The Newspaper Comic: Please Shoot the Shaggy Dog!!

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around spending time with the newspaper “funny pages”, which at the time folded out taller than I was and were pretty well near impossible to keep together unless I laid them out flat on the floor (which was avocado-green shag carpet– gotta love the seventies).  They were a source of great amusement– I was an early reader and rather sophisticated for my age, so even Mary Worth and Judge Parker made sense (though I found them as deadly dull as my mom’s TV soaps), and, growing up in a very Democratic family, I even understood Doonesbury.  I loved Animal Crackers, Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois (especially oddly-coiffed baby Trixie), and most of all, Peanuts.  I adored Snoopy and wanted a dog exactly like him (and unfortunately looked up to Lucy Van Pelt as a role model).  After I was done reading the funnies, I could “lift” the pictures off the page with Silly Putty, and life was good.

I never lost a taste for the comics, even as I grew older and didn’t play with Silly Putty anymore.  New favorites appeared– Garfield, Cathy, For Better or For Worse, and Funky Winkerbean all found their way into my lexicon  (heck, Funky inspired me to join the band).   As a snarky teen, Bloom County and The Far Side tickled my subversive funny bone, and Calvin and Hobbes was just pure love.

The thing about print long-runners is that they seem to have a pretty short freshness dating.  In the early 90’s I was already sick of Cathy, who had become a parody of herself.  She obsessed about things no one in their right mind would obsess about, and she thought herself fat when she was drawn exactly the same size as every other female character around her.  Cathy had become stupid, and I couldn’t relate to her anymore;  frankly I was insulted that anyone would think that her mindset was representative of womankind.  Still, this stale strip managed to run about twenty more years, culminating in Cathy’s marriage to the long-suffering Irving and a bun in the oven (which readers, mercifully, were spared having to observe and sorrow over as Cathy warped its little brain).

Some of the most consistently excellent strips had relatively short runs.  Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side both ended far too early for my liking and I miss them still.  While Bloom County would reinvent itself in other incarnations (Outland, Opus), the newer strips didn’t have the brilliance of the old (perhaps due to missing characters that didn’t make the jump to the new comics), and its original form remained its finest.

I definitely outgrew some of my early faves.  Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Hi and Lois and Dennis the Menace are probably only funny to people under the age of ten or over the age of, say, a hundred.  (Apologies to my parents– Hagar remains my mother’s favorite strip, and Beetle was the best-loved comic of my late father.)  Then there were some strips I couldn’t fathom at all.  Family Circus, for one.  As a kid I was perplexed by the strange meanderings of Billy, Dottie, Jeffy and PJ all over their Sunday panels, rendered in black dotted lines, in pursuit of some simple and easily performed task.  As an adult, I’ve found myself vaguely disturbed by the kids’ apparent ability to channel the dead.  And don’t even get me started about Marmaduke, which is hilarious only unintentionally by way of  its horrific artwork.

Garfield ruled the 80s;  by the 90s, it, like Cathy, had become stale.  Once a spokescat for the id in all of us, Garfield, too, became formulaic.  While Snoopy, Madonna-like, kept reinventing himself (WWI Flying Ace, Joe Cool, etc), Garfield was essentially a one-trick pony (Oh yay, Garfield is being fat and lazy again today).  Despite some later character development– for sad-sack owner Jon rather than Garfield, in that he was finally given a shot at romance with hot veterinarian Liz– the most relevance Garfield would regain was in a parody webcomic which completely photo-shopped him out of the picture.

Other long-runners were quietly, or not so quietly, winding down.  The final Peanuts strip appeared the day after its creator, Charles Schulz, passed away in 2000.  The strip continues in reprints, but to me it’s sad that Snoopy has probably been replaced as the ubiquitous character of childhood by Spongebob.  Not that I dislike Spongebob, but having been introduced to him as an adult, I have a bit of a different perspective on why he’s funny– also, he didn’t originate in the funny paper.  A few years later, For Better or For Worse ended also– though, in this case, I felt it was quite time for that strip to go, particularly because of its treatment of daughters Elizabeth and April.  April could never do anything right in her family’s eyes (maybe they held it against her that family dog Farley died saving her from drowning as a child) and Elizabeth’s career and outlook were both sacrificed so that she could come home and live with her parents and steal a used-car salesman from his wife.  As Cathy would say, “Aack!”

Which brings me to the final long-runner I still follow, Funky Winkerbean.  Once upon a time, it was a simple joke-a-day strip about high schoolers.  My local paper dropped it in the 80s, but after a move in the 90s brought me closer to its creator’s home turf, I was able to start reading it again, and was pleasantly surprised that its characters were now roughly my own age, trying, as I was, to navigate the world post-college.  Eternal geek Les was now a teacher at his former high school while Funky was now managing the pizza shop where they used to hang out.  Never much of a fan of soap-style strips, I was pulled into this one anyway.  At the time, I found the strip a good balance between the topical and the amusing ( a long arc dealt with a student who had a crush on Les attempting suicide when she found out he had a girlfriend, and one strip that made me laugh had queen-bee student Sadie getting an ill-advised haircut before prom, then moaning “Does Lee make Press-On Hair?”).  Also, I for some reason found the strip at this point to be almost hopelessly romantic.  Funky struck up a relationship with former queen-bee (and Sadie’s older sister) Cindy, now a television reporter.  Les found love with Lisa, an old friend from high school whom he had helped through her teen pregnancy and her subsequent giving up the baby for adoption.  (In true soap-style, the baby boy was adopted, unbeknownst to the concerned characters but knownst to us, by the high school principal.)  Susan, the nerdy student who attempted suicide, got a makeover courtesy of Sadie, and a boyfriend in the form of popular football player Matt.  Sweet Juilliard-bound flute player Becky seemed destined for Funky’s nephew, Wally.  Of course, it was all too good to be true.  After marrying Cindy and discovering that her career was indeed a priority for her, Funky took refuge in the bottle and ended up a divorced regular at AA meetings.  Matt started abusing Susan, who had to deliver her valedictory address wearing sunglasses to hide a black eye.  A car accident on graduation night cost Becky her left arm and her scholarship, and guilt-ridden driver Wally ran off to join the army.  And OMG, Lisa!  What horrible happenstances did Lisa NOT undergo?  After an auspicious proposal from Les in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, it was all downhill from there for Lisa Crawford.  No sooner than they got back to the States, Lisa fell victim to a post-office bombing.  Her long convalescence in the hospital ended with them getting married in the pizza shop on Halloween, dressed as Batman and Robin (Lisa still on crutches).  I was already crying foul at creator Tom Batiuk’s treatment of Lisa, perhaps his most well-rounded and relatable female character, but worse was yet to come.  While Lisa was studying to get her law degree, she discovered she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, months of chemo, and reconstructive surgery.   Lisa beat the cancer, passed the bar, and even got pregnant (again).  Again, too good to be true.  Her daughter Summer was born prematurely and survived, but Lisa’s cancer came back, this time killing her.  All while her supportive husband was talking to imaginary cats.  I’m sure more awful things happened to her in her brief life, though memory doesn’t serve at the moment.   Batiuk used Lisa’s death as the launching point to move the strip approximately ten years into the future, and I’m sorry to say, into eye-roll-inducing mediocrity.  With Lisa’s absence, there are now NO strong female characters in the Funkyverse (Lisa’s ghost doesn’t count, since it seems to exist only to dance with Les on New Years’ Eve and keep him from boarding faulty aircraft).  Les’s new girlfriend (now fiancee), Cayla, rarely speaks.  Funky’s wife, Holly, is rarely seen.  Susan grew up to be completely bonkers.  Becky abandoned Wally, to whom she was technically still married, when he needed her most (after being released as a POW) to concentrate on directing the high school band and raising Wally’s kids with another guy.  Rachel, Wally’s new girlfriend, is supportive and smart, but tends to get preachy, Cindy only shows up on the TV screen at times, and Summer seems to have only one trait (plays basketball).  The guys are worse.  Funky has aged REALLY badly, poor Wally can’t catch a break (he’s also been demoted to Funky’s cousin, somehow), Crazy Harry is, well, still crazy, and Les is now the Supreme Douchebag of the Universe since he became a Published Auteur and therefore too good for the stinking masses who read his work.  He has long conversations with Lisa’s ghost– I’m really surprised we didn’t get at least a week’s worth of strips of him asking her for permission to marry Curiously Quiet Cayla– and has a beef with “Hollywood”, which optioned his precious book and is sure to ruin it.  (He should be so lucky.  This is the Funkyverse, so a movie will probably never get made.)  He’s also quite oblivious– he never noticed Susan was crushing on him again until she stuck her tongue down his throat– and pompous (his huffy treatment of Funky when his friend had the temerity to laugh at the situation with Susan).  I could keep going, but it’s all more of the same.  I used to really enjoy this strip, but Batiuk killed it off when he killed Lisa– she was apparently its heart and soul, and now it’s a vegetative patient on life support.  How long will it be now before Cayla contracts tuberculosis or gets a piano dropped on her head?  She did say Yes to the Les, after all, and that’s a life sentence if not a death sentence.

Sadly, I believe that the heyday of the comic strip is over.  There are still a few decent ones out there– Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy come to mind– but there can never be another Peanuts, and the best of the rest have slipped into mediocrity and self-parody.  It makes me feel old to know that I will have outlived an art form, because I honestly believe that the days of the syndicated daily are numbered;  I get more laughs from ICanHazCheezburger than the “funnies” anymore, and (unfortunately) better storytelling on the fan fiction websites.    Of course, like the orchestra aboard the Titanic, it’s going to keep playing as it goes down, but eventually… well, not to mix metaphors, but, in the words of Shakespeare, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”  RIP, funny pages.



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