The Comic Strip Doctor: Final Thoughts.

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The Comic Strip Doctor is done. Sadly, it’s not because my job is finished; newspaper comics today are largely as insipid as ever. For better or worse, though (pun intended), I don’t regularly read newspaper comics anymore, and as I told my CSD mailing list, digging through online archives searching for the worst examples of Ziggy just so I can write a column isn’t how I want to spend another Saturday, ever.

Besides, there’s enough snark and commentary out there without me adding my blowhard opinion into the mix. I was prepared to let the whole matter drop and call it a day, but then I had an interesting weekend, which inspired me to write one final column. Instead of lashing out with personal attacks or taking anyone to task, I’m going to allow some of those whom I’ve (fairly or unfairly) maligned to speak on their own behalf, and leave any judgments to you, the reader.

Over the weekend, I read a book called Your Career in the Comics, by Lee Nordling. I recommend it highly as an introduction to the nuts-and-bolts business of syndicated cartooning. Less an actual written book than an edited series of interview snippets, Your Career in the Comics gathers the collected opinions of Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Jeff MacNelly, Bill Amend, Scott Adams, and many other cartoonists I highly respect…as well as Mell Lazarus, Johnny Hart, and a few others whose work I’ve spoken critically of in this column.

All in all, it’s a strikingly comprehensive look at the business and lifestyle of syndicated cartooning, and though some of the information is a bit dated (the book was published in 1995, and thus, says next to nothing about the Internet, which continues to transform the industry), it’s still a great window into the minds of the people who made the system work for them. Also, as far as I can tell, the material is exclusive — Bill Watterson, who famously hasn’t given many interviews, speaks at length in this book, and while his insights largely mirror other material that’s been published elsewhere, it’s still interesting to read his thoughts (at a point at which he had not yet officially retired, but was clearly considering it).

While the pros’ opinions differ on many points, the consensus is that in order to succeed, an artist must be extraordinarily dedicated and must produce good work. With respect to comic creators who’ve been working for decades (and many of whom practically died at the drawing board after working in comics their whole lives), it’s hard to question their dedication (with the exception of Mell Lazarus, who validates my opinion of him by coming off as a scribbling hack). As for quality, however — the book quotes syndicate executives who bemoan the dearth of good material that finds its way to their desk. But if I sent in Momma as a submission to United Features today, do you think I’d get a contract?

After reading the book this weekend, I then read the Sunday comics, and talk about whiplash! In Your Career, creators, syndicate execs, and newspaper editors explained to me for over two hundred pages how important it is to create quality product. The art has to be exceptional, I was told. The characters have to be relatable. The dialogue has to be snappy and the punchlines have to be consistently hilarious. The only comics that make it in this cutthroat business, I was told, are the very best of the best of the best.

Perhaps my standards for quality are too high, but when I turned from the talk about what comics have to be to the newsprint where I saw what comics are — I felt lied to.

The point of this column has never been just to make fun of bad comics, but to try and tell you that you shouldn’t settle for crap. If you’re a critical reader, turn to webcomics. Put down your newspaper. Follow the good syndicated strips online. Don’t support bad strips with your wallets. Newspaper people wring their hands over the continuing death of their beloved medium. But all I have to say in response is, “Well, duh.”

And if you’re a comic creator — do as the pros say, more then as they do. Namely, make better comics. Garfield is funnier today, three years after I called it out for being awful, than it has been at anytime in the last decade. There is always still hope.

The late Johnny Hart, on page 13 of Your Career in the Comics, perhaps put it best:

I think our challenge is to elevate the integrity of art and humor in the industry.

There is a certain thing that has been established throughout the years. Each artist copies the last artist and improves on the style, and it gets better and better and better. At least, I think that’s what the challenge should be, to try and uphold what has already been done and to improve on it, lend to it, add to it, refine it.

Hart has since passed away, yet his comic continues, assembled by his daughter and grandson using art from old episodes of the strip. It’s a bizarre backwards time-capsule of irony, or something. His words, a decade old, are no less true for his estate’s utter disregard of them, but it works backwards too: his strip — his legacy! — is no less dumb for his having had some potent insights.

Below I’ve reproduced some further quotes from the book and juxtaposed them with the comics created by the speakers of the quotes. You be the judge of how well they (or their estate) follow their own advice.

The comics I’ve selected to reprint are just the current comic at the time of my writing. I haven’t hunted for particularly good or bad examples. They just are what they are.

Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey):

…I find I write myself into a corner, and I can always come up with a funny solution. You don’t know where it’s going, when you start, and it works real well. I can sit down and do thirty ideas a day, without any trouble at all. They’re not all good. Usually, I write all those down, and then I draw up about ten. The better ones. (p.206)

Johnny Hart (B.C. and The Wizard of Id):

I want each gag to be the funniest. Everything we do has to be better than anything we ever did before. It’s like trying to climb a mountain that doesn’t have a top, which is better than falling into a pit that doesn’t have a bottom. (p.11)

Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace):

…As far as humor is concerned, you look for clarity, for impact, and an element of surprise. Does it fit your characters? Did we do it before? Is it current? A lot of these little things are judgment factors that are sitting in your head, that come into play when you’re making these evaluations. You must have a very, very low acceptance ratio, because you are a tough, tough editor. (p.30)

Mell Lazarus (Momma):

I have absolutely no ego in my work. […] I’ve drawn complete strips. I might have thought they worked in the writing and the penciling, and then I inked them completely, and they don’t work, and I throw them away. And I do it readily. In fact, I’m kind of pleased when I come to that conclusion, because it reassures me that I’m paying attention. (p.27)

I hope that, if nothing else, you’ve been inspired to look at the comics a bit more critically after reading my columns. As one reader put it to me in an email: “Well, gee, forgive a guy for just wanting a little smile over coffee in the morning. Does everything have to be analyzed to death?? They’re COMICS. GET OVER IT.”

Guess what, dude? Thanks to me, you’ll never look at Marmaduke the same way again. And you know what else? You’re welcome.

Thanks for reading, everyone. It’s been fun.

— September, 2007

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Cathy


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A Universal Press Syndicate interview with cartoonist Cathy Guisewite calls Cathy “the first widely syndicated humor strip by a female cartoonist.” The transparent qualifiers “widely syndicated” and “humor” are not mere press-release puffery; they are, in fact, quite deliberate, for without those qualifiers, the statement is inaccurate.

A casual reader of the statement may come away with the impression that Cathy was the first syndicated comic strip by a female cartoonist. (In fact, that honor goes to Dale Messick, for Brenda Starr, beginning in 1940.) But being the first at something is a powerful branding tool, and with enough qualifiers, anyone can be the first at something.

Cathy is widely regarded as the first comic strip that spoke to a generation of working, struggling women in a voice that resonated as one of their own. In the mid-1970s, Guisewite was a successful advertising copywriter with typical insecurites about her love life, her relationship with food and her weight, and the hassles and stresses of work. She doodled little characters expressing her angst on letters to her mother, who pushed her to submit to syndicates. As she puts it:

Universal Press was really looking for a strip that addressed these [women’s] issues, and while they had had many submissions from men, they thought that my work had an emotional honesty that the men just couldn’t approach. […] I think I got a contract to do “Cathy” faster than anyone has ever gotten one in history.

When the strip first appeared in 1976, women’s rights were being newly asserted both in the workplace and in the arena of relationships. The character of Cathy was a young, single, independent woman with the same fears, uncertainties, and challenges as an entire generation. Guisewite again:

I get way more feedback from people who say that they love Cathy because she’s not afraid to admit that she doesn’t have it all together every day […] they say it’s refreshing to read Cathy and know that there’s somebody else out there who’s still hauling around a 40-pound purse full of dreams.

Bathing suit doesn’t fit? Cathy’s got your back. Mom driving you nuts? Cathy’s been there too. Men just don’t understand you? Oh, Cathy — it’s you and me against the world.

And so every petty dilemma in a woman’s life, every mundane struggle and boilerplate annoyance, suddenly became an “AACK!”-worthy crisis.

Since 1976, the role of women in society has changed dramatically. An entire new generation has arisen that doesn’t give a second thought to working for a living, for example, or more broadly, taking responsibility for one’s own happiness and fulfillment. The average marriage age is older than ever before, as young people — and young women, in particular — are realizing that they don’t need to define themselves in terms of their role in a relationship. Women of today’s generation are every bit as comfortable with technology as men. And yet Cathy AACKs her way through her job, her relationships, and her shopping obsession, puzzling over Irving’s “male brain” and turning every visit to the mall into a sweat-soaked, cookie-fueled, nuclear-grade emergency.

The central relationship in Cathy’s life is her love/hate affair with consumption. Like many women, Cathy suffers from a poor body image, and struggles to conform to society’s unreal image of ideal femininity. She wages seasonal battles with the latest trends in swimwear, formal dress, and shoe fashions; she also fights herself internally, rarely motivating herself to exercise but often guiltily binging on snacks. Her endemic weakness for food, apparel, and tchotchkes makes her unremarkable at best and pathetic at worst.

And yet this sad figure is held up as a beacon of commiserative hope for women? Cathy’s weaknesses reinforce whatever stereotypes they are intended to bolster sympathy against. By saying to women, “Don’t worry, I feel bad about my weight too,” Cathy is saying, “Feeling bad about your weight is something that women do,” and excluding positive, healthy thoughts from the realm of “what women do.” By saying, “Ha ha, sometimes I buy too much stuff, just like you do,” she is saying, “Shopping compulsively is a trait of women in general,” and excluding those who exercise self-control as not real women, or at least not “normal” women. Because Cathy is a “normal” woman, and to be a “normal woman” in Cathy’s world, you have to obsess about your thighs, hate your mother, carry around a precious little dog and marry a doofus.

The aforementioned doofus, Cathy’s husband Irving, is a shallow foil for Cathy’s various neuroses. Like the ever-present Saleswoman, more about whom below, Irving exists mainly so that Cathy‘s readers can sigh knowingly, say “Oh, men!”, and put the comic on the fridge for their longsuffering husband to read. Irving likes golf, gadgets, and against all odds, Cathy herself, despite the fact that she is a shrill, bitter harpy. Her one redeeming personality trait is her silence on how abjectly dull her husband is.

Irving was Cathy’s long-term boyfriend for many years, until Guisewite decided to reintroduce Cathy to the dating world; then, after a string of cardboard beaus, she decided to marry Cathy off to expose a rich new vein of comedic material. Re-enter the longsuffering Irving, the “nice guy” with no identifiable personality beyond his general “maleness” — in other words, an aversion to housework, an impatience with shopping, and an affinity for gadgets:

Irving, and in fact the entire male species in Cathy‘s universe, exists merely to frustrate women. And any currency that Guisewite might earn for her portrayal of Modern Woman as a complex, nuanced creature with desires and hopes and fears underrepresented by mainstream media is spent by her repeated, “good-natured” slogs through Stereotypeville, U.S.A.:

The Saleswoman character is Cathy’s nemesis. Never named, never personified except by her attempts to batter Cathy’s willpower, she typically tries to push a product on Cathy that Cathy doesn’t need. Cathy’s resistance is therefore an act of heroism against the Establishment:

But any sign that this self-control is a redeeming character trait on Cathy’s part, or that it’s part of Guisewite’s campaign to empower or encourage the Modern Woman against the tantalizing forces of consumerism, is obliterated as soon as Cathy reverts to Stereotype Mode:

The preceding two comics were published three days apart, and yet they are diametrically opposed in terms of worldview. Can Cathy have it both ways? Is she the modern, Empowered Woman, or is she the giddy girl who can’t pass up a shopping bargain? Guisewite appears to remain on the fence about which female stereotypes she wants to indignantly shatter and which she wants to giddily indulge in. Equal pay for equal work, but can’t we gals still go shopping? Can we diet away from our cake, but still eat it too?

Guisewite may be exploring this contradiction by painting her character as conflicted, but a more likely explanation is that the entire “shopping” construct is merely an artifice for a series of lame gags, and that there is no character development happening whatsoever.

Logically consistent within that premise is our earlier assertion that Cathy‘s main import has been to elevate the mundane, typical bothers of daily existence into a sort of pseudo-operatic cacophany of global prosecution, in which every personal tic and foible has the booming quality of an Aristotelian tragic flaw, and every interaction with one’s husband, mother, boss, or dog is a clash of titans. Department store dressing rooms become gauntlets of terrible trials, and bikinis must be tried on with one hand while the other defends oneself from the fierce, flaming arrows of The Entire World Against You, your plaintive, bellowing “AACK” reverberating forever in the Halls of Eternity.

You see, everyone alive today has problems. Of every sort. Some of us figure out how to get past them and not let them take over our lives. For the rest of the world, I suppose, there’s always Cathy.

I am going to break form here and abstain from my usual habit of re-writing a specific comic strip. I have no interest in making Cathy funny. *(See “Update,” below.) I will, however, comment on a rather peculiar thing I found in my mailbox recently: it seems that Cathy has teamed up with the U. S. Postal Service, as a way of educating postal customers about the many services available at your local post office.

There are four, or maybe six, different postcards, featuring postal-themed Cathy strips on the reverse; I’ll spare you the full brunt and merely show the strip on the reverse of the above mailing:

Seriously, a money order?

Despite the obviously sociopathic tendencies of this strip’s protagonist (typified by an unhealthy fixation on low-grade, overpriced packing supplies) it is recognizably the same character from the non-commercially-licensed version of the comic; she has the same frenzied compulsion to buy everything in sight. (Modern Woman, take heed.)

In the past, Cathy’s shilled for Betty Crocker and the wedding website (the latter in the form of product placement within the newspaper strip itself); she’s also spoken for (oddly enough) Glamour magazine and McDonald’s. I don’t recall the McDonald’s ads personally, but I imagine they were something along the lines of, “McDonald’s food is so healthy, even weight-conscious Cathy is happy to indulge herself. Go on, insecure women of America; stuff your freaking face.” I’m sad to report that the message seems to have worked.

Divorced by time and progress from whatever socially progressive message it may once have had, Cathy lives on as a cutesy, tape-it-to-your-cubicle strip that gives voice to the myriad ever-present annoyances that seem so very important but are really no more than the normal bumps on the road of every day. By doing so, it has encouraged a culture that treats every slight as a mortal wound and every bother as a tragedy; it echoes (or is echoed by) the petulant cry of a nation that can’t develop, say, a healthy resistance to advertising, or a stable relationship with another human being based on compromise and understanding. What was once a novel voice of understanding to a generation finding its way is now a shrill whine that grates on the ears of a new generation.

Do you smell that, Cathy? It’s the winds of change …

Oh, wait. You’ve got no freaking nose.

UPDATE: I have been taken to task for shirking my Hippocratic oath and refusing to treat this patient. Thus, the following.

My initial opinion of the above comic was that it made no freaking sense. My second consecutive use of the adjective “freaking” in as many column inches is testament to the fact that I have no idea what is happening in this comic.

Originally published on January 13, 2006, this strip finds Cathy and Irving sharing a tender moment on the couch. At this point they’ve been married for eleven months. Irving is utterly content to wallow in filth, watching TV. At first I thought he was playing video games, because both of his hands are engaged, but the second panel punches in to reveal a remote control (or Wiimote) in his hand.

Every remote control that I’ve ever used was designed to be operated one-handedly. That is the basic principle of the remote control. Yet Irving cradles the remote in his left hand and jabs at it with his finger. He’s leaning forward in his chair, a wide, earnest grin on his face; if this strip were my first introduction to the character, I’d have him pegged as a ‘tardder.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s a nervous wreck, perched with her hands twitching on her knees, looking at everything that has to be done — sorting through papers, cleaning up after the dog, “re-doing” that “whole bookshelf.” Generic particles of unidentified nast float through the air and come to rest on every surface.

In the second panel, Cathy turns to Irving. We know what she’s thinking; we read her whole novel about it in the previous panel. His head whips around, his giddy enthusiasm unconcerned with which activity it’s focused on. He’s clearly been waiting for any excuse to pounce amorously on Cathy — perhaps his viewing choices have “primed his pump,” so to speak. Maybe that’s why Cathy anxiously seeks out something — anything — else to focus her attention on.

I can see the conversation from earlier that evening progressing somewhat like this:

Irving: “C’mon, honey, it’ll be fun, it’ll get us into the mood…”
Irving (sighing): “Okay, well, I’m gonna put in the DVD — just give it a chance, okay? It’s really not –”

By panel three, Irving’s finally gotten the chance he’s been waiting for — he’s been spring-loaded for an hour now, just waiting for the barest sign that Cathy’s finally come around, or is willing to at least play along to keep the peace. At this point, he doesn’t need cooperation — all he needs is acquiescence. He seizes the opening.

Panel four neatly sums up Cathy’s relationship with the world. The perfectly reasonable idea that a husband may occasionally be forward with his lawfully wedded wife is trumped in favor of Cathy’s crippling obsession with life’s minutiae. Are receipts really that important, Cathy? So important that not only would you choose it over a romantic evening with your prefab, cardboard husband, but you’d in fact be bitter should he not see things the same way?

We’ve already established Cathy’s love affair with consumption. Now a new facet emerges: that it may in fact supplant any real relationships in her life. She is clearly uninterested in giving herself wholly to the man with whom she shares a house — not emotionally, not experientially, and not, as we can see from this strip, physically.

Upon first reading of this strip, I didn’t really understand the last panel. How could she be more excited by the prospect of vacuuming up dog hair from the carpet than by spontaneous romance? This speaks to a personality disorder so severe that I couldn’t bring myself to believe that I wasn’t reading the strip wrong and missing some obvious punchline.

But now, after puzzling out this whole disturbing backstory that implies a crippling (and thoroughly unsurprising) frigidity on Cathy’s part, I can’t conceive of any other explanation. Cathy is a broken person. And what’s worse is that according to that smug smile in the last panel, she’s happy about it.

I cannot overemphasize this final point enough. She doesn’t see anything wrong with the way she feels. As we’ve established, freaking out over every petty annoyance is considered “normal” for Cathy (and, by extension, for Modern Woman, according to Guisewite’s twisted logic). But now we see that the freakouts are part of a larger defense mechanism — by obsessing over receipts, she never has to deal with the more pressing question of intimacy. By doting on her dog, she never has to enter into a mature, adult relationship with her husband. By making a full in-basket at work into a life-threatening event, she never has to examine her life goals in a broader sense, never has to re-evaluate whether her career is leading her down a path she’s sure she wants to tread. She fills her days and her nights with distractions, because it’s easier that way.

The empowerment that Guisewite has devised for Modern Woman has become her prison. She spent so much time fighting to get into the workplace that she never stopped to think about whether it was what she really wanted. I don’t mean to appear critical of women’s rights in general; I think women should have every avenue open to them. But in Cathy’s case, every aspect of her life — from her job to her marriage to her purchases — feels prescribed; like she’s going through the motions of the life she feels she should want, and filling up her days with mindless busy-work because she’s scared to face the bigger questions.

When Cathy is on her deathbed, the things she will regret will be unrelated to the size of swimsuits.

Perhaps it’s a latent patriarchical fear of speaking out of turn, or a simple reluctance to admit that the doors opened by “empowerment” lead to hallways into which the light does not penetrate. In any case, Cathy’s shrill superficiality is a mask that hides a scared child, terrified of real risk or change or of exposing any sliver of vulnerability. Irving likely does not necessarily realize this; he doesn’t seem like a white-knight type, hoping to fix her with his broad, strong shoulders. He seems instead like a decent dude, who’ll absorb the high-volume abuse tight-lipped for days and weeks and years, and at midnight on their twentieth anniversary it’ll take every ounce of resolve in his body to not reach slowly over and snap her neck in her sleep.

Here’s my first suggested revision for this strip:

The assumption here, based on the Kevin Smith reference, is that what Cathy dumps on Irving is his comic book collection. However, this assumes a baseline familiarity with comic collecting on the part of the reader. Part of the difficulty faced by Guisewite and other mass-market cartoonists is the urge to make every single strip as broad and accessible as possible. In this case, I’ve stepped too far in the other direction.

One of the many advantages that I enjoy relative to cartoonists like Guisewite is the ability to revise the work. Once the strip’s in a newspaper, that’s it; it’s done. Guisewite has to hit her deadline, and whatever state the comic’s in when that bell tolls, that’s what runs in the paper. But online, there is no such finality, and no need to abandon work that can still be improved. Here’s my final version.

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

— January, 2007

(Back to Comic Strip Doctor index.)

The Comic Strip Doctor: Shoe

cosmo here is not even in the episode in question

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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

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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.)