Thursday, March 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: Grading the funny pages

Before we delve into this Graphic Lit column, a bit of explanation is necessary.

It being a slow week a while back, my editors and I decided to do the big "comic strip critique blow-out" we had been talking about for awhile but had been holding back on in case we did a reader survey (as most newsp
apers do every so often).

Below is the column as it ran on 2/15. Reader response was huge. In fact, it was so big we decided to devote next week's column to it, which I'll post here tomorrow.

At the bottom of this post, you'll also find a little sidebar on five strips I'd like to see in the Patriot-News. My apologies if you find all this a bit too localized for your tastes. Also, my thanks to Tom Spurgeon for his help in picking the replacements and my apologies to Josh Fruhlinger for basically stealing his schtick.

For months now, my editor and I have been talking about doing a column in which I critique and letter-grade our comics pages.

Ideally, it was supposed to run whenever we do our next survey, but that might be awhile and I'm not getting any younger, so I figure today's the day.

There's not enough space here for me to critique every strip we run, so I tried to pick ones that either delighted or annoyed me. Or at least gave me something to talk about.

No doubt your own favorites differ. Feel free to e-mail me and let me know just how wrong I am. If we get enough responses, we'll do a follow-up column in the near future.

"Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau: For most of the '90s, "Doonesbury" was floundering, retaining little of the satiric bite it was initially known for. Recently though, it's undergone a superb renaissance. The strips about B.D. coming home from Iraq and dealing with the loss of his leg are some of the best comics I've read in recent memory. A+

"Pearls Before Swine" by Stephan Pastis: Despite the minimalist, almost sub-par art, this remains one of the snarkiest and funniest strips around. I'm a sucker for good dark humor though, so bear that in mind. A

"Mary Worth" by Karen Moy and Joe Giella: I love this strip, but in the same way I love bad sci-fi movies and that "punk rock" episode of "Quincy." So I give this a very ironic A.

"Baby Blues" by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott: I absolutely love this family-themed strip, even though it features one-half of the "Zits" team (see below). It feels true-to-life in a way that the other simply doesn't. Maybe that's just because my own kids are the same age. Perhaps in a few years, I'll really identify with "Zits." God, I hope not. A-

"For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston: There was a time when this was my favorite comic strip, bar none. Johnston's awkward old/new hybrid, her often forced sentimentality and her insistence on shacking Elizabeth up with (brrr) Anthony has dimmed the strip somewhat in my eyes, but I'll still give it a B+.

"Funky Winkerbean" by Tom Batiuk: I'm torn here. With the recent cancer story line, Batiuk is proven he can handle delicate story lines with grace and honesty. At times though, it seems like every other character is suffering from some horrible "TV-movie-of-the-week" malaise. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and a B.

"Mutts" by Patrick McDonnell: I'm not a pet person, which is probably why McDonnell's constant forays into cuteness grate on me. He's still a versatile and clever cartoonist though, so I'll give the strip a B.

"Jump Start" by Robb Armstrong: A likable, if unexceptional, family strip, notable for the fact that it brings the only bit of ethnicity to what is otherwise an overwhelmingly white funny page.

"Beetle Bailey" by Mort and Greg Walker: When Sarge and Beetle finally acknowledge their love for each other, I'll give the strip an A. For now, I'll settle for a C+

"Zits" by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman: You might think this is a strip for and about teenagers, but really it's a strip for and about the parents of teenagers. I say this because "Zits'"
teenagers live in some magical wonderland where they never have to deal with drugs, sex, social pressure or any of the other real things that actual teens deal with on a daily basis. Jim Borgman's wonderful art is the only reason I'm giving it a C-.

"Hi and Lois" by Brian and Greg Walker and Chance Browne: Zzzzzzz. Oh, I'm sorry, I was reading Hi and Lois and was lulled to sleep by its utter mediocrity. C-

"The Family Circus" by Bil & Jeff Keane: I find the entire Keane family, with their misshapen heads, mangled English and ability to see ghosts and dead grandpas, extremely disturbing. If providing readers with a subversive horror strip is the Keanes' secret agenda, then I'd give this an A. I suspect it's not, however, so I'm giving it a D+

"Garfield" by Jim Davis: I have this image of Jon's apartment being one long table with nothing on it. This isn't a comic strip. It's a marketing ploy. D

"The Fusco Brothers" by J.C. Duffy: I'm sorry, Mr. Duffy, but there's only room for one dadaesque, non sequitur strip, and that's "Zippy the Pinhead." You lose. F

"Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" by John Rose: Do hillbillies even exist any more? Haven't they faded into yesteryear along with the rotary phone and the Charleston? Why is this extremely unfunny strip still around apart from sheer inertia? F

"Marmaduke" by Brad Anderson: No. I'm sorry, but ... just no. F


Everyone complains, but few offer alternative solutions. It's with that in mind that I present this short list of five comic strips I'd like to see in our newspaper:

"Lio" by Mark Tatulli: A hilariously dark, wordless strip in the vein of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey about a little boy unperturbed by the supernatural elements that invade his neighborhood.

"Cul de Sac" by Richard Thompson: Possibly one of the best family-life, little-kid strips to come
down the pike in a dog's age.

"Pooch Cafe" by Paul Gilligan: As previously noted, I'm not much of a pet person, but this strip
makes me laugh.

"Brewster Rockit: Space Guy" by Tim Rickard: A rather funny parody of traditional sci-fi tropes. Think "Dilbert" in space.

"Zippy the Pinhead" by Bill Griffith: One of the (deliberately nonsensical) greats.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008



At 12:52 AM, Anonymous Andrew Davis said...

As a Mechanicsburg resident going to college in NY, I didn't find this too localized.
I think you hit it on the head with Marmaduke; that strip deserves to die. Basically everything you gave a C+ or lower I could do without, although the same goies for Baby Blues for me. Funky Winkerbean and For Better or for Worse are two of my favorites for their willingness to do unusual (and often very serious) things. As far as replacements go, I would love to see Get Fuzzy printed in the Patriot; I find the character interaction hilarious. Stone Soup is a fairly good cartoon that carries a strong female sense. The Sentinel carries it but I am disappointed to say the Patriot doesn't. Luann's another one I like, and although it's a teen sitcom, it's entertaining.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Marc said...

Chris, perhaps you'd enjoy Garfield more if Garfield wasn't in it.

Or maybe not.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger wanders said...

Chris, this article is great. Thanks for sharing your Mary Worth love with us! Shameless plug for Mary Worth and Me.

At 11:22 PM, Blogger hungrydog said...

Well done for sticking your neck out and giving me a laugh at the same time.

Alex Hallatt
Arctic Circle

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary Worth is the greatest!!!

MWDG... Mary Worth Discussion Group...Alpharetta GA

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your top and bottom choices (though I really enjoy Zits).

Get Fuzzy is the funniest strip on the planet right now. I read Luann every day, even though I'm a middle aged man. And the Sunday Opus strip makes me spit my cereal across the room. Berkeley Breathed is an amazing artist.

All of it pales next to the masters of the genre: Pogo and Calvin & Hobbes.


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