Regarding comic strips (part 2)
This entry is continued from part 1.
Going up the page in reverse order of my daily comic-strip reading, what’s next?
Zits by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman: What’s not to like? Zits has got to be among the funniest of current comic strips. We’ve all been teenagers, so we can all relate. Zits is current, fresh, funny, and true. The interaction and sarcasm between Jeremy and his parents reveal the best and funniest of teen-related cliches. This is the rare comic strip that can actually make me occasionally laugh out loud. The authors understand humor, which might be more rare in comics than one might think (see B.C.).
Garfield by Jim Davis: Back when I was a kid — and I’m talking about grade school here — I liked Garfield. It was my favorite strip. I had over a dozen, maybe two, of the books. There was something amusing about Garfield’s world view, which was unapologetically narcissistic and hedonistic, and for anything that didn’t fit into that world view there was apathy and sarcasm. Sounds like the American way.
But the fact of the matter is that this strip has long outlived its usefulness and is now tired, recycled dreck. Based on the strips of the last decade, Jim Davis strikes me as a total hack who is going through the motions and prolonging a concept merely for the paycheck. While I can’t blame him for prolonging the strip artificially, I can blame him for not coming up with any fresh ideas in the meantime. One of my favorite parodies documenting the lameness of Garfield is on Maddox’s site. (Maddox, let it be said, is far meaner than I could ever be.)
In Davis’ defense, over the past year or so, he has been running an experiment by having Jon successfully dating (i.e., not getting dumped) his longtime crush, Liz. The results are no more funny than the typical Garfield strip (yes, Jon is a hapless loser; we get it), so it’s sort of a wash. I also can’t necessarily credit Davis with finally pairing Jon and Liz. I presume that he decided to cave in and try this because the movie (from what I’ve read; I wouldn’t waste 90 minutes of my life) paired Jon/Liz for the purposes of, no doubt, fulfilling the usual movie formula requirements.
While we’re talking about Garfield, I just have one question for anyone familiar with old-school Garfield. Just what exactly happened to Lyman? Lyman was Jon’s roommate (or something) back in the very early days of the strip. He eventually vanished without explanation. Wait, I just Wikipedia’d it. Here’s the explanation. I guess I don’t have to speculate anymore. Wikipedia and its instant answers take the fun out of everything. Damn you, Wikipedia! No, prasie you! Or, oh … I can’t decide!
For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston: This is the reason I read the comics page at all. It’s also the reason I go back through my old papers if I haven’t read the comics for the past two weeks. The strip is addictive and I don’t want to miss any key plot points.
For Better or For Worse is actually not all that funny. In fact, one thing that occasionally annoys me about the strip is that it feels the need to add a punch line to a strip out of obligation. In reality, the strip doesn’t need punch lines. That’s not why we read it. We read it because it’s a fascinating serialized document of fictional characters that has been ongoing for nearly 30 years.
First of all, I don’t consider myself an expert on the strip’s history. I read the strip only sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s. But since about 2000 I’ve read the strip religiously. There’s something compelling about characters that age in real time and have typical family experiences and problems. The true-to-life nature of the strip makes it a superb empathy machine.
What will be interesting, however, is that the characters will become frozen in time this September when Johnston semi-retires from the daily grind. After 30 years of growing up and growing older, the characters will become trapped.
That’s sort of a bittersweet compromise from Johnston’s original idea of retiring the strip. It also gives me a weird feeling that I can’t fully articulate. While this is simply a structural change for a fictional story medium, it’s stranger if you stop and think of it in more philosophical terms.
Here are these characters who have pasts. They think they have futures. But they won’t. They will become trapped in a state of non-development forever and won’t even know it (unless Johnston makes some sort of fourth-wall-breaking gesture within the strip itself, which seems unlikely). Mike grew up in the strip, but now his kids won’t. April will stay a teenager for as long as the strip continues. I’d call it Kafkaesque, but I don’t want to get too absurd here. (I know; too late.)
The Pattersons, which had diverged for a time, are now all under the same roof again (mostly because of the fire that destroyed Mike and Deanna’s apartment), and the story is setting things up such that Mike and Deanna will live in the Patterson home while John and Elly move down the street. The things happening now play like the stage-setting leading up to a plot twist in a “Battlestar Galactica” season finale. (And, no, I haven’t been smoking pot.) Their reality is about to shift … but that reality will not be known to the characters in any way. The more I think about it, the more fascinating and creepy it seems.
FoxTrot by Bill Amend: FoxTrot is funny. The daily strip was retired at the end of 2006, so this is no longer part of my daily routine, but this was the ultimate geek strip. Bill Amend bathes in pop-culture references and nerd humor. I put my case in point with the strip below. If you don’t get it, that’s the way it goes. If you do get it, then you understand why FoxTrot was indispensible.