only two or three that consistently feature characters of color. One of these is Hector Cantú's Baldo, which is centered on a Latino family, but which is also so relentlessly cutesy that it's basically a Hallmark card in comic-strip form—or maybe I should say it's The Family Circus, with tacos.
It's not much of a surprise that the comics page is inherently conservative—that its jokes tend to have had their rough edges, and all other edges, sanded away. The comic strip form is generally perceived as the most anodyne form of artistic expression. It has never been seen as a menace or a corrupting influence on America's youth, as comic books sometimes have been. In the '50s, the era of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's fearmongering book Seduction of the Innocent and of the Comics Code, which proscribed the content of mainstream comics for over 50 years.
When comics strips have dipped a toe, however lightly, into the political world of daily events, they have been taken off the comics page entirely and relegated to the op-ed section. This practice has gone on for many decades, its victims ranging from Walt Kelly's Pogo to Doonesbury to Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, and it serves as one way of enforcing and ensuring the harmlessness of the comic strip form.
This desire to excise all political content from the funny papers is, I would suggest, a large part of the explanation for why there is so little racial diversity to be found. The logic of racial thinking dictates this, because white people in America have, historically, been thought of as having no racial identity. Race is a condition that only nonwhite people have, and to have this condition, to "have" race, is to be marked, visible. Specifically, one might say that to be black in America is to be marked as part of a political problem (the "race problem"), to be forced, without one's consent or desire, to represent that problem. So cartoonists and editors avoid representations of black and other nonwhite characters in comic strips, because that would automatically be political, controversial.
It was certainly taken to be political when Peanuts introduced a black character in 1968, although whatever Franklin's feelings about racial issues were, he kept them to himself. (If we needed any proof that the Sunday comics page is lacking for new blood and innovative ideas, remember that it still includes Peanuts reruns, even though Charles Schultz has been dead for 20 years.) On rare occasions, comic strips have embraced racial politics, as in The Boondocks, but this is still very much the exception to the rule.
The most racially diverse strip that runs in the Washington Post is Darrin Bell's Candorville, which is also one of the strips I truly look forward to reading each weekend. It has a multicultural cast of characters, but African Americans are front and center, and the engagement with current events is smart but also has a light touch. Whereas the brilliant The Boondocks had a razor-sharp sense of humor and wasn't afraid to make enemies (McGruder had a particular contempt for black conservatives), Candorville's mode is mild exasperation and a wry, sidelong look at American political foibles.
Then there are the "indie" strips, comics like Scott Hilburn's Argyle Sweater, Mark Tatulli's Liō, Tony Cochran's Agnes, Gene and Dan Weingarten's Barney & Clyde, Dave Blazek's Loose Parts, and Hilary B. Price's Rhymes with Orange that tend to be more crudely drawn and less professionally produced than the others. (Several of these comics run as single-panel gags.) In general, these strips have a nervy appeal; their content is often more self-consciously intellectual or more deliberately offbeat than the average strip, and the art feels more homemade, suggesting a more authentic or individual sensibility behind the scenes.
But for the most part these strips don't fulfill their indie promise. The multi-panel comics are mostly just like the other Sunday strips but with a bigger vocabulary, and the single-panel entries offer up endless attempts to tap into the oddball sensibility that Gary Larson mastered in The Far Side, and that no one else has managed since. The best of them—and also the most mainstream—is Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine, which is often clever and has a particular fondness for metafictional play and political allegory. It's a smart comic, although the strip's political stance is a centrist liberalism that can lean toward self-righteousness and often takes aim at easy targets like the polarization of American politics.
I should point out that there's anrobust tradition of underground "comix" that begins with the countercultural work produced by Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, Art Spiegelman, and many others during the glory days of Haight-Ashbury and the East Village. These '60s-era artists were often published in comic-book or zine form, but by the '80s there were a number of independent publications and college newspapers that ran comic strips by a new generation of dissidents in Reagan's America, like Ernie Pook's Comeek by Lynda Barry, Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, and Matt Groening's Life in Hell. Although they weren't gleefully smashing idols like their hippie predecessors—who had tended to embrace anti-authoritarianism, pornography, psychedelic drugs, and protest culture—the '80s underground waged its own sly and sophisticated war against the conservative turn of the era, turning away from Morning in America and heading for the shadows.
These days the truly indie spirit has, not surprisingly, gone online. There's a vast and various world of webcomics out there, and it would be difficult to sum up that world in a few examples. But it's worth noticing that the more popular webcomics tend to push the boundaries not in just their content, but also in their depiction of new formal and conceptual ideas. In particular, these strips embrace the postmodern tinkering common to most web creativity, abandoning the notion that a comic strip should actually be drawn, that it's the expression of an artist. (However unusual their drawing might be, Crumb, Spiegelman, Barry, and Bechdel are all talented artists and consummate stylists.)
From the stick figures of Randall Munroe's xkcd to the unchanging six panels of clip art that make up every installment of Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics to the brilliantly simple idea behind Dan Walsh's Garfield Minus Garfield, the webcomics borrow some of the avant-garde impulses of modernism and pop art to create a new kind of comic form. Even a strip like (the now sadly defunct) Hark! A Vagrant, although it's enlivened by Kate Beaton's droll artwork, is an example of remix culture, revisiting classics of literature and Edward Gorey paperback covers from a new and irreverent angle.
Which brings me to the last comic strip that I'd like to talk about. And honestly, if you had told me a few years ago that I would pick up the Sunday funnies and become fascinated by Sally Forth—well, you might as well have told me I would develop a keen interest in watching reruns of Full House. The strip was created by Greg Howard in 1982, and its central character is a working mother managing the competing demands of her job and her family. Then, as seems to happen often in the comic-strip world, Howard first started outsourcing the artwork to someone else, then stopped writing the strip, too, and it got passed along to another writer.
Usually this is a bad sign, an indication that the strip has become a brand rather than a creative work. As in Hollywood, familiarity seems to keep a comic-strip product alive indefinitely; pretty much all of the old-and-in-the-way strips I mentioned above are now done by different writers and different artists than the originator, and some have passed through many hands, but the franchise survives as a commodity. Over time such comic strips become more and more generic, but it's so long-lived that readers have got used to seeing it and it has become a tradition, a familiar face on a Sunday morning.
However, the current writer of Sally Forth, Francesco Marciuliano, has done something unusual with the strip. Instead of writing set-ups and punchlines, he tends to let the characters ramble and banter, sometimes giving extended monologues about their geeky pop-culture obsessions, often going off on new tangents even in the final panel, so that rather than wrapping up that week's story with a gag, we seem to have just dropped in on their ongoing conversation for a few minutes.
The art in Sally Forth has always been a bit flat—the bodies of the characters are stiff and their eyes and faces oddly expressionless. They look a bit like clip art, and this, when combined with the goofy and often directionless dialogue, gives the strip the energy of a webcomic, in which stick figures or paper cutouts converse eloquently. (The current writer of Nancy, the pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes, seems to want to do something similar with her strip, revitalizing an old comic by making it hip and meta. But no matter what you do with Nancy, it will still be Nancy.)
It's as if Marciuliano has devised his own pop-art project: take the flatness of the Sally Forth commodity and make it do things that it isn't supposed to do. I notice that he also handles the writing of Judge Parker, and I have been waiting—in vain so far—for the lifelessly realistic characters in that strip to start obsessing over the Evil Dead movies, or speaking in rhyming couplets. And why stop there? Wouldn't the comics page be much more lively if Beetle Bailey spent his time describing his Harry Potter fanfiction to Sarge, or if Dagwood spoke like an alienated Beckett character about godlessness and ennui while he assembled an overstuffed sandwich?
Well, I can dream. But deep down I suspect that the comics page will remain in its current state—mostly evoking a permanent, white, suburban fantasy out of the imagined American past and mostly purveying gags so familiar that they have long gone stale—forever. Or at least until print newspapers disappear. Which, come to think of it, will probably happen sooner rather than later, and so the comics page that the Washington Post is paying me to receive will no longer arrive each weekend. With all its faults, I'll miss it.
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