The Funnies

The Sunday combined Denver Post-Rocky Mountain News contains 66 comic strips in two sections, each section completely wrapped in advertising. From this, I gather that the comics are the most-read part of the publication as reading skills decay among the general public. One almost tends to put "newspapers" in quotes when referring to the DP-RMN, because they are patently advertising media, in which news plays a minor role. After discarding the advertising and sports, I am left with a pitifully small pile of reading, and even that is dilute. The Perspective (leader) section is the most interesting, since among the conservative bellows are some people worth listening to, like Ed Quillen and Gail Schoettler, who represent the Intelligent People of Colorado. Unfortunately, Maureen Dowd does not always appear, though her column is the only one where one might encounter an unfamiliar word. She has been attacked as being witty and sarcastic, and even worse, liberal. The "news" sections are composed largely of wire reports, most of which I see a day or so earlier in the BBC website. Not only is there a minimum of world news, even Colorado news is light. Reporters cost money, and good reporters cost good money. Comparision is invited between this paper and the Daily Telegraph or London Times, either daily or Sunday, which the English enjoy.

With that diatribe out of the way, let's get back to the "funnies," which are no longer very funny. One can read the whole section without a chuckle, but this reflects the changed nature of comics, which are now either human stories or very old jokes, reflecting the lack of a sense of humor among Americans, which, alas, extends also to Canada these days. This lack of a sense of humor was noticed by Charles Dickens on his visits to the U.S., and many others before and after, though Americans in general seem unaware of it, considering their appreciation of practical jokes and personal attacks to be humor (cf. Jay Leno). Fortunately, this characteristic is not universal, as Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Garrison Keillor demonstrate.

Among my favorite vanished strips are George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Smokey Stover by someone whose name I have forgotten, Gary Larson's The Far Side and Gus Arriola's Gordo. All were inventive, well-drawn and witty, demonstrating a deep insight into life and human nature. Good drawing is essential to a good strip, however excellent the writing. The style should not be realistic, but nevertheless should reflect reality if only in the abstract. Facial expressions are extremely important. Each panel should offer its information immediately while giving matter for more careful appreciation. It would be exceedingly pleasing to me if the papers reprinted some of these classic strips regularly--they would appear new and delightful to many, and the royalties would probably be minimal.

My favorite current strip is For Better or For Worse (mis-titled in the RMN by omission of the second "for"). Lynn Thompson has an extremely endearing way of drawing that is outstandingly excellent, perfect for a strip. Her stories are homey, not witty (though wit can appear: she seems to know it will not be universally welcomed by the dour public), and show me what it must be like to have a family, and often what women think about.

Next comes Ray Billingsley's Curtis, featuring a black family of a hard-working and oppressed father, an excellent mother who is also always working to build their home, and two young brothers. It is also excellently drawn. The stories are very sensitive, sometimes suspenseful, showing that their author is an intelligent and perceptive observer of life, a thoroughly good man. Occasionally there are small pieces of African-American life and culture that are fascinating. There is wit, but, as in the case of Lynn Thompson, it seems to be muted in the cause of self-preservation. These two strips show the comics as a form of literature, giving painless insight into the life of others.

Scott Adam's Dilbert is a witty strip. There is a treasury of humor in the behavior of the stupid, self-important fraud of a manager and his effects on the feelings of his superiors, who are inferior to him. The premise of the strip is not false, but so very true that it has resonated among the majority of us who have ever suffered under a nasty and ignorant boss. While I was in this position (which, fortunately, I am no longer, not needing to enslave myself for food and shelter) many Dilbert strips were so close to the mark that I pasted them up (which became a national habit, I understand) to the obvious displeasure of the pompous ass (I had tenure, a privilege limiting servitude, which meant I could display Dilbert in my office, if not in the corridors). He did not like Dilbert at all. He didn't care for Alan Alda, either.

Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy is a favorite because I like cats, and Bucky is a delightful one. The drawing is superior, with feelings and reactions clearly evident. That Satchel and Bucky can speak is an excellent device, and Bucky looked suitably uncomfortable in his tie when appearing in court to press his unsuccessful suit against a mouse for defamation. The one fang is endearing, as I had a good feline friend with this same characteristic who broke a tooth trying to open a bottle. This is a witty strip that always gives me enjoyment.

Doonesbury is fifth on my list. Conservatives attack it as "political" but of course it is not, just satire with a little sarcasm. This has largely vanished from today's U.S. under wowser pressure, though once traditionally popular. I like it partly because its creator, Garry Trudeau, is married to Jane Pauley, an excellent, intelligent woman who does not follow the national female characteristic of trying to look like a prostitute. In a recent trailer for her program Dateline, she and Stone Phillips looked as if they had eaten some bad clams, and were looking for a place to vomit, which was about as funny as anything else on television.

Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey is an old favorite, a descendant of Barney Google, who has not been seen in years. It is quite different from the old strip about veterans returning to civilian life in Appalachia, but carries on the Camp Swampy story with always new situations with cameos from the old ones. It amuses, but does not cause outright laughter, since the jokes are not of that nature, but rather the foibles of the characters.

Finally on my list comes Sherman's Lagoon by J. P. Toomey, with a preposterous premise--talking sharks--but wins because of its inventiveness and, yes, wit. The drawing is not elaborate, but is reliable and effective. This is a whimsical strip that does not pretend to be deep, but simply entertaining, which it is.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 8 September 2002
Last revised