Posts Tagged ‘blog: essays’.

The Comic Strip Doctor: Shoe

cosmo here is not even in the episode in question

(Click any of the images to zoom in on them.)

Shoe was in my hometown newspaper growing up, and I read it every day, just like I read Fred Basset and Herb & Jamaal and Marvin, and I don’t think I ever laughed at any of them, ever. But I did look forward to reading Shoe, especially on Sundays, because the fledgling artist in me was drawn to Jeff MacNelly’s expressive brushwork — I wanted a DeSoto like Cosmo’s, with tailfins jutting skyward; I loved the collection of jagged lines that created, with negative space, a towering stack of papers on the Perfesser’s desk. So it is with a shade of reluctance that I must admit that Shoe sucks.

Like most comics that’ve been around over a decade, Shoe is not drawn by the original creator. When Jeff MacNelly passed away in 2000, Chris Cassatt and Gary Brookins, both editorial cartoonists in their own right (like MacNelly himself), took over daily production of the strip, aided by MacNelly’s widow Susie and a pair of staff writers. Cassatt and Brookins have achieved a fine pastiche of MacNelly’s style; they draw very decent trees, and all the characters look like they’re supposed to. But perhaps due to their training and experience in editorial cartooning — a field in which brevity is livelihood — they struggle with using the newspaper gag strip format to its full potential, often stretching a simple, lame gag out over two wide panels (when a third panel, and accompanying second punchline, would be no chore to add):

i highly doubt the veracity of the bird on the left's statement

And despite the wide canvas available to them on Sundays, Cassatt & Brookins choose to maintain the languorous pace:

that bird in the green looks forty years old

The example above is strikingly typical in its slowness: in fact, every Sunday Shoe that I examined could easily be retold in a daily three-panel format without losing anything but unneeded fat. The characters speak in ellipses, breaking a single sentence into labored wheezing over the course of three or four panels; brief, few-word back-and-forth conversations inexplicably take the entire strip, with only one dialogue balloon per panel. The wasted space speaks of wasted potential — both for the existing jokes, which suffer from the meandering pace, and for the additional jokes that could easily fit into the same space, making the comic snappy and unexpected. Instead, we get the above, with shadowy panels, cutaways to exterior shots, and subtle changes in perspective trying desperately to fill time while the characters move in slow motion.

Like most Sunday comics, the above episode of Shoe features a two-panel throwaway gag in the first position. This is for the convenience of the editor at each particular newspaper: depending on space constraints, the editor may choose to run the comic as-is (title panel, two-panel gag, and main gag); or he may choose to clip the top three panels and run the main gag alone. Also, the careful grid-like arrangement of the panels is no accident — this is so the editor may rearrange the number of panels per row, again for reasons related to the space available on the page.

In fact, the preferred panel arrangement for the above comic is probably the following (a quick check on the official Shoe website tells me I am correct):

it's smaller so that your eyes can get a workout

The difference is slight but significant. In this latter arrangement, the title and the two-panel gag are all on one line, and the main gag begins on a new line. This provides a beat of separation between the two, and it is easy for the reader to “complete” the first gag before starting to read the second. In the former arrangement, there is no such separation, and the entire arrangement reads like one long gag, making it that much more unsatisfying when the end is finally reached.

In other words: the two-panel gag, with the tough in the green threatening Skyler, is a single, standalone event, and Skyler’s answer “Heck…I didn’t even do mine!” is the punchline. The teacher asking Skyler to describe a light-year is the beginning of the main gag, which terminates five panels later. But when the panels are rearranged, Skyler’s “Heck” line doesn’t act as a punchline; instead, it’s a setup for the panels that follow it. Not only does it lower the total gags-per-comic quotient by half, it also means that Skyler’s “calories” punchline at the end of the whole ordeal is even lamer for having had seven panels of setup.

This is an argument for retaining the artist’s intended layout when reproducing comics. It’s an argument that Bill Watterson fought and won, largely by refusing to carve his comics into modular blocks that could be rearranged, knowing that editors would have no recourse — they wouldn’t dare cancel his wildly popular feature. Watterson’s victory has had a wicked backlash; many metropolitan newspapers today are subjected to the vulgar garishness of Berke Breathed’s Opus above the fold on the front page of the comics section, a prime position that Breathed won in the wake of Watterson’s trailblazing, and a position that he has used to curse the people of America with his bleatings.

But Opus will be the subject of another column, perhaps; in the meantime I think that the above Shoe will benefit from a greatly accelerated pace, or at least a more judicious use of the space given. To add many layers of density to the comic would be to violate the regular spirit of the strip, which is a problem I am unconcerned with:

it's funnier when you do his squeaky voice

Until next time… I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— December, 2006

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Garfield

America's favorite representation of itself

(Click any of the images to zoom in on them.)

Today I’ll be discussing one of the most beloved characters on the comics page: Garfield, the obese narcoleptic. I was always a fan of Garfield, much like many people were probably fans of Beetle Bailey or Crankshaft back in their first few decades, and so it’s as a fan that I feel qualified to comment on the inevitable slide into stupidity (common to all strips) that the 21st century has brought Garfield.

In fact, some would claim that any enjoyment we readers get (or have ever gotten) from Garfield is more than we should, by rights, expect: “Davis meticulously plotted Garfield‘s success,” writes Chris Suellentrop in a revealing Slate article. “And part of his calculation was to make the strip so inoffensive that it’s hard to hate it even for being anodyne.” From the beginning, according to Suellentrop, the Garfield character was conceived as a vehicle for sloganeering, merchandise, and pabulum.

And what suckers we kids were. But I find it hard to believe that there’s never been any creative spark in the strip, and a look through the archives confirms my suspicions:


The above strip, first published on June 28, 1978, featured most of the core ingredients that would evolve into the Garfield mythos: clueless Jon, hungry Garfield, and an assertion of dominance on Garfield’s part. (Ancillary additions such as Odie, Nermal, and the larger cast of supporting characters would appear later.) In short, the strip above roughly defined the character as he would essentially remain.

The following strip was published nearly twenty-six years later, on June 5, 2004:

aaaaah! my leg!

No, Garfield, we probably won’t.

Above we find an exploration of character similar to the 1978 strip, but lacking dimension. Here, Garfield’s asserting his dominance over Jon, but Jon is a prop rather than a character — he’s quite literally reduced to a chew toy. Creator Jim Davis is content to take the supremely easy way out and leave the joke one-note. In fact, he’s even left the center panel blank, showing us a blank wall and a word balloon instead of the action he wasn’t above drawing in 1978.

This devolution of content, concurrent with the rise of increasingly lazy draftsmanship, is common to all comic strips in their second or third decade of existence. We’ve already examined some strips far beyond this threshold; here we have the opportunity to look back and actually trace the fall of Garfield, as it were.

what a clever kitty

First published on February 11, 1984, the above strip was one segment of a week-long story involving Jon trying to take Garfield to the vet. Remarkable by today’s standards for involving a set that isn’t the living room or the front yard, this strip includes several novel elements: Jon is going about his life, doing laundry, suggesting that he in fact has a life; there is an ongoing narrative continuity; and Garfield gets a hint of comeuppance. The complexity of the structure shows that at this point, Jim Davis was really coming into his own as a creator.

pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop! pop!

The above strip, from January 27, 1989, is exemplary of what I would consider Garfield‘s Golden Age. The gag’s humor stems from absurdity but is also firmly rooted in the established character. The Garfield shown above is more apt to be mischievous than his doughy predecessor, and less likely to be smug than his soulless successor.

It was this incarnation of Garfield that the animated show Garfield and Friends brought to television. Bizarre, self-referential, and hallucinogenic, the popular show has recently found a new home on DVD and in syndication on Toon Disney. The show’s concept was rooted in the strip, but it diverged wildly, featuring vivid characters and outlandish plots that occupied a world of their own.

The Garfield and Friends Garfield is the height of the character’s achievement. With the success of the show, the role of merchandising grew, slowly inflating even as its creative basis dwindled, until it would become the bloated whale responsible for Garfield: The Movie.

he says to the chicken, 'What's up with the herring?'

Originally published August 17, 1996, the above strip is exemplary of what I would call Garfield‘s Silver Age. The absurdity is still present, to a degree, and humor flows naturally from the playful interplay between Garfield’s inflated sense of self-worth and the attempts of the world at large to deflate his ego.

Early on, as Davis was establishing Garfield’s character, it was easy enough to make him a fat cat utterly in charge of his world. As time passed, the characters’ interrelationship grew more complex, and Garfield could be placed into situations where his already-established role would be challenged. In other words, it became funny to subvert the Garfield-in-charge paradigm.

Then, as more time passed, Davis fell into a rut. The strip was more popular than ever; Davis was fielding merchandising offers left and right; he even felt confident dividing his attention, and began devoting time to another comic strip, Mr. Potato Head. Garfield was an unqualified success, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

after these messages we'll be riiiiight back

Well, Mr. Davis, I humbly submit that it is broke. The above strip, published May 22, 2004, is remarkable only for its unremarkableness. This is what Garfield has become: a cat in a living room. And after twenty-six years, why is Jon wondering what happened to his lunch?

The Garfield website, a noisy mess of jangly Flash animation and advertising, does have a couple of things going for it: comprehensive archives (hence the above strips) and a Make-Your-Own-Strip function. To make your own strip, you can combine characters, props, and backgrounds, and write your own dialogue:

holy cow!

Panel 1: Welcome to my living room. It’s the only place I feel safe.
Panel 2: Holy cow! My toothpaste is sitting on the floor!
Panel 3: It’s the most interesting thing that’s happened in years.

It’s only barely an exaggeration to say that the backgrounds available for you to choose from are yellow living room, blue living room and red living room. They can make an elaborate animated Garfield Hunchback opening the vault archives, but they can’t make the text in the Make-Your-Own strip easy to read, nor can you save your creation. The above is a screen capture.

What have you become, Garfield? What happened to being lost in a snowy alley on Christmas (1984)? What happened to Aunt Gussie, and Doc Boy, and even Liz the vet? I wouldn’t even mind a cameo appearance by short-lived mustachioed roommate Lyman if it meant a little variety.

In short, Garfield, like The Wizard of Id, like B.C., has become an institution instead of a comic strip. I’m not knocking the concept of merchandising; Get Fuzzy has merchandise up the wazoo but it’s still the funniest strip in the newspaper. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Get Fuzzy is the heir to Garfield‘s throne; the strip, by Darby Conley, revolves around a young homebody’s interactions with his egomaniacal cat and dimwitted dog.

Our goal here, post-diagnosis, is to heal. My prescription for Garfield, barring a complete re-evaluation of what the Garfield comic is, is to bring back the stories, the adventures, the characters that take the cat out of his living room. I know it’s easier to draw a spider than a mailman; it’s easier to draw a table than a sidewalk. But one-note jokes + lazy art = boring, boring, boring.

Here’s a strip from May 11, 2004:

who cares?

This strip is so one-note it’s embarrassing. My only suggestion to revise this strip would be something akin to the following:

I KNOW it's not very funny, stop emailing me

But that’s only marginally better. The solution, it turns out, lies in wholesale recontextualization.  Because why shouldn’t we re-evaluate what Garfield is? It’s now a cultural icon more than a storytelling device or a source of humor; there must be a way to capitalize on that familiarity it enjoys with the reader to create something new, different, and funny. As it turns out, there is such a way.

I mentioned earlier how there has been a gradual progression in terms of the way Garfield’s character has been represented: first, it’s funny to show him as a cat in charge of a human; later, it becomes funny to show his role being subverted. Now, since he’s been idling in neutral for a decade, what’s funny is to subvert once again.

The Garfield Randomizer was a short-lived Internet phenomenon that accessed Universal Press Syndicate’s comprehensive Garfield archives to produce new strips out random combinations of panels from different strips. Some results were simply bizarre; most were bizarrely hilarious. Snippets of dialogue combined randomly to create esoteric or oddly subtextual conversations; at other times, awkward silences filled the entire strip. The dada results thoroughly skewered the reader’s well-worn preconceptions of the cadences and rhythms of typical Garfield. (I wrote another column specifically about this concept; also, a gallery of results from the Randomizer can be found here.)

Clearly, the next level for Garfield is the postmodern world. I’ll press “Go” on the Randomizer and leave the rest up to chance.

totally check out the gallery too

Until next time, I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— September, 2004 (revised February 2006)

Author’s Note, October 2008: In the years since this article was first written, two things have changed for Garfield. One is that the strip in the newspaper has gotten marginally better; more character development and what seems to be a new gang of gag writers have breathed some much-needed new life into the strip. Secondly, the “Garfield Minus Garfield” phenomenon has proven my diagnosis utterly correct. Legions of fans have rediscovered the surreal potential buried beneath the strip’s overly broad presentation, and the postmodern treatment has invigorated the franchise to a level far beyond what the strip could have accomplished on its own. To his credit, Jim Davis has embraced the concept, and an officially licensed “Garfield Minus Garfield” book is now in the works.

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Recontextualization

little trouble deciding on an image that would be appropriate here

(Click any of the smaller images to zoom in on them.)

Caution: Some of the content explored in today’s column is definitely not “family-friendly.”  But, you know, it’s the Internet, so you should probably be on your guard anyhow.

Author’s Note: This article predates, and in fact quite possibly inspired, the “Garfield Minus Garfield” phenomenon.

I’m hardly the first to be dissatisfied with the quality of the comics I read, and so it should be no surprise to anyone that there are many, many people who do the same thing I do: re-write the comics to make them funnier. In fact, the number of readers who take the mission of comic writing into their own hands has skyrocketed among Internet communities in the last few years; messageboards and blogs are full of doctored strips. (That doesn’t mean you can stop reading my column.)

Predictably, the most common strip to be re-written is the one that’s a poster-child for insipid humor: Bil Keane’s The Family Circus. It’s remarkably easy, too: simply strip off the caption at the bottom and fill-in-the-blank. Popularly known as “The Dysfunctional Family Circus,” the iconic circular comic about a family of saccharine know-it-alls began to appear with tasteless, irreverent and outright vulgar captions in ‘zines decades ago, eventually migrating to Usenet and, later, the World Wide Web.

Of course, outright mockery coupled with widespread exposure begat the inevitable cease-and-desist letters, which is why I maintain on this site at least a thin veneer of academic criticism.

Eventually, it took Bil Keane himself speaking with webmaster Greg Galcik for The Dysfunctional Family Circus to be taken offline, but like any good meme, the concept proved impossible to kill. It’s possible now to find half-a-dozen websites that keep up the theme, essentially turning the daily comic strip into a never-ending caption contest.

Which, Galcik believes, is detrimental to the cause of parody. His site was the first of many to welcome audience submissions, but he only chose the best, to keep the humor quotient relatively high: “Somewhere along the way,” Galcik told me, “it becomes a competition for the audience to see who can get captions accepted, and they start trying to out-funny each other. And around then, the humor really starts to get complex.”

The paradox, of course, is that the more well-known (and, in the case of The Family Circus, aesthetically bankrupt) the original product, the riper a fruit it is for subversion — and the more fierce the lawyers that “protect” it. Galcik received the call himself. “Unfortunately, the assumption is that, if anyone does something that can possibly produce a profit on their material, it must be shut down before it becomes a precedent,” he said.

U.S. copyright law states that one of the criteria against whether a parody of a property can be considered “fair use” is whether it would hurt the original’s chances of making money. But recontextualized comics are rarely about profit — they’re about a different way of seeing the familiar; a more purely qualitative exercise, to use highfalutin’ terms. For example, recently blogger “Robyn” mashed-up The Family Circus with H.P. Lovecraft’s overwrought prose to create The Nameless Dread (a.k.a. “The Cthulu Circus”):

She took it down quickly once it got spread around, fearful of lawyers and, perhaps, internet celebrity. It’s a one-note joke that’s relatively funny nonetheless; like The Dysfunctional Family Circus, it relies on the disconnect that occurs between the source material — and the expectations the reader brings to it — and the caption. While the DFC subverts the convention that The Family Circus is wholesome, cutesy, and non-racist, The Nameless Dread has the Circus’ s typically mealy-mouthed, borderline-retarded children reciting what is perhaps the English language’s most dense epic poetry. The humor in the latter exists only because of the juxtaposition; it’s almost purely conceptual.

The Dilbert Hole is another experiment in offensiveness that quickly became an Internet phenomenon. There’s a psychological reason that recontexualized comics resonate with an audience: it’s the same reason people buy tabloids, to see celebrities at their worst. It’s the train-wreck joy of seeing something popular that you can’t stand become its complete, wretched opposite — and, of course, poop jokes seal the deal:

Like the online Dysfunctional Family Circus, The Dilbert Hole was quickly pounced upon by syndicate lawyers and summarily cease-and-desisted. Unlike the DFC, The Dilbert Hole was a meticulous reproduction of Scott Adams’ Dilbert, down to the lettering — save for the content, it could easily have been mistaken for the real thing. The precision made the parody more striking, but also the case against its creator more airtight.

The Dilbert character is a well-known figure to the remix crowd — equal parts cubicle hero and over-merchandised dreck. He’s their only champion in the working world, and he’s a sellout. In 1997, Leisuretown creator Tristan A. Farnon was sick of it, and The Dilbert Hole appeared as the creation of a disaffected cubicle drone in an underground comic entitled A Comedy Crisis. Farnon tells the story in an interview with The Comics Journal:

I’m allowed to disrespect Dilbert if I want to, I’ve suffered through years of insipid Dilbert-related merchandise staring at me from other people’s cubicles. I’ve worked on software products code-named “Dogbert.” It just got annoying. After awhile each strip ballooned up with industry keywords, and they grew indistinguishable from any other rectangle of syndicated bumper-sticker humor. Let’s all honk if we love Dilbert.

Farnon’s comics deliberately comment, in a satirical sense, on the culture that surrounds Dilbert. It is legitimate parody. And notably (and surprisingly, considering its vulgarity), The Dilbert Hole is genuinely funny. Its punchlines are tight and its comedic timing is right-on. Most of the more recent, knock-off Dysfunctional Family Circus strips floating around online are merely vulgar or offensive, with no humor to back them up.

This type of “dirtying up” a well-known property is the lowest form of parody, barely above the penises scrawled on the faces of celebrities on bus-stop movie posters. Dilbert’s lawyers had nothing to say about Farnon’s social commentary but everything to say about his use of the word “flatulence” in a facsimile of Scott Adams’s handwriting. The dirtiness makes the point and breaks the case. More sophisticated humor makes for better parody, says Galcik, but adds, “Experience tells me there are too many people who don’t agree with me, and they breed faster than I do.”

For example, Fred Basset Upfucked, which rewrites the dialogue of the continuing adventures of the world’s most boring dog — and which basks in so much legal paranoia that it claims “PARODY” in bold letters across the strip itself:

what more is there to say, really

The creator claims that in his continuity, the titular hound is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. So far I haven’t seen much wit in evidence, although the strip does have its moments.

Such parodies have existed as long as there have been media to parody; “dirty” versions of Mickey Mouse, created by Disney animators after hours, have been around since the ’30s.  Dan O’Neill’s Air Pirates comics of the 1970s painted Mickey and Minnie as dope smugglers; the resultant lawsuit set the tone for a vicious corporations vs. underground-comix sentiment that still persists today.

Although most of Disney’s famous works are adaptations of public-domain folktales or (as in Steamboat Willie) parodies of contemporaneous films, in recent years Disney’s corporate muscle has successfully lobbied for U.S. copyright law to be amended so that their own, highly lucrative, highly merchandisable properties do not fall outside of copyright protection. Comics syndicates are no different: they protect their properties vigorously from being represented, or remixed, in any way — over the protests of an audience that could breathe new life into tired characters.

The Garfield Randomizer is a webpage that accesses the comprehensive online Garfield archives, fetching one panel at a time from different individual Garfield strips and presenting them mashed-up and reordered into surreal, dada creations. An instant online hit, screen-captures of the recontextualized comics began appearing on messageboards and blogs everywhere. Of course, it didn’t take long for syndicate lawyers to pounce.

Which is unfortunate, both for fans and for the syndicate’s ailing, unfunny property. The unanimous sentiment online was that for the first time in years, Garfield was funny again. As I mentioned in my recent revision to the Comic Strip Doctor column on Garfield, what makes the randomized strips hilarious is that they break down the rhythms and cadences that readers have come to predict. First panel set-ups become final panel non sequiturs, or a strip may have three punchlines with no setup. Each panel’s utility is boosted by its becoming a modular component.

Interestingly, it’s easy to see how changing just the panel order, and thus the rhythm, of an otherwise unmodified Garfield strip can give it a wholly different tone:


This concept extrapolated to include combinations of strips can lead to wildly bizarre juxtapositions:

thanks to jazzpirate!

And, at times, surreally profound moments:

okay, maybe not PROFOUND

One thing I noticed, frantically creating new strips for hours on end in a vicious giggling fit, was that there are a lot of really strange concepts buried in the Garfield archives. The comic seems like it should be funny. How could a comic that incorporated any of the following panels not be funny?

come ON ha ha! the news is sensationalist!

this one I could take or leave Garfield's line this is a perfect comic as-is

Somehow, Garfield manages. And the secret, it turns out, is through overkill:


Here, the punchline is set up twice and delivered twice (visually and through dialogue). As Eric Burns pointed out, often saying less is much more effective. It allows the reader to connect the dots, and engages them in the narrative.  It leaves room for interpretation, and for Garfield’s true thoughts to only sound in the theater of the reader’s mind.

still not great, but better at least

Garfield has been deconstructed before in this way, among many others, by Jack Masters on his site CastleZZT, but the particular trick of silencing Garfield — so that we see the world through Jon’s eyes — has gained prominence recently thanks to this forum thread. Silent Garfield becomes a mugging mime, a lethargic Charlie Chaplin. Sometimes (usually in the strips without Jon — who is, of course, now our protagonist), the results don’t quite work:

ho ho ho

And sometimes they do:

in tiny shreds in the litterbox in about an hour

The former example above is still amusing because, like the randomizer, it’s shifting up the usual cadences the reader expects from the Garfield comic strip. It’s absurd-funny (although, upon reflection, if you think he’s waving in the third panel, that’s sort of humorous). But the latter example is funny on its own. Instead of Garfield getting the snarky last word, here Jon speaks to a silent cat, and the lack of response or double punchline in the third panel seems to indicate that it’s not a joke, that the sad scene set up in the first two panels is just life as it is. Which, of course, is funny — because it’s giving us a window into a bizarre world and treating it as “true,” instead of using it as a setup for a predictable, lame joke.

Still, a comic strip like this that ran in the newspaper every day would be pretty dumb. The non-sequiturs and visual gags are still an awkward combination of postmodern non-humor and B-minus slapstick. They gain much of their traction from the comparison to the Garfield that we’re familiar with. That, after all, is why recontextualized comics are funny at all: they give us an alternate window, a “what-if,” into a paradigm that we know well. They reveal possibilities that might be, and recognize potential that goes untapped.

What I do with The Comic Strip Doctor is to try and mine some of that potential; in some cases it requires making a bit of a departure from the source material’s spirit, but I try not to simply make fun of bad comics. I try to make comics that are funny regardless of the existing associations we as readers have with them. Because I think that it’s possible to make good comics, and frankly there’s little excuse not to.

I think things like the Garfield Randomizer that become instantly popular can act as a guide towards what an audience finds funny. Granted, it’s an internet audience, so it’s probably on the whole younger and “hipper” and more cynical than the morning-oatmeal Garfield readers, but that’s precisely the crowd that always takes the culture handed them by the previous generation and remixes it and mashes it up and subtracts from it and adds to it and makes it their own for their generation.

The Garfield Randomizer was shut down with cease-and-desist letter sent to the webmaster. Never mind that the site did nothing but accessed the syndicate’s official archives; it did not modify the dialogue, or paint Garfield as a Nazi and Jon as a fan of bestiality. And never mind that, to many readers, “Garfield is finally funny again.”

“Of course the much more rational (and fun) way for it to be handled is with a basic sanity check,” says Galcik, of the syndicates’ knee-jerk reactions. “If the derivative is not harming the original, then leave ’em alone. But that’s just not possible with the way the system’s gone off level, now.”

My message to PAWS, Inc., corporate owner of the Garfield character, is: Learn to recognize a compliment. We like your stuff. It has meaning to us, both as individuals and as a culture. We grew up with your characters, and so they have an emotional resonance for us that overflows with potential.

Let them come out and play with us.

Until next time… I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— February, 2006

Author’s note, October 2008: Apparently heeding my advice, Jim Davis and PAWS, Inc. are releasing an officially-licensed version of the popular “Garfield Minus Garfield” Internet phenomenon.

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: The Born Loser

tied with fred bassett for most boring comic ever created

(Click any of the images to zoom in on them.)

What makes The Born Loser remarkable is not that it has graced the comics page for forty years; that’s barely middle-aged in the stagnant field of newspaper strips.  It’s not that it’s steadfastly, reliably unfunny; Chip Sansom’s hardly got the monopoly on that.  It’s not even that it’s now drawn by the original creator’s son; that’s definitely a given for a strip of its vintage — practically a requirement.  It’s that it’s done all that and nobody has ever noticed it before.  I’ll lay dollars to doorknobs that no Born Loser strip has ever entered into anyone’s long-term memory.  It’s comic strip popcorn: fluffy, bad for you, and if you eat too much you’ll have the runs all night.

The Born Loser was created in 1965 by Art Sansom, who’d worked for twenty years as a fill-in artist for other comic strips whose creators were sick or otherwise indisposed.  Having been thoroughly versed in hacking out the status quo, it was an easy transition to creating ineffectual pap of his own.  The strip’s title character, Brutus Thornapple, is a poor put-upon for whom nothing ever goes right.  He’s constantly abused by his wife (Gladys), mother-in-law (Mrs. Gargle), and boss (Mr. Veeblefester).  His son, Wilberforce, is dumb.  Thus begin and end the nuances of The Born Loser.

stern, fair, easily flummoxed
Published December 10, 2005

when I was a kid I thought the way Sansom drew the corners of mouths was remarkable
Published December 5, 2005

How, in a civilized society, does this happen?  Why is this comic strip continually permitted to exist? As far as I can tell, there are no lucrative licensing agreements (as is the case with Dennis the Menace or Garfield), no throngs of fans fighting an imaginary values-based culture war (B.C.), and no secretive pacts with the unholy demon god Shabranigdo (Momma).  Its only appeal is a lack of appeal.  It’s a void in the universe that I wouldn’t even think was worthy of its own column — since nobody cares a whit about it — except for the fact that it is exemplary of a whole genre of comic strips: what I’ll call the ‘midlist’ (to borrow a term from the book industry).

‘Toplist’ comics (and I’m making up these categories) are the moneymakers: the Garfields and the Dilberts. They’re well-known, familiar, and (with some exceptions) pretty boring.  In contrast, ‘bottomlist’ comics are (relatively) unknown, usually new to the arena, and if they succeed it’s because they’re fighting tooth and nail and delivering cold, hard quality.  I would call Frazz a bottomlist comic (which should not be taken as a slight on its craft; I think it’s quite good). ‘Bottomlist’ shouldn’t be taken as a perjorative; it just means relatively unknown.

Midlist comics are the ones that exist in spite of their lack of profitable merchandising (like the toplists) or creative warmbloodedness (like the bottomlists).  Fred Bassett is a midlist comic.  The Lockhorns is a midlist comic.  Frank & Ernest is a midlist comic.

There are so many shades of gray in any subject, comic strips included, that I’m a little uncomfortable inventing categories willy-nilly just for the sake of doing so.  They’re inexact at best, and I hereby forbid anybody to ever use these categories for anything ever again.  But for the sake of this column, they help me to draw a wide circle around a great swath of the comics page, excluding those properties with proven financial value to their owners and those with genuine creative appeal.  Why do midlist comics persist?

The easy answer is, because it’s inevitable that a collection of syndicates taking a scattershot approach to building and retaining an audience will produce many poor works.  The well-known Sturgeon’s Revelation states that “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Certainly this holds true for comic strips as well.  The more good works exist, the argument may follow, the more there will exist poor works.

Similarly, if the relative quality of creative works fall along a Bell curve of normal distribution, it would be expected that a large number of any sample will be of moderate and unexemplary quality, and a few will be of particular excellence or awfulness.  In this case we should expect to find a large number of comics occupying the midlist ghetto.

And likewise, it should be expected that among the lifetime of a particular strip, there will exist individual comics of particularly low quality:

this is not a joke according to any dictionary I have ever read, and I've read five
Published December 1, 2005

As well as particularly high quality (relative to the whole):

brutus's ears fascinate me
Published December 6, 2005

I cite the above as an example of relative “high quality” because, though clearly not innovative in its choice of subject matter or punchline, it atypically employs a visual gag (and a quite subtle one, at that).  This is as good as The Born Loser gets, folks.

So, if we should expect that the majority of comics will fall into the midlist (according to our understanding of the laws of statistical distribution), we should be pretty okay with The Born Loser as it stands, right?  I mean, it’s just occupying its space on the Bell curve.  That’s just how the world works.

Except… the comics page does not exist in a vacuum.  The list of titles on the page is mutable.  There are thousands of cartoonists desperately trying to get into the business — even now, with webcomics as popular as they are.  It would be possible — I daresay easy — to fill an entire newspaper page with good comics.

Of course, it will never happen.  There are so many entrenched institutions that the only way to rebuild the house would be to bulldoze it and start over.  Which, in a way, is what the web has allowed to happen — with the normal consequences of any creative medium with a low barrier to entry.  If 90% of the comics page (say, 40 comics) is crap, what about 90% of the InternetOh No Robot hosts transcription services for over two hundred separate titles. Webcomics Nation, a paid hosting service for comics, has hundreds of subscribers. Comic Genesis is a free provider that hosts over six thousand different webcomics.

In theory, the profusion of comics on the Internet means that there exist lots of good comics, and that’s true.  But in practice, what it also means is that new readers are less likely to find the good ones among the sea of everything, and more likely to get turned off to the concept in general.  I don’t want to spend this column talking about webcomics, but it should be said that there are many, many quality strips that exist only online, and that a typical casual comic reader (a discerning fan of the best newspaper strips, even) will never, ever find them.

That’s why I think the concept of syndicates is a good one.  They pick the cream of the crop, and distribute them to venues needing content.  We shouldn’t have to suffer through the entire Bell curve of mediocrity and crap — the syndicates should be skimming from the good side and leaving the dreck to die.

But they don’t.  There are many reasons: in the world of daily newspapers, reliability is valued over the more subjective “quality”; also, it’s accepted as common knowledge that audience taste follows roughly the same statistical distribution pattern as everything else.  The prevailing wisdom is that the majority of the audience (which, in the case of newspapers, is roughly the population of the country) won’t “get” the most clever stuff, or don’t want to be intellectually challenged over their coffee.  As H.L. Mencken famously said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Regardless of the intractable failings of the system, there is still plenty of room for improvement at the individual comic strip level.  This strip, also reproduced above, will receive this column’s regular treatment:

just draw another name, that's how the freaking game works

In the first panel, Brutus stares into space, his desk devoid of anything that would remotely suggest that he’s actually employed. At least get a phone or something; no wonder Mr. Veeblefester hates you so much.  Or are you just sitting in the supply closet?

Brutus: We drew names today for the office’s annual holiday gift exchange!

The exclamation point throws me.  Judging by the expression on his face, Brutus is clearly not excited; instead, he seems to be speaking with emphatic disgust.  The nerve! Those office-holiday-gift-exchange sons of bitches!

In the second panel, we get a closer look at Brutus’s dejected expression.  Yup, he looks pretty run-down.  Brutus sighs, and then there’s some sort of phlegmy vocalization (I guess that’s what the starry thing represents).

In the third panel, which may as well have been cut-and-pasted from the first, world-weary Brutus delivers the soul-crushing conclusion to his worthless story:

Brutus: I drew my own name!

Any normal person would simply unfold the paper, laugh, show it to the office manager with a shrug, fold it back up, drop it back in the bowl and pick another name. But Brutus didn’t.  And I think I know why.

The easy explanation is that it’s simply an “idiot plot,” or a plot that only works if all the characters are idiots.  It requires some suspension of disbelief in order to draw a strained conclusion.  Most jokes are like this.  I hate those jokes and refuse to abide them, and in fact I will interrupt their being told if I recognize them in time.

But in my optimistic view, I don’t think that’s the case here.  I think there’s more material to be mined here than Chip Sansom realizes: this is a telling character moment.  Brutus didn’t draw another name, even though he wanted to, because he’s just not that assertive.  I picture him picking the paper from the bowl, sort of timidly and not making eye contact, and then unfolding the paper and seeing his own name — and by then the office manager had already gone to the next desk, laughing and being boisterous, and Brutus looked up and just couldn’t bring himself to clear his throat and say a single word.

In other words, what should make Brutus a “loser” is not that he drew his own name — that’s just weird luck and it could happen to anyone — but that he didn’t do anything about it.

If ever one could make a comic strip about a character whose single defining trait is his loser-ness, that’s the Brutus I want to read about.  I want to see the Brutus who deeply, psychologically can’t cope with the mundane disappointments of everyday life, like Milton from Office Space.

I want to see Brutus go home after a long day at work, and far from being supportive, Gladys lays into him even worse than before — so he internalizes his frustration and smiles tight-lipped and wakes up very early in the morning and quietly leaves the house and drives for three hours into the sunrise and carefully, methodically kills a homeless person.

That’s comedy gold.

after all, it's on sale

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— December, 2005

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Dennis the Menace

what a wacky mess you've gotten yourself into

This year, Fantagraphics issued The Complete Dennis the Menace Vol.1, a chunky hardback collecting all of Hank Ketcham’s 1951 and 1952 daily comic strips.  Like The Complete Peanuts, the full Dennis will likely be twenty-five volumes or so, enough to fill the mantel of any diehard fan, or at least hold his car up while he swaps out the rims.

Dennis the Menace began mere months after Peanuts, and like Peanuts, it illustrates the continuing antics of a group of children.  While Charles Schulz continued to draw Peanuts for its entire run, Hank Ketcham enlisted the help of assistants Marcus Hamilton (who still draws the weekday strips) and Ron Ferdinand (Sundays).  The strip has for years been written by a team of gag writers, much like a television sitcom is.  Even while he was drawing the strip himself, Ketcham never shied away from enlisting hired assistance; in fact, he championed the idea, acknowledging that he himself wasn’t exactly a bottomless fount of material.

Ferdinand and Hamilton began working for Ketcham in 1981 and 1993, respectively; by 1982 Ferdinand was illustrating the Sunday pages and in 1995 Ketcham handed the dailies off to Hamilton.  Although no longer the strip’s artist, Ketcham oversaw the Dennis machine, personally approving individual strips and presiding over a multimedia empire which, by his death in 2001, included syndicated television programming, a Broadway musical, two feature films, and a bevy of officially licensed products.  Dennis the Menace in 2005 is a brand name, an iconic presence — and a thoroughly boring comic strip.

pass the fried chicken

Ketcham was a fine draftsman, and his successors have accurately and expressively captured the breezy penwork and sketchy-1980s-clipart look of his style.  Unfortunately, they and the gag writers (whom I picture as balding, pudgy men in horn-rimmed glasses, rubbing their comb-overs as they recall the good ol’ days of vaudeville) have seemingly forgotten to make their title character into what the title calls him.

It’s as if you went to a wrestling match that was advertised as “PABLO THE PULVERIZER vs CRUSHER JONES,” and neither Pablo nor Jones did any crushing or pulverizing, but rather discussed Sartre over finger sandwiches.

It’s as if Vlad the Impaler sort of, you know, slacked off on the impaling for a while and took up needlepoint.

It’s as if a hugely profitable marketing behemoth demanded that reliable, inoffensive pap be produced on an assembly-line schedule, and people were lining up to take over the reins and suckle at the teat and churn out crap because, hey, it’s better than digging ditches for a living.

“But Doctor,” you may be saying, and if you are I will remind you that (like Dr. Laura Schlessinger) my doctorate is actually in kinesiology, “how could Dennis be anything but inoffensive pap?  Hasn’t it always been?  Isn’t that, in fact, the point?”

that's right, physically assault him with a piece of lumber!

The above strip is fairly typical of Dennis‘s early years.  In it, Dennis’s mother seems to be advising the babysitter to strike Dennis with a club until he is knocked unconscious.  It was originally published on November 30, 1951.

Like others of his generation, Ketcham returned home from the Second World War a changed man, eager to impose on family and society the order and civility and wholesomeness that combat had robbed him of.  But having seen the horrors of war, Hank Ketcham had perspective.  Any mischief any child could possibly get into would never approach the gruesome reality of men murdering each other on the battlefield. He could make kids as bad as he wanted and they would still never be really bad, on balance.  Thus, he was free to illustrate the anarchy of childhood; the unbridled mayhem that was lacking from other children’s features of the time.

Ketcham’s early Dennis Mitchell is mean-spirited…

who knocked his teeth out this time?
“I’m making a list of people to bite when my teeth grow back in.”

…And adults (including his parents) seem to genuinely dislike him:

cut it off!  it'll grow back!  I'M A STARFISH DADDY

Today, you’re more likely to find Dennis sitting in the corner wisecracking than actually doing anything that would require punishment.  He doesn’t wear the scowl he did fifty years ago; the sourest he ever gets is simply wry. He’s just another Family Circus kid, playfully mispronouncing words and stating the obvious at inappropriate times.  If the newspaper made a mistake and mixed up the Dennis and Family Circus captions (which they’ve done, more than once), I would never notice.  In fact, for all I know, they’ve been doing it for ten years.

In an interview, Sunday Dennis artist Ron Ferdinand said, “I work with 4 or 5 excellent writers, so I get to be picky with the material. I can afford to use only the best scripts and that’s a luxury. The cast of DTM is so beautifully defined that they virtually write themselves anyway.”

Besides the obvious first question (if what we see in the paper are the best scripts, what else must they be writing), I think it’s worth asking, do “beautifully defined characters” make for good comics?  Well, sure, at first blush; but if we already know what Dennis is going to say in any given situation, do we really need to see him do it?  Do we need to retread tired material, over and over?  Do we need to maintain the status quo?

Yes, of course we do.  The merchandising and licensing agreements demand it.  Even though it doesn’t seem like the public is clamoring for Dennis merchandise — it doesn’t matter if nobody I know gives two hoots about Dennis fanny-packs — somebody must be buying it.  I can deduce this logically, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a strip.  Who would bother creating mediocre comics — somebody else’s mediocre comics, remember — if there was no money in it?

There exists a Catch-22: the comic’s unique appeal attracted an audience, and so licensing agreements were created to capitalize on that audience.  Now, in order to maintain the lucrative licensing agreements, the comic must continue on, long after its appeal has faded.  Dennis Mitchell is a recognizable enough character that companies will pay for him to endorse their products.

It doesn’t matter that the comic has already said anything interesting it was ever going to say; that it has contributed whatever it had to contribute.  Dennis the Menace is, today, a once-proud celebrity reduced to homelessness, sucking off the residual goodwill of society while begging for money and doing nothing in return but taking up space in the newspaper that could be otherwise put to good use.  Because do we really need 365 days a year of this?

the answer is, no we don't

Okay, first of all, does he know the word “infectious” or not?  If he knows the word, then he doesn’t need to sound it out like a retard.  If he doesn’t know the word, then why is he asking to go to the doctor?  That’s Problem Number One.

Problem Number Two is, how is this character remotely Dennis the Menace?  His laugh is infectious?  He’s laughing in school?  Where’s the slingshot in his back pocket?  Why is his mom not protectively clutching the crockery as her chaos-spawn ambles through the door, hell-bent on destruction?

I cannot deny the influence that Dennis has had on a generation of comic artists and fans.  But wherever there’s money involved, people keep things alive, zombie-like, stumbling through a world they never made.  I’ll bet if Terry Schiavo had been crapping nickels every hour on the hour while she lay in that hospital in Florida, there’d be no controversy and no emergency legislation and no nothing because she’d still be alive.

I am as much a doctor as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  And I say, with all due respect to the Schiavo family and to the late Hank Ketcham, let this nag die. There will be no resuscitation.  There will be no surgery. And the only prescription from this doctor will be an overdose of sleeping pills…

…That’s what I truly believe.  But that would sort of miss the point of the column.  So, let’s work at odds with Mr. Ferdinand’s “the characters write themselves” philosophy and shake things up a bit, really bringing Dennis back to his troublemaker roots, shall we?

or at least bi

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much.  He is, after all, only (and always) “five an’ a half.”  Despite the fact that keeping Dennis lodged in the status quo is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go — I can see how this may be a bit too much of a radical departure.  Besides, Dennis is already the Dairy Queen spokesman.  He doesn’t have to come out of the closet.

I do recommend that Dennis regain his malicious edge.  Here’s my serious suggestion:

i hope it was butter pecan

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

— November, 2005

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)