Thursday, February 21, 2013

Comics

When I was six I could draw Popeye. The only time I was popular in my entire sixteen-year school career was in the first grade because I would draw Popeye on paper towels for everybody. Unfortunately, by high school that no longer worked. Still, cartooning became a big hobby. By the time I was ten I was drawing entire comic books. Forget that nobody read them. (It’s kinda like when I started this blog.)

When I became a teenager I thought seriously about cartooning as a profession. The idea of having my own comic strip was very intoxicating. I’d seen articles about Charles Shulz (creator of PEANUTS) and it seemed like a great life. You have this nice art studio at home with large picture windows looking out at lush gardens or the beach or the Alps (depending on which side of the house your office was situated). You send in your panels to a big syndicate and voila, your comic strip appears in 300 newspapers. You’re right there with HI & LOIS and LITTLE LULU. Hollywood eventually comes calling, an animated Christmas special follows, a series, and then the Holy Grail – action figures!

But, I thought, there’s a problem. I would have to come up with seven jokes. Every week. Like clockwork. Who could possibly perform under that kind of unimaginable pressure?

Later I became a Top 40 disc jockey where I had to come up with a new joke every three minutes for four hours, six days a week. For way less than the artist of BLONDIE makes.

From there I gravitated towards sitcom writing. Here I was expected to come up with thirty or forty jokes a day for ten months.

Recently I picked up the comic section of a major newspaper. It had been years since I scanned the funny pages. Without naming names, I was shocked by how bad they were, how painfully unfunny they were. And these are the current cream of the crop? Getting a national syndicate to pick up your comic strip is like winning the lottery only with worse odds. So you’d expect each strip would kick ass.

I read THE NEW YORKER every week and their one-panel cartoons are always funny and sharp. Their batting average is probably .900. But that’s what you’d expect. THE NEW YORKER has the pick of cartoonists. Why doesn’t the same high standard apply to the comic strip world?

Or is it me? Or is the level of humor designed strictly for kids? There are a few exceptions but for the most part I was disappointed.

And then it occurred to me, back when I was such a fan of comic strips were they any better? Was BEETLE BAILEY really funny? I thought THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was hilarious back then, too.

What do you think about comic strips? Do you have a favorite? Has the quality of a favorite gone downhill over time? Is it lame comic strips and not the internet that is killing the newspaper industry?

Comic books were different. I favored the action hero genre – Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Isis (you know – the classics). They didn’t have to be funny. I had MAD magazine for that.

But it seems to me daily comic strips could be better. Underground comics are. I know what you’re thinking – then why don’t I submit a comic strip? Are you kidding? That’s seven jokes a week.

108 comments:

David Whitham said...

It hasn't been the same since Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side left.

Matt said...

Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes.

But for me ever since I took an interest in politics the king is Doonesbury.

Though I haven't read any for years.

However, maybe you should try to write one as an exercise.

Just one a week, it would take the place of a blog post.

Bryan L said...

Of the current crop, Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine are the most funny (and they're hit or miss), but it's still a far cry from the heyday of Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County and Far Side, as others have already noted.

Doonesbury is often good, but it peaks during political campaigns and then sort of goes on autopilot until the next election.

Steven Wilson said...

Give this a look. This guy totally agrees with you and points out how unfunny they are daily: http://joshreads.com/

slgc said...

Close to Home still brings it on a regular basis.

Mark said...


As others have said, it hasn't been the same since Bloom County, Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side.

I was reading Alan Sepinwall's blog the other day for a review os an episode of "The Americans" (highly recommended by the way), and he had a great reference to an old Bloom County comic. It says a lot that I instantly remembered that strip from som many years ago.

http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/review-the-americans-the-clock-mission-impossible

"* If you're a man (or woman) of a certain age, you will be unable to hear the name of Caspar Weinberger without thinking of this "Bloom County" strip."

http://assets.theagitator.com/wp-content/uploads/casparii1zk.jpg



Jim Kubisch said...

Years ago I found that most of the strips I read were out of habit, or respect. Very few were actually funny. I knew of a few that were good, but my local paper did not carry them. So off to the internet I went.

There are a few sites that carry most of the available strips out there, and there are, to me, a handful that are creative, funny and some even well drawn. Bizarro, Mutts, Zits, Lio, Frazz, Pickles, F Minus, Monty, Speed Bump, Off The Mark, Bound and Gagged, Loose Parts and The Argyle Sweater are favorites.

I am also not a fan of republished classics, even those I hold in high regard, like Peanuts, For Better or Worse or even Calvin and Hobbes! I suppose it's a good chance for younger fans to see great work, but I'd prefer something I have not read, or do not remember. I have recently enjoyed reading Lil Abner, a strip I had not seen until it was 'republished'. I know it's hardly possible, but I'd love to see the classics that were long gone when I started reading. Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Smokey Stover, Toonerville Trolley, etc. I guess I'll have to settle for whatever I can find at my local library or those sites that feature scanned strips of some of these classics.

MVM said...

Bygone era - THE BEST: Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County
Best Today: Non Sequitur

MVM said...

BTW: If you've never read Academia Waltz it's Berkeley Breathed pre-Bloom County (published in the U-Texas student paper)

LouOCNY said...

Wilson beat me to it, The Comics Curmudgeon, is one of my daily stops. He - and his snarkers in the comments are particularly tough on the soap strips like Mary Worth, the so-called 'action' strips like the not-so-Amazing Spiderman; plus strips like Funky Winkerbean, and its cousin, Crankshaft.

Whats good out there now? MUTTS is cute... RETAIL is real good - it has a strong set of characters, and is dead on about life in the retail biz - from both sides of the counter, ZITS has real good sight gags. Of the so-called 'legacy strips, BLONDIE actually does a nice job of keeping it fairly up to date - Dagwood has a food page on FB,lots of good gags about the modern office, etc. For example, their Super Bowl Sunday strip was dead on, with Dagwood using laptops, pads, etc all through the house, so he would not miss a play while grabbing snacks, hitting the bathroom, etc.

benson said...

Think about it. How many folks still read comic strips? Paper versions of newspapers are virtually dead. And I'll be damned if I've ever seen a comic strip in an online version of a newspaper.

My son do read an online comic strip that seems to be pretty funny. It's with stick figures, but I can't remember the name.

As an adult, I always loved Far Side and the editorial cartoons in both Chicago papers, back in the day.

LouOCNY said...

One quote from Schulz that stuck with me, was to this effect:

"Being a comic strip artist means you are 'fairly' talented: You are a 'fairly good' artist - but if you were any better an artist, you would be painting portraits. You usually are a 'fairly good' joke writer - but if you were any better at it, you would be writing for Television. And you usually a 'fairly good' writer - but if you were a better writer, you would be writing books for a living."

The Curmudgeon said...

I agree with those who mentioned Zits and Pearls Before Swine. To this list let me add Brewster Rockit. A new strip, but a promising one, is Dustin.

I start every day with the comics and I, too, regularly read the Comics Curmudgeon (no relation). I don't always agree with Josh, but he's often amusing.

LouOCNY said...

Benson -

First of all, the only papers that are in real trouble are the big, bloated papers in huge metro area. Local papers are doing just fine, as the Internet tends to cover local issues and news still very poorly.

Tons of online editions of papers have a comics page of sorts. Milwaukee Journal...Seattle PI...Houston Chronicle...the Toronto Star all subscribe to King Features 'Comics Kingdom' service. plus sites like GoComics fill in with the non-KF strips.

MikeBo said...

Interesting that you bring this up, Ken. The Washington Post Internet edition has a full blown comics section with many of the old classics. Dick Tracy is the strip that conjures up one of my first childhood memories. The Tracy strip is now drawn by new artists who have restored it to its prime of life quality. Another one that has hung in over the years is Prince Valiant. The beancounters have reduced William Randolph Hearsts original concept of a full page color comic to near postage stamp size, but it still endures. Comics are alive and well on the internet.

Kathy said...

In 3rd grade I discovered Garfield and immediately bought all of the books, from inception-on. I found them a few years ago and reread the early ones. Garfield was really, really funny at first. Garfield now is atrociously bad; it makes me sad. Now in my parents' local paper there are two or three strips that are consistently funny and the rest are the level of current Garfield.

Mils Yobtaf said...

Like musicians, cartoonists have realized they don't really need an intermediary between them and their audience. The current generation of cartoonists are working online where they don't have editors breathing down their neck or standards folks taking giant red markers to their work. The humor can be overly specific at times, due to niche audiences, but there are some that are general audience. Some of the big boys include XKCD, The Oatmeal and Penny Arcade. All of these are full time jobs - Penny Arcade has spawned a full company that includes a bi-coastal video game conference rivaling E3 and a charity that brings in several million a year for children's hospitals. Here's a pretty good rundown, http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2012/12/the-20-best-webcomics-of-2012.html.

Phillip B said...

Always stop to read Doonesbury, Mutts and Dilbert (the local paper runs Dilbert in the business section.)

Find an occasion laugh in others -- but you do have wonder when some of the most successful practitioners of the form have simply walked away.

BTW, there isn't a stranger piece of American cultural debris than the humor of Bazooka Joe.

Ben Koch said...

Ken, the world of quality comics has moved to the internet. I highly recommend Least I Could Do by Lar deSouza.

Kirk said...

I agree with anyone who said that GET FUNNY is among the funniest of the current day comics. PEANUTS repeats (now in the year 1965, when Snoopy fighting the Red Baron debuted) are much funnier than anything else on the comics page these days. DOONESBURY is still good, though it probably helps if you agree with the politics. DILBERT makes me laugh still.

Ken, could it be that you found BEETLE BAILEY and all the rest so funny as a kid because you were attracted to the artwork rather than the actual punchline? I think that was the case with me and comic strips. Once I get used to the art, there's really no reason to read most strips any more. An average strip is funny, or at least interesting, the first five, possibly ten, years oh so, when new characters and situations are being introduced. Then everything kind of gets cast in stone. It's why Dagwood still argues with door-to-door salesmen.

Michael said...

It seems to me that the best comics or at least the ones that last aren't always a big joke but what Ken and David wrote on shows like MASH: character comedy. Hawkeye makes wisecracks but some of them wouldn't be funny from anybody else. In a lot of the comics, some of the lines aren't funny unless you know the character.

Roger Owen Green said...

The comics in the paper are getting smaller and smaller. Not worth reading them there anymore, especially on Sunday.

But the "funnies" aren't all that funny. I read Zits, Blondie, Pearls before Swine, Doonesbury and Luann.

Barry Traylor said...

I am a huge fan of Calvin and Hobbes and was very saddened when Bill Watterson decided to pack it in. There is a rather cute strip I recently discovered called Red and Rover about a little boy and his dog that I find rather funny. Other current favorites are Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee and Pickles about two retired people with a dog and a grandson by the name of Nelson. It is most likely my age but Pickles really makes me laugh.

Kirk said...

That's "Get Fuzzy"

MacGilroy said...

It's interesting to watch my teenagers read through the collections we have of Calvin & Hobbes, Zits, Fox Trot. They love them (even Dilbert, though I laugh on a whole different level with that one). A few years ago my oldest son was reading a Zits book in the car on some long trip, laughed out loud and said to himself, "this is my life." They sure know their audience.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm a huge Get Fuzzy fan. Author/artist Darby Conley grew up in my hometown, so there's a lot of humor and references sprinkled throughout the comic that only Knoxvillians would comprehend, so to me, all of that is like an added bonus.

Other than that, I love the satirical and somewhat edgy humor of the comic as well.

I've been collecting the treasury books since they started publishing them, though I believe I'm currently behind a book or two, so I'll have to pick up the pace.

PolyWogg said...

I think, like any medium, there needs to be more curation to tailor tastes to individuals. One of the reasons the old ones were "funnY" was because there was less curation to the lowest common denominator...some were even slightly edgy.

Now, most newspapers have comics as the last resort -- they need them to draw certain readers, but as readers literally die off, they become less and less relevant. In the interim, they go with the equivalent of bland sitcoms.

However, I really like gocomics. com in this regard -- hundreds of comics from traditional to new and edgy, you can subscribe to whichever ones you like, and ignore the rests. They all show up in my inbox every morning, curated to ones that I actually find consistently funny:

The Argyle Sweater
Bottomliners
Moderately Confused
Non Sequitur
Pearls Before Swine
Speed Bump
F Minus

are all decent slice of life ones (although PbS is just quirky). I found Jeff Stahler for editorial cartoons through this site, and he's awesome. More recently, I've discovered Beardo and Mike du Jour.

There's another two dozen I skim, but they are rarely "save-worthy" funny, just likable.

P.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Lulu and its bland humor nearly turned me into a enraged 13-year-old axe murderer.

PolyWogg said...

I also should have mentioned:

XKCD (stats humour, surprisingly good)

and

Piled Higher and Deeper (about PhD students).

P.

Brian Fies said...

This is a field I'm tangentially related to (I make comics, just not for newspapers, and know some of the players), and I'll give you as straight an answer as I can.

Cartoonists themselves always point out how their space has shrunk. Newsprint is expensive, newspapers are physically smaller, and editors want to cram more strips into the available real estate. Today's comics are half the size they were decades ago, and a Sunday comic that once had a half or full page to show off (Prince Valiant and Gasoline Alley were good at it) now has a tiny corner. Modern daily strips have a lot of talking-head gags because you can't draw a full figure that readers can see anymore, which really cuts into physical or slapstick bits.

The past few decades have also seen a move to editors and audiences valuing an author's authentic voice rather than their draftsmanship. Cartoonists once had to be at least competent artists, but now what they say is more important than how they say it--terrific, but it's allowed some pretty poor art.

In addition, the newspaper comics page is the last bastion of G-rated community standards. TV animation offers South Park, Family Guy, and all the Adult Swim stuff; none of that would fly in a newspaper ("The kiddies might see it!"). They're stuck in the 1950s while the world has moved on, much to the frustration of cartoonists who want to be edgier but are handcuffed. The last thing a newspaper editor wants is a complaint about a comic strip, which most of them don't even read.

And, as some have already commented, newspaper syndication isn't the only or even best game in town anymore. The rates newspapers pay syndicates for comics haven't risen since the '70s and cartoonists--who are paid per paper at a time when papers are closing--don't get rich anymore. There'll never be another Schulz. Meanwhile, the Internet beckons: no gatekeepers, total editorial freedom, and a potential audience of billions. Readers have a much bigger job sorting wheat from chaff, but a few cartoonists are doing very well there.

iain said...

As others have mentioned, Mutts, Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Frazz & Zits are all high quality comics. The Pajama Diaries & even Jump Street are a good & more family oriented strips. Beetle Bailey is just pathetic. You would think with 3 generations of the Walker family working on it, they could at least appear to give a damn, but as the Comics Curmudgeon points out far too often, the strip most often consists of re-runs, recycled jokes & cut & pastes which often put the wrong character in the wrong scene.

& Mary Worth just meddles, but in a very entertaining way.

Jeffrey Mark said...

A cartoon strip that was once very socially relevant, insightful - and funny (to this reader anyway) back in the mid-late '80s/early '90s was ZIPPY THE PINHEAD. I found the social commentary of the times back then to be dead-on perfect. (ie...making fun of the dreaded Yuppies.) Kind of lost interest along the way and haven't read Zippy in many years now, but at one time a day just wouldn't be a day without ol' Zip.

Johnny Walker said...

PEANUTS still holds up today. It's bittersweet take on things can still be touching. THE FAR SIDE seems to have dated badly now. Where it once blew my mind, it doesn't seem as revolutionary (or as funny) as it did back in the 90s.

As others have said, CALVIN AND HOBBES is the one strip that was close to being a work of art. Genuinely funny, very smart, and actually touching. I still go back and read them. (Appreciation for Calvin and Hobbes is a good personality test for me - if you can't appreciate it, it's likely we'll not get along.)

Whenever I do read the "funnies" today I'm usually disappointed. Often they go for the most obvious, and frequently cynical, humor.

Calvin and Hobbes quality strips must come along once in a generation.

Tiny Tim said...

This is all anyone needs to know about the incredible shrinking comics page:

http://media.ideaanddesignworks.com/library_ameri_comics/covers/essentials/Gumps.JPG

tb said...

One Calvin I always remember:
He's leaning against a tree looking tough. Hobbes comes up, "what are you doing?"
Cavin: "Being cool"
Hobbes: "You just look bored to me"
Calvin: "The world bores you when you're cool"

vicernie said...

enough has already been said about the contemporary "classics" like Calvin & Hobbs but I remember those from the 50s. Pogo even took on Senator McCarthy at the height of his power and Lil Abner even begat a new holiday - Saidie Hawkins Day - even here in Canada. and they did this with wit and charm.

mp said...

I can't believe no one mentioned "Cul de Sac" by Richard Thompson. Brilliant in its capturing of the world through the eyes of kids, original (Thompson's 10-year-old alter ego, Petey, is unique on the comics pages), and tragically cut short by Thompson's battle with Parkinson's. gocomics.com still reprints it as a daily.

Brule Eagan said...

The only comic strip that's worth my time is "Baldo". That strip is as all-American as hell. Other than that, I enjoy the reruns of "Peanuts" and "Calvin and Hobbes". Calvin, by the way, was exactly me when I was six.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'd agree with those who say that the cream of the new generation are on the Web - cartoonists discovered the Web earlier than most other artists and reaped the rewards.

In addition, the corporate business model means that local papers aren't local any more, and I suspect it's now very hard for anyone to get started the way they did in the old days by selling to their local paper and then getting picked up by other papers.

wg

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! I just came back to post about web comics, but I see Wendy (and others) beat me to it.

One I'm particularly enjoying at the moment is THE ADVENTURE'S OF MRS. JESUS, but friend of the blog, Dan O'Shannon.

Johnny Walker said...

* but = by

Mark Fearing said...

I've written about this issue a few times... With newspapers struggling the syndicates are more and more defensive in their offerings making 'safe', conservative choices for new material. Not an attitude that allows comedy to thrive. And papers have this history thing working against them. They keep running the same strips...sometimes for 80 years! Nothing stays fresh after 300 gags a year for 80 years. So as an art form strips don't attract the talent they used to. There are a lot of other choices for young people interested in writing and drawing now. And as you mention, not many people even look at the comics pages anymore.

victor velasco said...

It's basically Doonesbury then everything else. Pearls Before Swine can be hilarious but whiffs badly at times. The 21st century Blondie is as crazy as any given Popular Mechanics illustration depicting a 1950's nuclear family cruising around in a flying saucer ...the sickest strip of the bunch is Sally Forth, with the splay-finger hands across the chest, expanding and contracting coffee cups held at angles sure to spill, and the most gender confused bizarre speaking family that apparently exists to ...uh, I think I'm revealing too much...The art work was better in the past; I used to dig Steve Roper & Mike Nomad, Beetle Bailey, Steve Canyon,The Phantom, the eternally old-fashioned world of Gasoline Alley, Barney Google, Featuring Snuffy Smith (Snuffy deserved top billing) Buz Sawyer with Roscoe Sweeney - weird - even Little Iodine, oh, and the perfect human mannequins of The Heart Of Juliet Jones.

Thanks for your work, Ken

Carolyn said...

I agree with MVM -- Non Sequitur. http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/

RCP said...

I'll have to check out comics on the Internet, but I agree that many of the conventional newspaper comics are unfunny - which is why I lost interest in reading them a while ago.

Some favorites: The Far Side (I immediately think of the one featuring a giant fly driving a car with a 'Maggot on Board' sign on the rear window). Shoe and Broom-Hilda ran some gems. Doonesbury is an old fave. When I was a kid I liked Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr. Apt. 3-G and Mary Worth made my eyes glaze over.

It would be a treat if you posted your own on this blog when the mood strikes!

David Kruh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julia Littleton said...

"* If you're a man (or woman) of a certain age, you will be unable to hear the name of Caspar Weinberger without thinking of this 'Bloom County' strip."

So true. I don't like how it identifies me as being "of a certain age," but I will never the association of Caspar Weinberger with Opus' toes. Absolutely brilliant.

Julia Littleton said...

... I will never forget, that is.

Anonymous said...

On the web--The Oatmeal

DBenson said...

In recent years there have been nifty reprint volumes of several classic strips, with generously scaled art and what we might as well call Bonus Features (including footnotes for the period references). A few recommendations:

POGO: Two volumes thus far. Beautiful artwork, and it's still funny.
POPEYE: Six volumes, ending with Segar's death. Often wild and eccentric; not the wimpish animated version.
MARY PERKINS ON STAGE: A semi-soap from the Mad Men era, slick in the best possible way.
WALT AND SKEEZIX: Better known as "Gasoline Alley." Begins in 1920 when a bachelor finds a baby on his doorstep; laid-back and amusing with soapy interludes. Strangely addictive.
TERRY AND THE PIRATES: Everything Hollywood movies tried to be.
PRINCE VALIANT: Gorgeous artwork and epic stories from the days when it filled a whole darn newspaper page. The current Valiant is much reduced in size, but still an oasis of impressive art and solid writing.
MICKEY MOUSE: The first volume is mainly historical interest, but it evolves into a surprisingly entertaining comic adventure. The mouse takes out pirate airships, crime syndicates and mad scientists.
KING AROO: A forgotten classic, about a silly fairy-tale monarch and his animal buddies. A little like Pogo, but less satiric and with its own charm.

Breadbaker said...

It's just a weekly, but Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling is as good as anything I've ever read.

http://boingboing.net/2013/02/20/tom-the-dancing-bug-and-w.html

little floaty cloud said...

The great comics are now on the Internet. You should ask for suggestions from readers - you'll be blown away by the astounding stuff out there!



LouOCNY said...

DBenson - Popeye only got 'wimpish', after Paramount forced the Fleishers in bankrupcy, and took over the studio. Prior to that, Popeye was an amazing cartoon series.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Not your imagination. When newspapers demanded comics be shrunk to adapt to the smaller size of the paper itself, the demand for detail went out the window. That's why you see so many one-dimensional characters and less careful writing. Garry Trudeau used to make demands that newspapers publish Doonesbury in its original size or they couldn't carry it. That's how it ended up on other pages in the paper if they couldn't fit it on the normal comics page. That demand has gone the wayside since newspaper space is now at a premium (along with newspapers themselves - less competition meant Trudeau usually has no other place to go).

All the talent is in the long form graphic novels now, and a lot of those are pretty spectacular.

(Gotta send some of my cartoonist pals over here.)

DwWashburn said...

I don't think comic strips ever gave me consistent belly laughs anymore than the "jokes" by disc jockeys ever gave me consistent laughs. But some strips from my bygone era (I'm 60) and the present are comfortable and occasionally provide a good chuckle.

Right now the best two strips are Arlo and Janis, and One Big Happy. Probably the saddest strip is Mallard Filmore. My favorite used to be Mother Goose and Grimm but it seems to have lost its way. And I still read Garfield, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Peanuts, and the Phantom mainly out of habit.

Tudor Queen said...

I read, with pleasure, several comic strips, most of which have been cited by other commenters.

However, I also love a strip that is generally condemned and attacked by everyone - Buckles, about the adventures of a rather articulate and mischievous house dog. Buckles reminds me of my own dog (if Banjo could talk like that) and nearly every strip makes me smile.

Loosehead said...

D'you know, I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud at a comic strip. Dibert often hits the mark, as I work in that environment, and I remember The Far Side being moderately amusing occasionally, but no more. And they are the good ones, whatever that means.

LouOCNY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cap'n Bob said...

I'm amazed and dismayed that so many people consider Pearls Before Swine a good strip. I hate it. Bad art, bad jokes, bad strip. I don't like Zits, either. Most of the others in our lame newspaper are okay, and a few are very good: Pickles, Blondie, Dilbert, F Minus, Luanne, and Bizarro. I once had 100 Sunday comic sections from 1935-1938. There were some stunning pages of art and great continuities--Prince Valient, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Blondie, and other adventure or comic strips. Those were the days, even if I hadn't been born yet to enjoy them.

Pat Reeder said...

I used to read a lot of comic strips. Now, I'm down to "Pearls Before Swine" and "F Minus."

A large part of the awfulness of the newspaper page is due to the syndicators' lack of taste and intelligence. I have an inside view of that. About 15 years ago, my wife was doing a local strip that everyone liked, featuring characters inspired by our pet parrots. It combined a cute drawing style with intelligent, genuinely funny writing (it was set in a rain forest and sometimes had ecological themes). She tried to syndicate it and got as far as being one of three finalists with King Features.

We were told by the then-head of the syndicate (since gone) that they had only one slot open and had decided to go with one of the other strips because what readers wanted was family-oriented comics. Nobody wanted cute, simply-drawn animal characters saying smart, sarcastic things. Never mind that the most popular strip at the time was Dilbert (featuring Dogbert), and since then, the most popular ones have been strips like "Pearls Before Swine," featuring cute, simply-drawn animal characters saying smart, sarcastic things.

Naturally, we were very curious about the strip they chose that was better than my wife's and sure to be a hit. The Dallas Morning News picked it up and we made a point of reading it every day. It was truly awful. Not funny or original in any way. BTW, that's not sour grapes: the paper dropped it after two months, and it was gone completely shortly thereafter.

See? Writing a comic strip is a lot like writing for TV: you still have to deal with notes from suits who don't have the slightest clue what they're talking about.

Pat Reeder said...

PS - I read the Comics Curmudgeon every day, too. I also recommend Chris Sims' monthly roundup of the "10 Most Depressing Funky Winkerbean Comics" of the month. Here's the latest, but the archives go back for years:

http://www.comicsalliance.com/2013/01/31/funkywatch-januarys-most-depressing-funky-winkerbean-crankshaft/

LouOCNY said...

DwWashburn - Comics arent SUPPOSED to give you a big 'belly laugh' - the good ones should give you a mil chuckle. The strips that go for that belly laugh 'consistantly' are the ones that burn out an crash very quickly. The good ones are th eones that literally worm their way into you consciousness, as you get used to their little tricks and traditions.

I highly, for instance, suggest trying RETAIL for a month or so - even going back in KF's archives as far as you can. It is a very high quality, underrated strip. great characters, in a setting where everyone's roles are defined. Will it make you guffaw? sometimes, but it always works though its little arcs with humor. In fact, RETAIL, without much adjusting, would make a terrific one camera sitcom on TV.

Chris Muir said...

My inner curmudgeon wants to post something like "it's all been downhill since Pogo." but in reality there have been a few greats since then.

Of the current crop, I like Lio and Doonsbury the best.

And on the web, xkcd and Sunday Morning Breakfast Cerial are good.

Danny said...

Geez, Ken, forget that "comedy writing" crap, you want to get people talking, discuss comic strips.

This does not surprise me. My father was a newspaperman, and he always said that people who couldn't be motivated to comment on anything else the paper did would let you hear it loud and clear if you messed with their favorite comic strip.

And they all are somebody's favorite. Personally, it is difficult for me to believe that there are people out there who look forward to antique geezer strips like "Beetle Bailey," "Hi and Lois," "Snuffy Smith," "Dennis the Menace" and "Nancy." But I know there are.

My favorites include "Pearls Before Swine," "Get Fuzzy," "Doonesbury," "Dilbert," "Mutts" and "Retail." I also like to read the reprints of "Peanuts," "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Cul de Sac."

I've tried to get into "Bloom County" but just can't manage it. Maybe it helped to have lived through that era.

I used to read Comics Curmudgeon but fell out of the habit of doing so. That kind of snarkiness can be funny in short doses but to me, a steady diet of it gets repetitious. Snarkiness is a limited art form.

Dana Gabbard said...

There are a few bright spots in the dismal landscape (many mentioned here -- I like 9 Chickweed Lane). Thankfully for the past 10+ years there has been a boom in reprinting classic strips -- the products of IDW, Fantagraphics etc. are the best way these days to slack a thirst for great comic strips.

The newspaper industry hasn't cared about strips (which in the day of Pulitzer and Hearst were circulation builders) for decades as evidenced by the tiny size they have been relagated to. And so talented folks migrate elsewhere -- writing sitcoms, drawing comic books, etc. -- where they can make a living and be creatively fulfilled. And of course this just contributes to the lackluster nature of the current crop of newspapers which are spiraling ever downward...

Andy said...

I was suprised no one mentioned BIZARRO. Dan Piraro, a brilliant artist, has been its mastermind for over a quarter of a century, and it stands head over heels above most of them. (Okay, I've written several hundred panels over the last several years, but even before then, it was brilliant. : )) Another good one is RHYMES WITH ORANGE, by Hilary Price. (Okay, I've written several dozen for her too.) Got my first in the New Yorker this past year. And I come out of TV.

Ref said...

There's an occasionally surreal aspect to OVERBOARD that I find endearing.

Traci said...

Definitely time to check out webcomics. If you want to check out some that are similar to standard newspaper comics, try http://www.sheldoncomics.com/ or read through the archive of http://littledee.net/. For something a bit edgier but still similar in format, try http://www.sinfest.net/index.php. Or get all geeky and try something like http://www.schlockmercenary.com/ (xkcd has already been mentioned). I also love http://www.viruscomix.com/subnormality.html, which is the kind of comic you could NEVER find in a newspaper.

Ron said...

Not much to add. I agree with those that mention Pearls it is great at times but when it misses it sometimes misses big. The Peanuts classics are still great, Get Fuzzy is solid and Pickels is good but more because I relate to the old man (and I am only 35).

Greg VA said...

I decided to publish my own because I don't find much pleasure from the funny(strange -not "ha ha") pages anymore. Now, mind you, mine aren't funny either, but they entertain my 9-year-old audience of one - and that's enough for me. http://littleguycomix.blogspot.com/

Wayne said...

When I think of funny comic strips, B.C. was a long time ago.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Ken,
I know you're a fan of Jane Espenson (as am I), so I wondered if you'd seen this (linked from Whedonesque):

http://showusyourspecs.blogspot.com/2013/02/jane-espenson.html

It's her 1994 FRAISIER spec. Had you ever heard of this?

ScottyB said...

Don McLean's 'American Pie' might as well be about the day 'Calvin & Hobbes' went away and the daily comics died.

Roger R. said...

Always liked B.C. until Johnny Hart became born again.

Pliny The Elder said...

Calvin & Hobbes is the best comic strip ever, but I urge people to take a look at the following:

imho, the best long form "comic" right now is Aaron Diaz's Dresden Codak (dresdencodak.com)

The best "grown-up" comic strip is Alex, which runs in The Daily Telegraph (http://alexcartoon.com/), and the best "arty" comic strip: xkcd (xkcd.com)

Bill said...

Syndicated newspaper comic strips have got to be tough to get into. Some of those strips have been running for 20+ years, and there's only so much space, so as long as they keep churning out Hagar the Horrible, that's one more slot you don't have a chance at. And newspapers aren't exactly a growth business, so you run the risk of being fired any day. Plus you have to somehow get someone to agree to syndicate you, deal with editorial oversight, and content restriction.

Creating a webcomic just requires to to make the comic, put it up online, and hustle a little to get the word out. If it's good enough and you get it in front of the right eyes, it will take off. Lots of people make their living at it. They sell ads on their website, sell merchandise, and books collecting the strips. You have no content restrictions, because it's the internet.

So it's not surprising that the current generation of cartoonists are not really aiming for newspapers.

Cap'n Bob said...

Several people did mention Bizarro, Andy.

Storm said...

My best friend and occasional housemate of nearly 30 used to take the Sunday comic pages and re-write new dialogue over the word balloons, usually either inappropriate sexual remarks (of which his is a Certified Master) or just comments on how bad they suck and they know it. His favourite targets were Garfield (wow, I can't believe how funny I thought it was when I was a kid. YEESH) and The Family Circus, where small children often asked "Who is reading this shit, much less laughing at it, really?" He'd leave it where I was sure to find it, by the coffee maker, so he could have the extra fun of seeing/hearing me do Danny Thomas-style spit-takes as I read them. He is going to Hell, and we have accepted this as fact, and moved on with our lives.

My personal favourite that's still in print is "Bizarro", because even his worst stuff (which is rare) still gets me to chuckle. And as a Pug-lover, I'm terribly fond of the strip "Sheldon", because he has a Pug named Oso that is dumb enough to make Odie look like one of those fancy police snifferdogs. All the best Oso the Pug moments (and there are MANY) are collected in a book called "Pugs: God's Little Weirdos"; someone gave it to me as a gift, and I hadn't laughed that hard at a strip compilation book since the last "Calvin and Hobbes" comp. I don't know if it's still funny if you don't love Pugs, so YMMV if you don't, you sad, sad example of humanity.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Mark Patterson said...

The guy who created Peanuts did one thing, and he did it really well.

His name was Charles Monroe Schulz. The last name is spelled with a "C".

Words are your trade. Please correct this.

My favorite strip was Odd Bodkins by Dan O'Neill. It stayed outrageous up to the day it ended.

Barry Traylor said...

Many thanks Tudor Queen for reminding about Buckles. My local paper used to carry it and then I forgot to look for it on the web.
Additional thoughts about comic strips. I always read them last when reading the paper as I need some humor after reading the news section. Also if the art on a strip does not appeal to me I have a tough time warming up to it no matter how clever the jokes are.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

btw, one often brilliant strip that most people here won't know runs in the Telegraph (I think). It's called Alex, and follows the doings of a pair of mid-level financial services guys/bankers. It's probably been running at least 20 years now. Originally started in The Independent newspaper, I think, and then moved.

It's at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/alex/

wg

Daddy Background said...

No one? No one mentioned "Sherman's Lagoon"?

My early morning arrive-to-work ritual includes (this blog and) reading the daily comics from four strips, two of which have ended their run. To no one's surprise they are "Peanuts" and "Calvin and Hobbes". The other two are "Sherman's Lagoon" and "Dilbert".

estiv said...

As victor velasco noted, artwork quality has also declined, and while artwork in a comic strip is rarely the biggest factor, it definitely matters, especially in the "realistic" strips. A few years ago I looked at an Apartment 3-G (Mary Worth's poorer cousin) and was shocked at how lousy the art was. I decided that this was another example of childhood making things rosy, that it had always been bad but I'd just been oblivious at the time. Then I came across an old panel somewhere, and the artwork was excellent, like early sixties Ditko. It's probably just another example of the economics of the situation: they no longer pay for someone who can actually draw well, they just hire someone passable who's cheap.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Were comic strips funny back then? Well, there was a period between 1958 and 1962 when a lot of them really were. I have a blog devoted to comics and strips of the 50's (www.allthingsger.blogspot.com). I show a lot of crap, but there is good stuff as well. For some reason Mort Walker and his writer Jerry Dumas were at the peak of their abillity in those years. Beetle Baily was hilarious, HI and Lois was as funny as The Dick Van Dyke Show four years before it even aired! And, like the DVD Show it was about work and home (before they became the bland happy family strip we now all know). For funny sarcasm, look no further than B.C. On my blog I have many samples of the best years of those three. For some reason slapstick, violent and sarcastic humor worked better in the newspapers than anywhere else.

Ger Apeldoorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ger Apeldoorn said...

And of course, if you know Dutch, there is S1ngle - a very funny strip about three girls who would never have been friends if they didn't work at the same hospital - which I turne into a Dutch tv series a couple of years ago: http://www.s1ngle.nl/

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Now without typos!

Oh and if you are looking for a funny current strip: Diamond Lil by Brett Koth is often laugh out loud funny. http://lilcomics.blogspot.com

Ooga Chaka said...

To all the people who say "The funnies aren't funny." That's as foolish as saying "The comic books aren't comical."

McAlvie said...

There are some good strips; but yeah, there are a lot of awful ones, too. Strips that are so badly drawn that they look like a six year old finger painting. As for humor, one thing the funnies used to do really well is turn the spotlight on everyday stuff and show the funny side. Today, well I guess it's a lot like the dearth of real humor in sitcoms. I'm often reminded of the kids in my 8th grade Spanish class. What was funny in a 13yo is just sad in a grown up.

Jim Kubisch said...

To Ger Apeldoorn:

I have frequented your site and appreciate all that you post. Not all are my cup of tea, but it's great to see such an incredible display of strips posted for all to see.

Thank you for the effort!

Jim

Greg Morrow said...

We are in the second Golden Age of comic strips. It's just that they're not in the newspaper, they're online. There is vast variety (in style, content, form, quality) in webcomics, and the best stand with the best from newspaper comics.

chuckcd said...

Bloom County and Calvin And Hobbes were my favorites.
The Far Side was good too.
Why didn't Bill The Cat get a Holiday special?

The Comic Scholar said...

I grew up learning to read from comics like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes. When I was a little older started reading the Far Side and Bloom County. I have entire book shelves devoted to comic strip collections. Today, I only read Doonesbury and Dilbert regularly, everything else is hit or miss. I read mostly of webcomics because they're consistently funny. Cyanide and Happiness, All New Issues, The Order of the Stick, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Channelate, the list goes on.

Anonymous said...

I agree about Pearls Before Swine, Doonesbury& Mutts; I read them every day. Also, Red and Rover.

But my 2 favorites are available on Comics.com, 9 Chickweed Lane and Pibgorn. They're not available in the NYC papers and have very smart, sexy (not lewd) content. Great graphic art!

I have been collecting the On Stage reprints and enjoying them so much. Again, wonderful artwork and intelligent story lines.

Fran in NYC

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, I was totally wrong about the Far Side. I jstarted reading a collection and it's still brilliant. It's hit and miss, sure, but when it hits, it's sublime. I guess I'd just seen odd episodes that hadn't struck a chord with me over the past few years. How great to see that it still holds up after all!

Steve said...

Sherman's Lagoon, which you can find online, is always good for a chuckle.

cityslkrz said...

Doonesbury is still great. Nothing today compares to Bloom Bounty, or Calvin & Hobbes. They're AWFUL! Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one disappointed

Joseph Scarbrough said...

If we're going to talk about webcomics as well, my problem with webcomics is that there's no room for originality on the internet as far as comics go... the more original the work is, the more it suffers. When it comes webcomics, there's three different categories that your comics have to fall into for them to be successful or even worthy of people's time: manga-inspired, stolen video game sprites, or LGBT. If you do something different from those three categories, then people don't care. Some of my favorites are IDGet, Rebusquest, X.O. Seal, Skelroy and Bonus, Jaques! (which just recently ended for no reason after 50+ comics): all of which are completely original, and all of which also have incredibly small and miniscule followings. Similarly, my first major webcomic in years I did last year, Vampire Girl, I couldn't get anybody outside my circle of friends to read it... so yeah, webcomics, good webcomics are hard to find.

DwWashburn said...

LouOCNY, sorry. I didn't know that your interpretation of what comic strips are was the only interpretation. Thanks for telling my that my opinion means nothing.

Anonymous said...

There are tens of great syndicated comics relegated to "never heard of it" because newspapers are the worst buyers of content. They don't understand funny and they stick to the status quo in fear of losing readers.

Also keep in mind New Yorker cartoons speak to a very small audience and would not work in mainstream daily newspaper. I happen to find NYer cartoons sometimes clever but rarely funny. And usually worthy of pause then a page turn with no memory of it 5 minutes later.

I would suggest the following:

Ink Pen
Thatababy
Zits
Baby Blues
Tom the Dancing Bug
The Argyle Sweater (the best of the Larson derivatives)
Doonesbury
NonSequitur
Dilbert
Scary Gary
Candorville
Big Top
Lucky Cow
Incidental Comics
Bad Reporter
Tom the Dancing Bug
Cul De Sac
Frazz
Rip Haywire
Basic Instructions
Matt Bors
F-Minus
Real Life Adventures
Brevity


Anonymous said...

I forgot Pearls Before Swine

Billy O said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Glynn said...

Hey Ken, I work in the industry and I'd turn the focus back on your world. For every great show I watch there are many, many I don't like and cannot believe people are being paid to write on.

I'd also argue that you're either not reading the right comics, or your paper has a bad selection.

I'd also challenge you to try it. 100 words, no laugh track, no Kelsey Grammar or actor inflection, no dramatic pauses, and unless you're a panel comic you have to include continuity from the previous strip if it's a storyline.

During the Hollywood writer's strike a few years ago, we received a bunch of submissions from Hollywood writers who'd said they'd always wanted to be cartoonist but never had the time. Many with sledgehammer resumes. Maybe not comparable to yours, but very, very close.

I was the first read/submissions editor and I dropped two best on my boss's desk.

My boss, the venerable Lee Salem, is famously cryptic in his feedback. His notes on both submissions?

"not as easy at it looks."

Best

John Glynn
Universal Uclick
jglynn@amuniversal.com

Brian Smith said...

I've worked for a newspaper for almost 12 years, and in that time, we've only replaced three strips. The first two were because the daily strips were retired ("That's Jake," "Fox Trot"). The third was because the editor thought it would be a good idea.

At the beginning of this year, he replaced "Shoe" with "Pearls Before Swine." Reader outcry was great enough that "Shoe" was brought back, and the editor went public with his decision-making process. Turned out, he only knew "Pearls" by reputation, and not because he was a fan:

"It's very odd. Dolphins eating alligators. Strange pigs saying and doing strange things. A goat, a rat. I just don't get it, and, apparently, neither do many of our readers."

(My cousin compared starting to read "Pearls" on Tuesday, Jan. 1, to starting "Mad Men" midway through season 5.)

Walter Sanders said...

The older I get...the more I enjoy Shoe.

Walter Sanders said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
richardcthompson said...

http://www.gocomics.com/culdesac/2012/09/23

Tom Ruegger said...

For me, in 2013, "Pearls Before Swine" and "Lio" are the only must-see comic strip in the newspaper. They're always clever and funny on at least one level, and usually on several.

"Get Fuzzy" started strong but turned obscure about five years ago and now I don't have the patience to read through it. Which is a shame because I loved those characters. I wonder what happened there.