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.
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.
"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:
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:
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.