Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The day the comics died

Tag 'em and bag 'em: The comics died Wednesday, November 7, 2012, about 5:45 a.m., partway through my first cup of coffee.

Don't feel bad if you missed it. Most did. Though death came with a big bang, it was muffled under millions of newsprint pages, still folded and unread.

Chances are you really don't care. I'll be magnanimous and show you The Moment anyway:

This is the apex, the final funny thought, the last brilliant idea that need be called a newspaper comic … a perfect jewel of a 'toon by Dan Piraro, an ever rarer genius of the now-dimmed genre.

(An alternate title for this post might be, "In praise of Dan Piraro" …)

You draw a cartoon like that, your next move is to lock up your studio and shout into the evening air, "Goodnight everybody, and drive safe!" You click your heels, flip your porkpie hat into the void and make vacation plans, long vacation plans.

You have done all you can possibly do in comics; nothing is left to say.

Yes, it's that cataclysmically good. Why? Count the ways:

• It's a meta-comic. It's a comic about comics.
• It takes a trope as old as comics (the little, gradually enlarging circles, visual shorthand for thoughts) and marries it to another visual trope, of bubbles expanding in water as they rise.
I chuckle at the surface idea, then at the clever trick of breathing new life into cartoon code we don't even really see because our brains tell us immediately, "That's a thought balloon!" Then I chuckle at the impassive faces of the fish, seemingly crushed under the ennui of their conundrum (unwarranted anthropomorphism, I know). Then I wonder at the endless loop created by the fish's confusion over who or what it's talking to (Me? The other fish? Itself?), and wonder again whether the other fish might answer … and whether it would wonder too whether it was thinking or talking. And I chuckle again.
(btw — because "by the way" is way too hard to type — I learned "trope" only this year, used mostly to mean a conventional idea. I can't tell if the rest of the world learned the word this year, too, or if I'm more keenly attuned to others' use of the word because I now know its meaning; I hear it every day now. )
• Sure, it's two fish and no real background, but it's two fish well drafted as Dan Piraro knows and shows so well, with color ink laid down as if water colors.
Bad drawing isn't a deal breaker for me. Ideas rule. I think editorial cartoonist Tom Toles can draw; he just chooses not to. One less uncertain line on any of his caricatures and he'd have to draw little signs telling readers who he's trying to draw. Toles stings with his ideas instead; drawing well might get in the way. But give me good drawing. I could waste big chunks of day staring at good drawing.
(Awkward addendum I: Daily strips tend to be in color now, a last ditch effort to attract the unread. Piraro does it right, but others color the speech balloons, which muddies legibility.)
(Awkward addendum II: The Bee does not run Piraro's Sunday strip, which is a celebration of big puns and ornate hand-drawn type. We get Frazz on Sundays for some reason, which is nice, but we don't get it daily, so it's like a visit from a third cousin, twice removed.) 
Piraro wrote thusly in his blog about this panel, which he called "cartoon self consciousness:"
"Here we have a fish who isn’t sure how to read its own cartoon symbology. Is she thinking, as the bubbles normally suggest in a cartoon, or is she talking and the bubbles are a function of being underwater? I know the answer but I won’t divulge it until I’m on my deathbed. Assuming I die in bed."
Of course, Piraro did not go gentle into the good night. He's still knockin' out good 'toons, and in the last two weeks they have been extremely sharp and elevating, even for Piraro. Despite his low station in a bottom corner of the comics page, Piraro shines among the mediocre.

So many comics are safe and boring and afraid. I read them out of habit anymore, like a residence hall monitor checking the inmates in hopes anything funny or surprising happens.

Several still deliver — Luann and her family gradually mature and have real-world problems; Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman use Zits to play with the visual possibilities of comics; Sally Forth's family revels in its social ineptitude. For most others, yawn. Though my view is limited to the two daily pages The Sacramento Bee has alotted to comic strips (which is generous), they contain much of the pioneer stock of 20th Century comics. That's not necessarily good.

We still have Peanuts, even though creator Charles Schulz died 12 years ago. A pillar of the genre, a beacon for future strips, truly great, never to be forgotten. Except we never get the chance. Peanuts takes up valuable space on every comics page in the nation, I'm sure, like the dustiest berth in a crowded mausoleum.

With all respect to Mr. Schulz, Peanuts didn't have much to say in its last 10 or 15 years at least, but there it sits, still babbling. I have no idea what it's saying or where it is in the chronological order of more than 18,000 strips, because I don't look at it. I suspect most people don't read it, but it's there because people feel its absence is somehow worse.

Though I was sure Schulz said the strip would not continue after he died, it turns out what he really said is that no one else would draw it after he passed. Wishful listening on my part.

For Better or For Worse still goes on, (I'm going with the latter) even though creator Lynn Johnston effectively retired four years ago. We get treated to a trip in the time machine to see all the Pattersons in their younger states, starting over with all the foibles and jokes that charmed the first time but clunk on the second reading.

Beetle Bailey is drawn by (or credited to) I don't know how many of Mort Walker's progeny, but more people aren't making it better. Beetle Bailey is lazy, Sarge eats a lot and violently hates Beetle's laziness, Gen. Halftrack is a drunken letch; OK, we get it. Funny a long time ago. It may be difficult for any new readers to tell they're supposed to be Army soldiers and brass assigned forever to Camp Swampy. Now they're just folks in funny suits who do their best with bad, mysogynistic outdated scripts.

Mort Walker created what became the National Cartoon Museum. You'd think he above all would see the need to tie a bow on his trailblazing career, retire Beetle, and make room for someone else to get a chance to make it into the museum.  

Mark Trail repeats ad nauseam Mark's misadventures, which Mark always survives, usually with a punch to the bad guy's bewhiskered lantern jaw, giving him one panel to go home and break promises to his family about spending time with them, because he is quickly on another repeated misadventure. Over and over again.

The Bee, at least, spares readers any more soap opera comics such as Mary Worth or Rex Morgan M.D. In the rush of social media and reality TV, nothing is less relevant.
Hank Ketcham passed away in 2001, but little Dennis the Menace lives on and on. And on. Someone is accurately mimicking Ketcham's distinctive serpentine and economic line for the daily strip, someone else for the Sunday panels. Word is that someone was doing so even when Ketcham was alive, and was paid to write gags around the endless trope of a precocious boy and his eternally grumpy neighbor and his cookie-cooking wife.

Piraro draws others' ideas occasionally too, and trumpets his collaborations. The cartoon playing on trope for tear-off phone numbers comes from Andy Cowan, a television comedy screenwriter. The cycle path/psychopath 'toon idea came from one of his business managers, and the cyclops pirate panel came from a clever buddy. I don't hold it against him — a daily strip of good ideas is obviously extremely difficult. At least he's getting ideas that elevate the ethos of his work.

Bil Keane died a year ago, yet one of his son's maintains the damnable suspension of time that is Family Circus; I wonder how many times each saccharine utterance from each of those eternal children has been recycled. I wonder and I shudder.

Gary Larson left cartooning while he was on top, retiring The Far Side before running out of ideas. (The comic a little merchandising factory now — Books! T-shirts! Whatever! — but at least room was made on the comics page.) Bill Watterson fought for more space for Calvin and Hobbes, fought for the vastness of the early days when Winsor McCay had half or all of a newsprint page on which to unhinge his beautiful snack-fueled dreams, then told readers he'd said all he could say in a comic strip and disappeared.

Comics are the gateway drug to reading. A kid rifles through the morning newspaper looking for the funny pages, and tries to figure out what the characters are saying, while the grownups look through all the boring gray pictures without many pictures, funny or otherwise. After awhile, having gained power over words, kids drift toward the boring gray pages (first sports and then movie reviews) to discover they aren't boring but enlightening.

Kids need a reason to become addicted to reading, a compulsion to rifle through the paper for dibs on the comics. They need comics they want to see, that'll dazzle the way they dazzled me as I learned to read. The Old Guard needs to fold and legions of unpublished cartoonists need the space to take their places.

The Old Guard of readers won't let them leave, though. The Bee is just one of many, many newspapers that roll out surveys so readers can determine which comics to keep and which to ditch. By popular vote, Charlie Brown lives on, trudging zombie-like across the page with Dennis and Beetle an Hi and Lois and that baby of theirs, endlessly fascinated by sunbeams. We hate change more than we fear the potential of new ideas. Newspapers aren't democracies, though; they should change the comics on their own. It'd take us about a week to get over it.

But it may be too late. Too many people I know don't even subscribe to newspapers anymore, people my age, reading online instead. That's no way to read a newspaper. You need the ritual, the comfortable chair, the breakfast table, the purchase of time to linger and look and hope for a laugh.

I feel sorry for people who say they never read the comics.

Newspapers will die and these already dead comic strip icons will die again with them, depriving the next generation the chances they were given.

Cherish what ya got.

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