I would advise you to just shoot a clip on your phone, but I notice that your cellular device is a rotary

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.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Beetle Bailey

our nation at war

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

In 1950, the United States entered the Korean War.  One year later, as combat raged across the 38th parallel, a clueless frat-boy named “Beetle” Bailey accidentally enlisted in the U.S. Army, courtesy of cartoonist Mort Walker, who’d had less than stellar success with his college-themed comic strip and who wanted to give his lead character a new environment to mine for comedy gold.  Lazy Beetle has slacked his way through fifty years’ worth of American military conflicts without suffering so much as a paper cut from an enemy insurgent.  He’s the perfect soldier in that respect — two and a half years after Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner, Beetle Bailey is chipper, carefree and (most impressively) still alive.

Of course, he’s never actually seen combat, save for a few mock battle drills and the persistent Abu Ghraib-like treatment he suffers at the hands of Sgt. Orville Snorkel, the Skipper to Beetle’s Gilligan.  He is a soldier who never kills, in an army which never fights, for a country which never calls on him.  He is a pretend grunt, walking emptily through a facade of Eisenhower-era Army life, suffering through all of the K.P. but with none of the K.I.A. He is a soldier in the same sense that Russian sleeper agents raised in replica American towns in Siberia are Americans. He is an Army of None.

Which raises the question: what, exactly, is the point of the comic strip?  Honing his craft for over fifty-five years at this point, Walker has delved into the subject of an average kid in the American military — a rich, complex subject to draw from, with examples in popular culture as nuanced as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Jarhead — and emerged with (and I’m being charitable here) Dilbert in fatigues.  Himself a WWII veteran, and a noted contributor to and administrator of numerous veterans’ aid organizations, Walker’s got no shortage of inspiration, yet he continues to toe the line of pabulum, keeping Beetle as detached from the realities of the military experience as B.C. is from the fossil record.

how dare you!
(Image courtesy of Francesco Marciuliano’s Medium Large. Used with permission.)

Granted, nobody expects Beetle Bailey to ponder the ramifications of imperialism any more than they expect Hagar the Horrible to discuss the Nordic influence on Anglo-Saxon culture in the tenth century.  It’s a comic strip, and it’s a showcase for all the trials and tribulations of soldier life, such as, um, you know, peeling potatoes and having tanks around and stuff.  And having a point of view on a subject as close to the public’s nerves as America At War could be dangerous for as bland an institution as Beetle.  But it’s precisely because there is a global concern about the role of American military force in the world that the Pleasantville quality of Beetle stands out so abjectly.

haven't you ever seen the military before?

Amazingly, Beetle Bailey has several “revolutionary” cites to its credit: in the early 1950s, the strip was dropped from the Tokyo edition of Stars & Stripes because it allegedly encouraged disrespect for officers. Of course, the civilian press laughed roundly at the Japanese, and domestic circulation in the U.S. leaped by 100 newspapers.  In 1970, Lt. Jack Flap became the first black character integrated into an otherwise white comic strip cast.  Although some Southern newspapers (and the Armed Forces’ own Stars & Stripes) dropped Beetle, 100 other newspapers picked it up.

And the cutting edge continues to slice onward: Cpl. Yo, the Asian character introduced in 1990, reflects “the changing face of today’s Army”, according to his official King Features description; more recently, Specialist Chip Gizmo, tech-head, joined the cast.  I’m waiting for Extra-Special Specialist Bruce Fabuloso to swish his way through Gen. Halftrack’s door, reflecting The Changing Face Of Today’s Army.

And the rub of it is, Beetle is occasionally funny:

also: beer

What’s particularly notable about the above strip (originally published Sept. 5, 2005) is that it has nothing to do with the premise of the comic. The same gag would work in Hagar the Horrible (given its playful anachronisms) or Crankshaft or Doonesbury or pretty much any other strip you can suggest.  That’s not a bad thing; it would be silly to limit Beetle to Army-related jokes only, and after all, Dilbert isn’t in the office every strip.  But it reminds us of our above question: what’s the point of doing an Army strip if your best material doesn’t reference the Army at all?

This is not to suggest that Beetle Bailey suddenly become topical and deal heavy-handedly with the War on Terror and take on the ripped-from-last-month’s-headlines quality of Mallard Fillmore.  But a small step in that direction would at least bring the comic back to the semblance of relevance it had in 1951 during the height of the Korean conflict.  Otherwise, Camp Swampy remains just another cardboard set for a monotone re-enactment of endless “mess hall food” jokes and their kin.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a comic originally published on October 17, 2005:

oh, that zero!

Panel 1: Beetle and Plato lounge on a hillside.  Are they on some sort of maneuvers or training?  Who knows; whatever the mission, our two privates have the luxury of resting in the grass and ruminating on the pleasant things in life.  Beetle: “It’s so nice and quiet up here in the mountains.”  Plato: “Yeah…you can hear yourself think.”

Panel 2: Beetle and Plato look over at the heretofore-unseen Zero, who rolls his eyes in empty concentration, saying, “Funny…I don’t hear anything.”

The above strip, like the tennis one earlier, has nothing to do with the premise of Beetle Bailey, but in this case that detachment hasn’t earned it much in the comedy department.  The Walkers have figured out yet another way to point at the singular trait of one of their characters.  This strip might as well have read “Wow, Zero sure is dumb.” Zero: “Yes, I am.”

By keeping the spirit of the characters and setting — it’s a beautiful day; Beetle and Plato are clearly enjoying lounging in it; Zero, as usual, is clueless — we can subtly interject a bit of topicality and, at the same time, draw the character traits into sharper focus.  In our version, Zero doesn’t have to be just two-dimensionally “dumb,” whereby people call him dumb and that comprises his character; he can actually be an individual over his head in a situation that he honestly does not know how to comprehend.

Beetle doesn’t have to be just “lazy,” meaning he lies down a lot; in our version, he may actively not desire to participate in the activity for which he has been conscripted.  And so, he would likely make up justifications that would render his (non)behavior acceptable.

Plato, the token brainiac of the group, doesn’t need to just cite Shakespeare at every opportunity; he may believe, like all people who feel too smart for their own surroundings, that his intelligence entitles him to control his situation when, in fact, that may not be the case.  None of this exploration of character needs to be detailed in the text of the strip, but it can serve as useful subtext in our revision of this installment of Beetle Bailey.

Further character work along these lines would reveal Gen. Halftrack to be a man who believes himself to be deserving of immense power, but who nonetheless deeply regrets marrying his wife. Sarge would become a man consumed by his inability to control his eating, becoming someone who exercises extremely controlling behavior in every other aspect of his life. Lt. Fuzz would be forced to face his crippling inadequacy complex.  These characters are archetypes, with very easily-mined depths, yet Walker is content to endlessly remind us of the color of their gift-wrap instead of opening their packages. I suggest rectifying this.

clearly they are not in any sort of desert clime.

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

— October, 2005

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The Comic Strip Doctor: Drabble

what IS a drabble

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

Drabble is one of the strips that are usually in the middle of the newspaper page, easy for the eye to skip over. It’s the very definition of “eminently forgettable.” I’m fairly certain that if there wasn’t a picture of the main character right above this paragraph, you’d have no idea what comic I’m talking about.  In fact, you still may not.  If that’s the case, then just keep reading as a favor to me — I’ll take all the charity I can get.

Drabble is the creation of Kevin Fagan, a man who has never held a job that did not involve creating Drabble.  In 1979, Fagan became the youngest comic-strip creator to be signed to a syndication deal (United Feature Syndicate).  He was 21, and had four years of college-newspaper cartooning under his belt.  Drabble was borne from Fagan’s desire to “do a strip that students could relate to.  I wanted to avoid political stuff, because that’s what every other college cartoonist does.”

Thus we’re gifted with the story of dimwitted Norman Drabble, his dimwitted father Ralph, and their family that’s not really important enough to mention (precocious Patrick, precocious Penny, mom June/Honeybunch, Oogie the cat, Wally the weiner dog, and Bob the duck, as well as sarcastic Norman’s-love-interest Wendy, if you must know).  Like The Simpsons, Drabble has, over the course of its run, drifted away from focusing on the son and more towards focusing on the father, perhaps due to the shift in Fagan’s perspective as he ages.

Let me make one thing clear: Drabble is not the worst comic in the newspaper.  (That honor goes to Momma.)  About once a month or so, it achieves the base level of quality that, in a perfect world, would be the minimum acceptable standard for all syndicated comic strips.  And, from all accounts, Kevin Fagan is a helluva nice guy.

That being said…

Drabble is retarded.  It’s every cliché from every sitcom ever made.  This week is Week Two of a massive story arc involving Norman’s struggle with a tip jar — territory that was a C-plot in a Seinfeld episode from ten years ago. Drabble has mined such comedic veins as math (pi r squared = pie is round!), travel (New York taxicabs drive crazy!), and if you’ve ever not laughed at a joke because it was too dumb or obvious, Kevin Fagan will make it into a Drabble strip in 2015.

The characters are cliché.  Ralph (the dad) is Homer Simpson without the interesting antics, repeatable catchphrases or pitiable quirks.  Norman (the older son) is just dumb in a shallow-fiction way, meaning that at every juncture you can predict that he will make the really obvious wrong decision. Because he’s dumb, you see! I’d love to see a comic strip about a realistically dumb kid, who’s always making bad choices because he gets angry too much and likes to spite those who think they know better than him, and who’s powerlessly watching his life spiral out of control while desperately trying to forestall the inevitable by turning to bad homemade meth and Red Hook and punching holes in walls while hopped up on aerosol paint fumes.  I knew lots of those guys in high school, and any of them would be much more fascinating to watch than Norman from the detached distance of a comic strip:

Hypothetical situation: At a salad bar.

Norman: Sneezes at the sneeze shield.  To the chagrin of onlookers, he explains: “Well, it’s a sneeze shield, isn’t it?”

Realistic dumb guy: Leans underneath the sneeze shield to get at the beets.  Sneezes directly onto the salad at point-blank range.  Looks around furtively, and amidst disapproving glares, he stalks off angrily, shouting, “I didn’t do nothing!”  Brow furrowed, he is on the receiving end of silent stares and whispers for the rest of the night.

Here’s a Drabble strip from the family’s aforementioned trip to New York.  This was published on August 22, 2005:

trust me!

In the first panel, we see the outside of the “Big Apple Hotel”, which would place the scene in New York City, at 752 Fifth Avenue. While trying to find a picture of 752 Fifth Avenue in New York (where, according to Google, the real Big Apple Hotel is located), I learned that most of that block of Fifth is occupied by the Bergdorf Goodman department store. In other words, it would seem — and I’m no expert — that the Drabble family is lodging in a department store. It’s sort of like that commercial, where the people are arguing in their kitchen, and then it turns out they’re actually in Ikea? If we live in a world where that could happen, I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that the dumb Drabbles could make a similar mistake. It should be said that I have never actually been to New York.

In the panel, someone (Ralph, probably) is saying, “The key to a successful visit to New York is to not look like tourists!” Right off the bat, you know where this is going. It’s so painfully obvious that this conceit was old when Bob Hope did it in his 1851 hit, Road to Antarctica. It’s so painfully obvious that I actually wrote this comic strip at the age of seven during Sustained Silent Reading in Mrs. Havens’ second grade class. It’s so painfully obvious that cave paintings featuring this same joke have recently been unearthed in France. Please, Kevin Fagan, give us a twist! Reverse our expectations! Do something that would actually meet the definition of the word “humor”! Perhaps, against all odds, he will: let’s read on.

In the second panel, Ralph is briefing the family on his plan to help them blend in. Norman and Honeybunch are smiling eagerly; Patrick and Penny are too short to have readable expressions. Ralph: “So I went out and bought some things that will help us look like native New Yorkers!”

Kevin Fagan, this is an open message to you: As I retype your dialogue, I find myself unconsciously changing it to make it shorter, more concise, and more interesting. Then I have to go back and correct it so it’s an accurate transcription. Please call me.

In the third panel, we see the (inevitable) punch line: Everyone’s dressed like tourists! Whoa-ho-ho! Boy, Ralph, what a dummy you are! Patrick is the moral compass, so to speak: “Are you sure native New Yorkers wear Statue of Liberty hats?” Norman’s not so sure, but Ralph is quick with the response: “Trust me! We’ll fit right in!” And the kicker: Mom and Penny roll their eyes! Whoa-ho-ho!

Before I delve further into the specifics of this particular strip, I’d like to offer Mr. Fagan a general note of advice. In many of his storylines — such as this week in New York, or the prior week in Niagara Falls, both part of a larger “vacation” story arc — he makes several weak jokes and then flees the scene, like a drive-by shooter peppering a house with random, hopscotch-girl-hitting bullets rather than hammering one humorous concept further home over several days, like a hit man stalking through a house and methodically shooting each occupant in the head, two bullets in the temple, then stripping off his surgical gloves and leaving them to melt in the fireplace. My recommendation is to play out certain situations in greater detail; to mine them deeper for comedy, instead of strip-mining the already-picked-over surface. If I try hard, like a horse pulling a heavy cart, I might be able to get a few more metaphors into this sentence, like a series of successively fatter men cramming their way into an elevator. In a library.

For example, here’s another of the New York series, this one printed on August 26:

is that so?

Okay, I’m not going to retype all the dialogue, but you get the point: fish-out-of-water comedy. Ralph is a mall security guard, you see, so he feels it’s within his domain to perform a citizen’s arrest on some errant jaywalkers (never mind that jaywalking is a citation misdemeanor at best, and if they’re crossing at the crosswalk that’s probably more than good enough for local law enforcement. Apparently, New York has a big crossing-in-the-middle-of-the-street problem. I have never been to New York).

At the risk of giving Fagan too much credit, this strip has potential. It’s no knee-slapper, but it’s a prime example of a not-that-funny strip that’s tolerated because it’s the setup for the following week’s worth of storyline, each episode more hilarious than the last.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The next day, Ralph has moved on to the Empire State Building — presumably he’s collared the wayward criminals and moved on with his vacation. The “citizen’s arrest” comic would have been a great setup for a few more days’ worth of Ralph attempting to catch the jaywalkers. His braggadocio in panels three and four, above, is a more productive use of his character than any sort of lovable buffoonery.

Besides, the more general the jokes, the shallower the humor — specificity is better. Not to draw this unfavorable comparison again, but when Homer Simpson came to New York, he spent the whole episode dealing with a parking ticket.

The tip-jar storyline, midway through Week Two as of this writing, is a good example of a concept when “longer” — more strips on a specific subject, like I’m advocating above — is not always “better”. It’s a matter of being more judicious with which concepts merit further development.

Setting aside the larger issue of the New York storyline, if we are to rescue the “dress like tourists” strip, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Fagan’s not that great of an artist, and he’s certainly not a very precise draftsman, but he’s given us a fair amount of specificity in the drawings that we’ll have to work around. Here’s my take on how to improve Drabble:

thanks, folks, I'll be here all week

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

— August, 2005

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

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