I Hate You All by Dalton Wemble

Death of the Funny What?

Now if I were going to be all knee-jerk about this, I’d be all about "out with the old, in with the new, the traditional comics page was stale and it’s time to bring in some fresh blood, viva the internet, viva webcomics, viva endless chatter about the newest video card from Alpha Omega Corp and people getting off on their bloody brilliance by yammering endless about whether or not Green or Blue dragons spit acid in AD&D first edition."

But Jeebus Godot, let’s take a look at what’s replacing what, here.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the newspaper comics page is about as healthy as the Andy Griffith Show. That is to say it will always have its place and its admirers, and you can still catch it if you hop the channels enough, particularly in those magic time envelopes between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 2 – 6 a.m. in whatever time zone you happen to be in.

But it’s over, kids. There are a few kicks at the can, a few flails from the dying fat fossil as it bobs one last time in the swell of better media, sinking into the sweet, sulphurous stench of rotting newsprint. Get Fuzzy is respectable, and… uh… okay, there aren’t many. The Boondocks tries to be topical, but is as funny as a rubber crutch, but it’s automatically funny because it’s a black guy‘s rubber crutch and he keeps yelling "this is my rubber crutch, and I’m black, GET IT?!?"

In short and in summary, there ain’t much hope left. The funnies are tired, worn-out, retread, fatigued. They’ve had the biscuit, shot the rapids, and a scant few expressions before you start trespassing on Monty Python parrot territory.

But-but-but, let’s take a second look here. Maybe the black-and-white, three-to-four strip comic has had its run and is ready to be quietly buried, but if you look back twenty, thirty years, when Shoe was fresh and Doonesbury topical, there was something there, something that’s still there if you’re willing to strip the jaded scales from your eyes and backdate yourself to when some of these gags were, indeed, new.

These guys, these tired old bastards that have been cranking out the same three-note joke since before many of us were born, they still know how to structure a gag.

And, as much as I hate to say it, most Internet cartoonists just plain don’t.

Granted, Hagar the Horrible isn’t all it could be. Heck, it’s not one-eighteenth what it could be. But you have to understand that while Dik Browne or whatever ghoul is plundering his corpse to keep the franchise alive isn’t really cutting edge any more, Hagar has decades of refinement behind it. Whether you like the jokes or not, there’s economy of line, tight writing, and clarity there. The jokes aren’t funny because jokes like that just aren’t funny any more.

The problem with comedy is it evolves, and as it evolves it tends to eradicate a lot that’s gone before it. Kids these days just don’t find Jack Benny funny any more. The Marx Brothers are now a cult favourite rather than a theatre-packer. And that’s because their perfection, in their moment, was devoured by later generations of comedy that absorbed them and upped the ante. A fast analogy is taking an anthropological look at the Flintstones/Simpsons/Family Guy progression. Each one is sharper, nastier, and more surreal, but there’s a direct lineage going on, and after you’ve watched a few seasons of Simpsons, it’s hard to jump back and appreciate the Flintstones the same way ever again. After watching a season of Family Guy, I started to find the Simpsons a bit tepid.

So instead of mindlessly slagging on Garfield as something past its prime, try to understand. It didn’t get less funny. It was always as funny as it is right now, but it got eaten by its successors. Get Fuzzy is to Garfield as the Simpsons is to the Flintstones.

Get me?

And while you’re standing there trembling in awe of your venerated ancestors, or blinking like a sheep about to be picked up by a UFO and wondering when the hell I will stop blathering so you can get back to Deus Ex: Invisible War, let me hit you with something else, O best beloved:

Mort Walker is probably six times the cartoonist you will ever be.

I repeat. Better. Than. You. Will. Ever. Be.

I’m not saying Beetle Bailey appeals to my sense of humor. It’s sexist, quasi-mindless trash that went out with platform shoes, or maybe before. But I defy you to find me more than a handful of Internet cartoons where the artist has any idea of the value of the economy of line, or how to tell a goddamn joke. My favorite online strips, Wigu and Scary-go-Round among them, are done by guys who can tell a great story and draw a great picture, but couldn’t do an economical gag strip to save their lives. Well, maybe they could. But they choose not to.

And the more you look around with that as your critical eye, the more you realize that the Internet encourages slovenly work. It encourages slapdash material and woolgathering rather than thought. When you don’t have to make your work fit in a page with 44 other comics, when space is free and the canvas is infinite, you have the freedom to blather on edit-free, indulge your stupidest and most wasteful artistic whims, and become a sloppy, mediocre cartoonist that might be able to write a 128-page graphic novel replete with crap, but couldn’t craft a sentence in less than forty words.

Present company included.

Let me drop some names of people that I think can manage economical, tight work. Some of these are comics I don’t read, because I don’t like ’em. But the artist is capable of economy and control, and that’s something most can’t even begin to grasp.

PVP Online.

"Ah!" you gasp. "But those are some of the most popular internet strips! It’s easy to praise the popular strips, you sycophant!" But if you take a moment to ask youself why these strips are popular, the seeming coincidence starts to diminish, doesn’t it? There are other very popular strips which I enjoy very much, but I don’t think the creators are great cartoonists:

Sluggy Freelance.
Penny Arcade.

Great stuff. I laugh out loud most days. Great artists by many standards, great comedians by almost all, but not great cartoonists. There’re miles of self-restraint to be had before that happens.

And finally, a few to chew on that maybe aren’t as popular, but are still done by masters of the form and the gag:

Soap on a Rope.
Greystone Inn.
Skinny Panda.

So before we bury the comics page for good, let’s take a look at what it has given us. It gave us a new style of humor, and generations of cartoonists that knew how to praise the line more than the drawing, and the gag more than the joke. We may have absorbed them and feel we’re ready to move on, but I think it’s worth a stiff look at what we might be losing if we leave them completely behind.

Dalton Wemble is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia. Apparently, he CAN use his powers for Good, and not eeeeeevvil.

Illustration by Something Postive‘s R*K*Milholland.

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  1. The only way Hagar the Horrible could possibly be saved is if it returned to doing what Vikings do best: Raping, Burning, Pillaging, and Discovering North America 500 Years Before Columbus.

  2. I used to read the comics page every morning as a kid. I looked forward to it the way that most kids would look forward to dessert…or cartoons on TV.

    I grew up with some of these strips, and so when most of them up and died (such as “Far Side”) or took sabbaticals, only to come back and die shortly after (“Calvin and Hobbes”), part of that childish innocence died right along with them. No, Virginia, not all comics last forever. Well, except Family Circus and we still haven’t figured how to kill Bil Keene off yet.

    The state of comics today is just…pitiful. We have some fresh ones, but face it, I haven’t picked up a syndicated newspaper and found something enjoyable in a long time, save for Foxtrot (it has its cute, geeky moments) and Dilbert (again, cute moments.)

    As someone who vainly tried to grasp the dream in college (I am a comics section editor for my campus newspaper. We only run student comics, not syndicates.), I can say that the future looks bleak. Very few kids under me know how to structure a joke, or draw things. I’ve only seen one person with the knack and he had an ego the size of Nebraska. I am sad to say that comics seem to be a dying art.

    This is why I enjoy webcomics so much. A lot of them, if you can seperate the chaff from the wheat, have a spark and a life that I have not felt since I was a wee young. Webcomics have brought a kind of childlike renewal in me. There might be a lot of suck, but there is a lot of good nowadays. Great art, great jokes (I actually sit at my computer and laugh) and even some that tackle serious, dramatic epics with ease.

    I can only hope that the comics section goes through a revival, but like a lot of traditional media foorums, it seems to be going the way of the mediocre dinosaur.

  3. I think another so called “problem” with newspaper strips is that they have to appeal to a general audience. “Edgy” and “in your face” humor tends to be frowned upon by the syndicates.

    That’s the way it has to be for a newspaper, who generally enjoys an older readership more likely to enjoy the predictable humor of Garfield and Hagar than the possibly offensive work of Sinfest (which touches on religion, a no no unless you are 100% for it).

    And most newspaper strip readers aren’t comic fans per se. They have a mild interest in reading an inoffensive joke on their way to the sports page. Buying a collection of stips or a comic book just wouldn’t occur to the majority of them.

    I would also like to suggest DOG COMPLEX as a web comic that almost never fails to deliver a great punchline in just a few panels.

  4. Maybe I’ve just got too much of a soft spot, but my favorite print comic is Heart of the City, for both the art and the imagination. Zits still pulls out a lot of pretty humorous visual gags. Pearls Before Swine has been building a small following amongst webcomic artists for its irreverrence. Dilbert still makes me laugh; I’m a cynical bastard, so I don’t know why it makes me laugh, but it still makes me laugh, just like Dalton’s popular webstrips still make him laugh. Zippy the Pinhead is a thickly drawn, surreal little strip. For Better Or For Worse is not one of my favorite comics, but it has followed a constantly evolving storyline that has allowed its characters to grow up in real time and has evolved with the times. And while Baby Blues probably doesn’t appeal to a lot of the 16-24 year old single webartists out there, it still puts out stuff at least on the level of originality of half of the Keen strips.

    Yes, there is a lot of crap in the newspaper, but let’s face it: we’re not the target audience. The newspaper is printed for a more general audience. Unless Slashdot starts its own comic page in the Living section, no one is printing daily comic strips for a niche crowd like this. The newspapers and syndicates aren’t trying to advance the art of the webcomic; they’re just making a few dollars off the industry. And yet, there are still several decent strips in print. After all, if PvP might be a popular comic because it’s actually a good comic, then there must be a few comics out there that were accepted to the syndicate based on being good comics. The zombie comics that have overstayed their welcome may be bringing the funnies page down, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    But on the other hand… Why, of all of the previously internet-only strips is Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet the one that gets syndicated? So much for justice.

  5. That’s pretty much the same problem with all popular art, isn’t it? Music, literature, movies… Appeal trumps edgy every time.

  6. Of course, on the other side, webcomics don’t get the benefit of experienced editors. While some may say that’s what makes them free, it’s also what makes them unstable and flighty.

  7. Webcomics DO get the benefit of editors…. at least, those of that do have editors do. The MT comics and their sister sites all have editors. (Joey Manley, T Campbell, Lea Hernandez… etc). A lot of other comics have a proof-read friend who basically does the job of the editor.

    IMHO, everyone needs an editor. Just not the jaded, narrow-minded types.

    After all, we are only human, and after that 5th rewrite, your brain tends to get so muddled you’re likely to screw up. You’ll be grateful for that safety net that is your editor then.

  8. Yeah, I meant the amateurs. MT, Keenspot, & other sites that have a vested interest in content of course have editors.

    …sometimes an editor needs to be someone looking out for more than typos. And, like I said, newspaper strips are trying to amuse everyone and offend no one. So the strips almost have to be softball fluff. On the web, that isn’t as much of a problem.

  9. These guys, these tired old bastards that have been cranking out the same three-note joke since before many of us were born, they still know how to structure a gag.

    And, as much as I hate to say it, most Internet cartoonists just plain don’t.

    Yes! Yes! I’ve been looking for the words to say this ever since I realized that PvP is my favorite of the strips I read and started saving it for last every day. (I save Kevin & Kell for second-to-last, but Holbrook doesn’t count as a webcartoonist, he was already a pro.)

    Mort Walker is probably six times the cartoonist you will ever be.

    I repeat. Better. Than. You. Will. Ever. Be.

    Hey, no argument, but a guy can dream.

    Paul Gadzikowski, scarfman@iglou.com since 1995
    http://www.sff.net/people/scarfman/new.htm New cartoons most days

    A bar and a deep breath

  10. I think I disagree. Essentially, the only difference between newspaper comics and quality Internet comics is the level of subject matter. Of course, being that it’s NEWSPAPER fare, paper comics tend to be both g-rated and marginalized in humor terms. But, I don’t think we’re seeing the death-throws of newspaper comics. Newspaper comics have been ailing since the fifties when TV took over. But, the past few decades have seen a lot of innovation. Yes, a lot of the innovators stopped drawing in the 90s, but we’ve still got Dilbert, FoxTrot, and Bizarro.

    Also, I’d like to add, three panels is not good word economy. REAL men draw comics in ONE PANEL OR LESS.


  11. That is prettymuch true right there. A lot of people don’t really understand how humor works, and thus are unable to construct a joke decently. Mostly, they get by by creating a hodge-podge of offbeat and non-sequitur moments to form some sort of gelatinous ball of a humor-sicle. I can’t claim to be perfect (most of my old work is awful by most standards), but I’ve been learning and studying to become more adept at joke construction and timing.
    Overall, I find that this article echoes my thoughts pretty accurately. Good article. I’ll have to send it around.

  12. i don’t know if anyone here has ever read Pooch Cafe, but that is probably one of the greatest comics on or off internet today. It is consistently funny and has a refreshing art style, nothing like a lot of the trash you are going to find in their. Maybe I am just lucky, but the comics page in my paper (the Toronto Globe and Mail) has gotten pretty good, and their are a few comics in their that I really respect, including a couple you cannot find anywhere else (Fisher, Backbench)… maybe instead of relying upon the syndicates to dictate what comics should be placed in which newspaper, I think more comics should take on more local comics, increasing competition among the little guys, making for better comics. I really do not think that it would be much of a stretch to see “A softer world” in my paper, for instance.

  13. I just want to congratulate you on your best article yet by far. You make a very interesting point.

  14. Skinny Panda is one of my favourites… if only he’d update!

    Chopping Block is another good one that has great art, along with very twisted humour. Not for the faint of heart.

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