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Seriously Funny: A Defense of the Comic Strip in an Age of Diminishing Returns

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In a perfect world – OK, my perfect world – the funny papers would be taken more seriously. Publishers would allot comic strips more space, color and flexibility, and artists would be encouraged to innovate and to broach sensitive subjects.

 

It’s a risky move involving difficult choices – especially regarding the fate of old friends. Readers – many of whom have formed personal relationships with beloved comic strip characters – will become boisterous. And yet, we must soldier on! A new golden age for newspaper comic strip art is possible!

First, let us dispense with the unpleasantries: Goodbye, Blondie. Goodbye, Hägar the Horrible. Goodbye to you both – Hi and Lois. You will be respectfully interred in a comic strip mausoleum (or relegated to the classifieds – which is almost the same thing). In your place: Strips that are bolder, more fluid and dynamic, more relevant to the 21st century and its newspaper readership.

But why bother? In an age of declining newspaper revenue, it may be hard for people who don’t read comic strips – or who dismiss their significance – to sympathize with my idealism. A newspaper isn’t a magazine, so why turn it into one? And print media is dying across the board. Why waste additional resources on a bunch of talking animals, reruns, tired classics, et al.?

Why? Because comic strips and the artists who create them are funny, engaging and bold in a way that other sections of the newspaper are not permitted to be. They are little island universes where anything goes – perfect vehicles for satire. Plus, they can serve as contact points for social commentary on the lives shared daily by millions of readers.

If the newspaper industry is to be transformed from without by market forces, then I say let it also be transformed from within by human motivation and action.

Start with the most fundamentally restrictive aspect of comic strip art – the panel – and move forward from there. Artists rightly grumble about their work being squeezed into near-illegibility. But there’s at least one example of an artist who was able to buck this trend.

Bill Watterson fired the opening salvo in a war which cartoonists have been losing ever since. In 1991, Watterson demanded – and was given – more flexibility for the Sunday version of his acclaimed strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” Thereafter, until the final strip in 1995, Watterson continuously experimented with the Sunday format, stretching the panels like Silly Putty (sometimes removing them completely), and providing space for his characters to roam and romp across the page.

By demolishing the existing boundaries of comic strip art, Watterson was simultaneously harking back to an earlier era and providing a model for the future of the medium. Imagine if modern exemplars of the craft – Rose Is Rose, Mutts, Bizarro, Non Sequitur – were permitted to push the envelope daily, bursting the genre’s boundaries, to the reader’s surprise and astonishment! Might such a set-up entice readers to subscribe to the print version of a daily newspaper?

That’s how it used to work. At the turn of the last century, comic strips were used to help sell newspapers. They were colorful and had their own sections; often a single strip would be given its own page. In 1945, during a newspaper strike, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics aloud on the radio.

Ultimately, the fact that cartoonists need newspapers in order to make a living is a compelling enough reason to keep them in the daily newspaper.

“We receive literally pennies from online publication and readership,” writes cartoonist John Forgetta. “Newspapers wonder why they can’t attract new, younger readers? Perhaps it’s because they refuse to let go of old comic strips.”

Image credit: Wikipedia

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About Matt Geörg Moore