Are the comics old friends or just old hat?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imagine Milton Berle still hopping around in a dress on his own NBC TV show, at the age of 85. Or Sundays with "The New Ed Sullivan Show," starring Regis Philbin. Or a Jack Benny-less "Jack Benny Show," with a 1993 comedian rolling his eyes and making tightwad jokes like the late comedian.

Nostalgia is big on television, but not that big. Yet old newspaper strips never seem to die. Dagwood has been stuffing his face with giant sandwiches since the 1930s. Brenda Starr has been the glamorous and feisty red-headed reporter since the 1940s.

Beetle Bailey has been shirking work since the '50s. The Lockhorns have been duking it out since the '60s.

A chorus of young comic strip creators and two other critics say the comics industry is out of touch with the times.

Newspaper comics continue long after the creator is dead, and after the strip has ceased to be funny, they say. Other strips are bland and inoffensive because they are vehicles for merchandising products.

The criticism comes even though some of the strips being singled out are among the most popular in the country.

"The newspaper strip has been dead for 30 years," said Gary Groth, editor of "Comics Journal," the "Magazine of Comics News and Criticism." "You can name three to four strips that are decent: "Doonesbury," "Calvin and Hobbes," and 'Zippy.'"

To catch the comics page up with the times, Mr. Groth said, newspaper editors need to start taking chances.

"They want to attract a younger reader, but they don't want to offend the older audience," Mr. Groth said. "You can't do both."

Innovations are few. After 60-plus years, Blondie leaves the house to start a catering business, but she still seems to spend more time at Tudbury's shopping than she does balancing the books. Dick Tracy has new gadgets, but he's still a 1930s guy in the 1990s. In "Beetle Bailey," Gen. Halftrack, a lecher and drunk, has a women's libber in his office who frowns on his leering at women.

Other strips haven't changed at all. "Hazel" features a middle-class family with a live-in maid: imagine that. Dennis the NTC Menace dresses like a 1950s kid. Unlike pre-teens today, who might prefer the Terminator or Ren and Stimpy, Dennis idolizes Cowboy Bob.

Then there's Homer Simpson's favorite strip, "Andy Capp." In an age when promiscuity is out of style, and interest groups are trying to ban beer commercials from TV, Andy Capp, the British barfly, is a drunk who spends most of the vertical portion of his day trying to cheat on his wife.

Here's how some young creators have been spoofing the state of the comics page:

"Fox Trot," a popular strip about a 1990s family, recently spoofed strips that go on and on, and editors who are reluctant to cancel them even though they are no longer funny. Earlier, series creator Bill Amend did a wicked takeoff on "Family Circus," with Fox son Jason convinced that he could do a better job.

"Family Circus" seems to be a favorite target for satire. A small Washington state newsletter, "City Limits Gazette," has been running a Bil Keane Watch that sees deep meaning in the antics of Billy, Dolly and Jeffy. In it, readers debate such weighty topics as whether the ghost of Grandpa is the most terrifying character since Hamlet's father, why the telephone poles never have lines (crucifixion imagery), and why the characters only have one nostril (don't ask).

Then there's Bill Watterson, creator of the nation's hottest strip, "Calvin and Hobbes."

In a 1989 speech at Ohio State, Watterson talked lovingly of his favorite childhood strips, "Pogo," "Peanuts," and "Krazy Kat" and complained about the "cheapening of the comics." The reclusive Mr. Watterson never speaks to reporters, and he hasn't spoken in public for several years.

"Why are so many of them poorly drawn?" he asked. "Why do so many offer only the simplest interchangeable gags and puns? . . . Why are some strips stumbling around decades after their creators have retired or died? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards?

"The pages are full of deadwood. Strips that had some relevance to the world during the Depression are now being continued by Baby Boomers, and the results are embarrassing."

Mr. Watterson is a radical on the issue of comic strips. He doesn't hire assistants, and has refused to license his characters for most products. Last year, he forced many newspapers to carry his strip in a Sunday half-page format because he felt the time he spends on art and writing is worth it. "Calvin and Hobbes," however, actually got smaller in some papers, such as the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald, because they picked up versions reserved for tabloid-sized newspapers.

Mr. Watterson's remedies for the quality decline: publish the comics in comic books and cut out newspapers; distribute the comics in preprinted inserts, or find advertisers to sponsor a page of comics so it can get more space.

But Mort Walker, creator of "Hi and Lois" and "Beetle Bailey," is used to being whipped by Watterson.

"He wanted us all to quit working and die," said Mr. Walker, who rebutted Mr. Watterson's speech at Ohio State. "It's very easy to say, 'Why don't you die and leave things for the younger people?'

"I've got fans," he said. "There's people who still like to read it."

In fact, "Beetle Bailey" is tied with "Hagar the Horrible" for fifth place in terms of number of papers carrying a strip, according to an informal ranking by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher.

Mr. Walker rejects the idea that the comics page is stagnant.

"This business is extremely open to change," he said. "You don't have to have a degree; you don't have to have a syndicate."

Mr. Walker lives in Palm Beach County and is trying to raise money for a museum of cartoon art in Boca Raton. Groundbreaking is scheduled for December.

Mr. Walker doesn't agree that "Beetle Bailey" is out of step with the times; it meets issues indirectly. He cited a recent strip which dealt with gays in the service.

"I don't have an opinion; I don't attack people," he said. "I get playful with the subject."

He defended Gen. Halftrack by saying that when Walker started cartooning, "dumb blonde, lecherous boss" jokes were part of the culture. Today, Mr. Walker thinks the general is being set up for scorn, as the kind of boss who is not to be emulated, a boss that would abuse his power and position.

Mr. Keane, creator of "Family Circus," also sees the comics changing with the times. "When 'The Far Side' started, it was considered sick humor," he said, speaking from his Southern California home. "Now I think there are about nine different imitators."

And when they don't change, like Blondie and Dagwood, that's not so bad, either.

"They're old friends, they're with you maybe 15 to 20 seconds," Mr. Keane said. "They don't overstay their welcome."

"Family Circus" stays popular because "it has a warm, loving feeling that reflects American family life," he said. "It recalls what has been, what should be, and what will be, in many happy homes."

"There is a consistency to the comics that have the staying power. The common denominator is family."

He thinks he would alienate his readers if Mom and Dad got divorced, or Billy got addicted to violent Nintendo games.

"That's not what people know the 'Family Circus' as," he said. "My gags are gentle."

Mr. Keane doesn't mind when other comics spoof his. In fact, he appreciates the attention.

"I like the idea of anything satirizing 'Family Circus,'" he said, including David Letterman and "Roseanne" episodes that spoofed it.

The editor of the "City Limits Gazette," the comics newsletter, says the Bil Keane Watch is not making fun of "Family Circus." It's making fun of people who try to overanalyze simple things such as comics.

"Once the fine-art crowd gets ahold of them, they'll do to them what the French did to Jerry Lewis," said editor Steve Willis.

Mr. Willis said he has no problem with people who enjoy strips like "Family Circus" and "Garfield."

"Garfield is a real assembly-line strip, and people in the (comics) industry like to badmouth it," he said. "You talk to people who aren't cartoonists, and they really love it. There's some elitism going on here."

"I'm not real fond of that strip, but there's nothing to be gained by downgrading it," he said. "We can't ignore, it's an enormously popular strip."

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