Comics

As in the newspaper kind, not the graphic novel kind. I’m a lifelong fan and aficianado of daily comic strips, and read them diligently, thoroughly, every day. It’s a fine art form, almost Zen-like (when it’s done well) in its simplicity and in its unrelenting requirement for distilling complex or complicated or entertaining situations into three or four tightly-scripted frames, every day. Who needs confusing koans when you’ve got the comics page?

I have a beef, though, with something that many, many comics pages are doing these days, coast to coast: taking up valuable strip space with “Classic Peanuts.” Yep, it was an amazingly influential strip in its day, and its characters are probably more indelibly printed on the public’s collective psyche than any other. Yep, Charles Schulz is worthy of admiration and continued respect from readers of the comics page. Yep, some of the old strips that are being recycled are pretty good ones (although some . . . aren’t).

But . . . Charles Schulz was adamant that no one was going to inherit and draw his strip, and good for him in that regard. However, having made such a decision, it seems that his death should have marked the end of “Peanuts” as a feature in future papers . . . if for no other reason than to allow some other up and coming artist the strip space that “Peanuts” re-runs continue to occupy. Would Schulz have even gotten his chance in the newspapers if, in 1950, editors decided to run “Classic Katzenjammer Kids” after Harold Knerr died in 1949, or “Classic Krazy Kat” after George Herriman died in 1944? What future “Peanuts” are we keeping off of the comics pages by continue to recycle old “Peanuts” strips? I guess we’ll never know.

Now, before some of you smarty-pants write to me to tell me that some older strips did continue to run after their creators died, note well that in every case I’m aware of, they ran with new material written and drawn by new artists. “Gasoline Alley,” “Blondie,” “Popeye” and countless other strips have been passed down from artist to artist over the years . . . but, again, while the strip name remained the same, there was still new blood on the comics pages, even if you had to be a comics geek to note the change in creator.

But in each of those cases, the new artists allowed the strips to grow in new directions. That’s not going to happen with “Classic Peanuts.” “Gasoline Alley” as written and drawn by Jim Scancarelli is a very different beast than it was when drawn and written by Frank King, Dick Moores or Bill Perry. Even going back to my opening example of “Classic Katzenjammer Kids” . . . that one was originally created by Rudolph Dirks, who lost the rights to the strip’s name to the Hearst newspaper syndicate, leading to a nearly half-century period in which “The Original Katzenjammer Kids” (by Knerr) competed against “The Captain and the Kids” (by Dirks), nationwide. The characters remain alive to this day, drawn by Hy Eisman, who also keeps “Popeye” in the papers. With new material, mind you, not recycled material.

Are the new “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Popeye” strips of the same quality as some of the “Classic Peanuts” strips? No, probably not . . . but at least they’re new, and somehow that seems far preferable to me than endless nostalgia.

And, gee, I guess while I’m ranting about the comics page, two other observations:

1. Johnny Hart gets a lot of press for using his strip, “B.C.,” as a platform for his particularly intolerant religious views. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that, per se, but what I do have a problem with is the fact that they are woefully, painfully, horribly unfunny, unengaging, repetitive, redundant, dull, drab, tired and stale, written from the sort of comics ethos that one might have found in Eisenhower era gentlemen’s magazines. I mean, in 2004, do we really need (or want) a strip with a characters called “The Fat Broad” and “The Cute Chick” running every day, with an occasional Native American character named Conahanty who speaks in Tonto-esque fractured grammar? I certainly don’t want the P.C. police ransacking the comics page, but, jeez, would anybody still be reading or running B.C. if those who share Hart’s religious views weren’t championing the strip? I’d love to see a well-drawn, provocative strip on the comics page that addresses issues of faith and fundamentalism in a thoughtful way, but “B.C.” sure isn’t it. And, of course, we’ll never see it as long as “Classic Peanuts” and “Johnny Hart Recycles B.C.’s Only Five Jokes” continue to take up comics space.

2. Why do we keep letting Berke Breathed back onto the comics page? “Bloom County,” in its heyday, was a brilliant strip with brilliant characters. Breathed walked away from it to produce the Sunday only “Outland,” which was (I think) originally intended to follow new directions with the Ronald Ann character, but eventually grew into “Bloom County Lite, Once a Week” as various characters from the mother strip reappeared. And then Breathed walked away from that. But, golly gee, he’s back again with “Opus,” another weekly strip that (to date) has gone pretty much nowhere of note. Sure, it’s densely drawn, but in the couple of months since its return, I haven’t seen much to interest me . . . I’m already way tired of Breathed’s stock images of Opus cuddled up with voluptuous silicone/collagen fantasy babes, for instance. Plus, weekly strips just don’t do it for me, since plot advancement moves way too slowly (see “Prince Valiant” for the ultimate example of that), leading strip writers to create a lot of standalone situations that don’t go anywhere. That’s okay for a strip that runs daily as well (sometimes plot lines advance through the week, then the Sunday strip is its own standalone vignette), but it gets stale on a once-a-week-only basis. I figger we’ll see a return of Bill the Cat in six months or so, and then a year or so after that Breathed will give up again. Makes me appreciate Waterston and Larson’s walking-away all that much more: they left, and they meant it. I can’t help but think that Breathed returns when his bank account indicates it’s time to do so.

Goodness. That was more writiting than I expected to do this morning.

Happy Mother’s Day, to all those who bear that honorable title. Time to go wake up Marcia and get ready for brunch. Mmmmm . . . waffles . . .

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