August 27, 2007
Remember when Opus was going to save the Newspaper Comics Page. And through it newspapers themselves?
Oh yeah. There were announcements. Berkeley Breathed was coming back, and circulation was coming five steps behind him. And it was going to be a whole new era, both artistically for Breathed and commercially for the papers. Breathed was going Sundays only, a la Outland, and was going to get a half-newspaper page. And Breathed, having moved into the twenty first century (well, artistically, anyhow) was featuring a lush, painted palette on these new pieces.
And most of all, Opus was going to be a newspaper comic. No web presence, no sirree bob. If you wanted to see what had happened to Opus and Steve (and occasionally Bill) after all these years, you were going to have to buy yourself a paper! Because that's how it was supposed to be. The web was sucking the life out of comic strips, and it was time to take a stand. Here -- here's a bit from a 2003 Salon article about it:
But business is no place for nostalgia. When Breathed retired "Outland" in 1995, David Shearer of the Washington Post Writers Group -- Breathed's syndicate -- expressed some remorse over the fate of the strips' sizes. "I'd like to see comics displayed bigger. We all would. But that's not the reality of it," he said, pointing toward electronic media as a place for artists to experiment. Ironically, with Breathed's return, the WPWG is using that missed experimentation as a selling point. "The one and the only place to see 'Opus' will be in newspapers," Shearer says. "This is a tremendous opportunity to increase circulation."
And this was going to be a true sequel. This wasn't just "the return of Bloom County." This was "over a decade has passed, and these people are older and flabbier." In fact, several beloved characters -- like Binkley or Milo Bloom or Oliver Wendell Holmes -- were no-shows, because Breathed didn't want to depict them as teenagers (or older). He went on the record about this.
And it premiered to much ballyhoo. And it went into papers.
And then... nothing. No one cared.
Oh, I don't mean to say Opus didn't and doesn't have fans. It does. Heck, it makes me smile more weeks than it doesn't, and that's not always true of comics I read. But Opus's impact was essentially negligible, both on the comics world and on the world of newspaper circulation.
Do you need proof? Opus launched in 2003. It's a four year old comic now. Did you realize that? Had you realized that he had been around for four years? He's a full year older than Websnark is, and Websnark definitely lost its new blog smell a long time ago. (Note to self -- make mention of the anniversary sometime within a month of said anniversary. Jesus, Eric. Try a little, would you?)
In part, the problem was that glorious painted style. Ironically, it would have looked pretty sweet on the web, where the much deeper palette would show the gradations to good effect. Put onto the comics page it came across as dark and muddied, and subtleties were lost by bad LPI counts. It went away soon enough, replaced with essentially the same colors we saw in the Sunday Bloom County.
This was made worse as newspapers began to shrink the comic. The half-page thing didn't last long at all, really. When it was clear that Opus wasn't spiking numbers, there was no real impetus for editors to bow to the Washington Post Writer's Group's demands and strictures. Given the choice between letting them shrink Opus so they could fit more comic strips in or having them drop Opus entirely, they let them shrink it. Ultimately, that meant the painted style had to go, and a coloring style very very reminiscent of the 80's run went in.
Naturally, the "newspapers only" stance died next. The Washington Post -- the flagship paper for Opus -- began to run it on their virtual comics page, and gradually it moved into other online venues as well. It really didn't have much of a choice -- if it was going to start appealing to the comic strip fans out there, it had to go to where they were and do their best to draw them in,.
(Not that that strategy has been successful either. I mean, in several years of posting, Opus hasn't been covered by The Comics Curmudgeon even once. Now, while there's a case to be made that that means Opus is actually pretty good, so Josh Fruhlinger has little to say about it... not appearing at all suggests he just doesn't read it.)
How far have we come from launch? Well, recently Opus went to Salon, which will arguably be the best place to read it moving forward since they're going to maintain an archive. Sadly, the older strips aren't going up there, so we'll have to wait for the inevitable collection.
And also recently... Lola Granola showed up, and so did Binkley and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Binkley and Oliver... were the same age as when we last saw them, so everyone knows. This despite the presence of Steve's own son, who is now Binkley's age.
So what, one is tempted to think. These are the comic strips. Not every strip is Gasoline Alley (thank God), and real time aging is overdone. Which is true enough... if they hadn't made such a big deal about it, and about how if the kid characters came back, then they'd have to be teenagers and Breathed didn't want to draw them like that.
Hackwork? Not really. I mean, it's still funny and Christ, they're Breathed's characters. He can do whatever he likes. But it's been really, really interesting for me to track this experiment in revivals -- revivals of Berke Breathed, revivals of the newspaper comics, revivals of fortune. And to see the early stands taken -- admittedly, stands that were largely based in hubris, but also stands that meant something to Breathed and (it seemed) his editors -- give way to the painful economic necessities of publishing in the modern world.
And we have come full circle now, and it seems the last great threshold has been reached. From that same 2003 article/interview in Salon we see Breathed write:
As an end, controversy is a dead end. It's why TV shows tried to throw in nudity some years ago. I notice now that the ripples de jour are lesbian kisses. It's a sign of desperation, not good writing. Not to say that if I could figure out a way to throw in some hot lesbian action into "Opus," I wouldn't.
True enough. And in its own way, sad enough. Because hey -- guess what? We have controversy in Opus. And sadly, it's not lesbians making out.
You may have heard the story. Opus is running a series of strips where spiritually mercurial and flaky Lola Granola has been trying out different philosophies, theologies and spiritualisms in an effort to find herself. In the most recent strip, she has latched onto a new one -- terming herself a Radical Islamist. In her words, it's the hot new fad on the planet.
It's a pretty funny strip, truth be told. And it says something rather tame about radical Islam and something a bit more brutal about people who leap into new religious fads without thought or real, honest spiritual consideration.
That's not why I'm discussing it. I'm discussing it because newspapers have pulled the strip, because they're worried people will be offended.
That happens a lot in the newspaper world. It's kind of a boring story these days. Though in this case, it's clearly patently ridiculous. Lola is fully garbed (albeit more brightly than one might expect) and is certainly not tearing Islam down with her statements about it. Really, aside from one note about "a man's rightful place," it would probably be completely acceptable to any Muslim reading it, and almost certainly any American Muslim -- the ones most likely to read it -- would be sophisticated enough to take it in good faith. It sure as Hell doesn't come close to the Johnny Hart Islam Outhouse controversy of a few years back (or any number of controversies from B.C. before his death). But still -- comic strips get pulled. It's what happens.
Except... one of the papers pulling the strip is the Washington Post. In fact, that's almost certainly why it's getting airplay.
And it is getting airplay. Hell, Boing Boing took a stand on it, using the cheerful phrase "chickenshit" in it. Which is perfectly apropos. The move really is chickenshit, and dumb to boot. And lots of pundits are noting that in this time of declining readerships, pulling strips that might actually inspire some controversy is a stupid move at best.
I understand these feelings. And I agree with them, but not completely. Not because I think the strip should have been pulled -- it's patently absurd to have pulled this strip. No, I have reservations because I smell a Washington Post sized rat.
Remember, Opus is syndicated by the Washington Post Writer's Group. The same organization that owns and publishes the Post syndicates and distributes Opus. They're different divisions, and it's certainly possible that the Post editors decided they would pull potentially offensive (only not really) strips from the paper without consultation or connection to the editors of the syndicate... but it seems just as likely that if the Post's editors had a problem with the strips, so would the syndicate's editors -- and so would their mutual owners.
On the other hand... the Washington Post pulling a potentially offensive comic strip from their paper (but posting that strip to the web page) -- and that strip being Opus, by Berke Breathed, still considered by some outlets one of the great rock stars of the cartooning world?
Now that's a story.
And a story means people talking about it.
Publicity. Energy. Zazz.
Do I think this was all a master plan on the part of Breathed and his editors? Probably not. It seems more likely that these strips were sent out to papers, one or two pulled them, and someone at the syndicate thought "waaaaaait a minute..." But I do think that Breathed shifts with the wind. We saw it with Outland, which started off as the whimsical flights of fancy of a poor little girl named Roland Ann whose real life was miserable, so she needed a fantasy life she could escape to. By the end of it... it was Bloom County. Bill Watterson hit the nail on the head with a satirical cartoon he sent to Breathed, which Breathed published in one of the Outland collections or a treasury or something. It featured Breathed pouring money into the gas tank of a boat, kicking Roland Ann to the curb due to her innate unmerchandisabilty. Which may not actually be a word, but I digress.
I'm forced back to that Salon article/interview from 2003, where they were talking to Breathed about his intentions for Opus. Sadly, it's a burka instead of girl on girl action. (Man, consider the... er... artistic merits of a Bobbi Harlow/Lola Granola marriage.) But either way, we've got desperation sign in spades these days. And I wouldn't put it past the syndicate to even hang the newspapers out to dry if it meant getting Opus into the young demographic elite. They don't do those great Dakin Opus plush penguins any more, but they'll start churning them out in a heartbeat if there's a demand. And if the tee shirts are subversive this time and sold through Hot Topic instead of through Wal-Mart, I'm sure the money would still spend real nice like.
Really, if this wasn't some kind of publicity stunt, it should have been. It's the only thing that makes this ridiculous strip-pull seem even remotely sane. And if it was, it's been effective. The web's buzzing. People are talking. I wrote 2,200 words that should have gone into "Interviewing Leather" on it.
And lots more people saw this strip this week than saw last week's slice of theological cheesecake. And even more will see next week's banned strip. And a good number of those people will stick around for the week after that.
Maybe they'll be in time to see Cutter John and Portnoy's inevitable return. And maybe Dakin should start sourcing fabric and polyfill, just in case.
August 16, 2007
Eric: It would, however, be acceptable for April to end up Roadside.
So. We all know (well, everyone who cares even slightly knows) that For Better Or For Worse is going to be "ending" sometimes soon. We put "ending" in quotes because we also know it's not actually going to end. Instead, it's going to freeze time. The New Pattersons will become the focus, time will freeze, character development will stop, April will be forever trapped in the first trimester of pregnancy, the horror of marrying Anthony will forever be kept an inch away from Liz's brain....
...and so forth.
Fine. I can accept that. And I can accept and even honor the fact that Lynn Johnston -- until two years ago or so considered one of the most consistently awesome newspaper cartoonists and now reviled beyond rationality, all thanks to newly unmustachioed Anthony -- won't be handing off the comic to other creators, as syndicated artists have been doing since the beginning of time immemorial.
But. That doesn't mean we have to listen to her.
I swear to God. The day "For Better Or For Worse" goes into freeze-limbo? A new webcomic should start, continuing the story.
Oh, there would need to be mild changes. The Petersons instead of the Pattersons. Avril instead of April. Shit like that. And the character designs would have to change at least slightly.
But why couldn't a webcartoonist -- or a cabal of webcartoonists -- not continue the strip on... freed from Johnston's railroading and editorial concerns... bringing it back to its true roots, grounded in fallibility and a sense of reality.
Consider the chance to write about Liz's growing sense of ennui and even a trapped feeling stemming from this spineless passive-aggressive creature she's rebounded into bed with. Consider a chance to take teen star Rebecca and take her down a frightened Lindsey Lohan path. Consider just how elaborate a train layout you could give John. And consider the opportunity to actually have people slowly call Elly on her tureens of bullshit.
It wouldn't be hard. Assign an editor. Gather a number of talents. (Hell, David Willis and Aerie might get into bare fisted combat at the opportunity.) Go plotline by plotline, shaking up the creative team as you go so everyone gets a chance to play.
The rules would be simple: no radical changing of the fundamental underpinnings of the strip. FOOB is realistic. The only magic or fantasy is when one is considering the heartwarming sacrifice of a beloved and noble pet for a meanass ungrateful child. No satire -- this isn't "magnify the faults of FOOB for all to see," this is "pick up the story and actually get it back on track." And absolutely no animated gifs of the characters blinking, because that shit's creepy.
It would, of course, be necessary to continue to come up with patently ridiculous catchphrases and euphemisms for April and her peers.
Ideally, the people involved would be people who love -- really love -- For Better Or For Worse, but who can't stand seeing what's become of it in the name of wrapping it up in a nice big bow (and insuring that Liz Patterson is no career minded whore who marries someone she didn't go to elementary school with).
July 2, 2007
Eric: Man, I used to write *happy* posts....
We all have our heroes. Sometimes they're real people. Sometimes they're fictional. And sometimes the line between the two blurs, at least somewhat.
When I was quite young, I knew who my heroes were. The Legion of Superheroes. Green Lantern. The Justice League. The Avengers. The X-Men. Good guys against bad guys, and all very, very exciting.
But above all of them, there were the Micronauts. The first major comic book company book to feature a toy license, the Micronauts were much more than the story of my favorite plastic and die cast metal toys (seriously, I had hundreds of those things) -- it was a grand saga. A full on space opera. A legend. A fantasy. An epic. And I was into it. Commander Arcturus Rann -- the legendary Space Glider and leader of the Micronauts. The beautiful, powerful Marionette -- the Princess Mari, dedicating her life to saving Homeworld from Baron Karza. The wily, canny, laughing Bug -- barely a pastiche of Galactic Warrior, but mostly unique to the series, bringing roguishness and humor to the darkest of situations. The taciturn Acroyear, named for his race, prince and exile, mighty warrior. Biotron, faithful servant for a thousand years and his counterpart Microtron, yang to his yin. Force Commander, Prince Pharoid, the beautiful Slug (don't ask), the mysterious Time Travellers and their Shadow Priests, the evil of Baron Karza, the might of the Worldmind, Captain Universe -- the hero who could be you! And so, so many more....
They were my heroes, and my friends. And through the grace of the Enigma Force, I will never forget them. I owned all their comics -- a complete run. Plus the unfortunate crossover with the X-Men. Plus the trades.
Now, a lesser hero but still one I greatly enjoyed was ROM, Spaceknight! Another toy based line, but this one far more integrated into the Marvel Universe (including a universe-wide crossover where the Dire wraiths attacked), ROM was the story of Rom, a Galadoran who was the first to volunteer to be remade into a cyborg in plandanium armor, who spans the galaxy fighting to protect those who would fall.
They weren't real, of course. I might have had a nine year old's crush on Princess Mari, but she didn't exist any more than Brandy Clark did. Yes, there is a Steve Jackson in the world, but he's not the man who was at once a friend and a rival to Rom (I always wondered if the real Steve Jackson was amused at his Marvel counterpart). But they felt real to me. They helped me to dream of broader things, to believe in the most noble of ideals, to let my imagination run wild.
Behind them, however, there was a real hero. A man who was incredibly formative to my childhood and to the man I would grow into. His name was Bill Mantlo, and he wrote comic books.
A lot of comic books.
Really, there was a time when he worked on almost every comic in Marvel's stable. He had a memorable run on the Hulk (a run where the heroes of Earth had banished the Hulk to other dimensions because he was so dangerous -- a plotline that should sound familiar since they ripped it off for World War Hulk's setup). He worked on Thor, and Iron Man, and even Howard the Duck. He worked on the Avengers, Captain America, Ghost Rider, and he even wrote a few X-Men comics here and there. When John Byrne's star was on the ascendence and his Alpha Flight was still a major comic, it was Bill Mantlo who took it over when Byrne left. He created Cloak and Dagger, for God's sake.
You know what? I'm going to steal a list of his work from the Howling Curmudgeons -- it's easier than trying to explain just how heavily he was involved in the work of this era of Marvel:
Alpha Flight, Amazing Adventures, Amazing Spider-Man, Astonishing Tales, The Avengers, Battlestar Galactica, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Cloak & Dagger, Daredevil, Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, The Defenders, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Hero for Hire, Heroes For Hope Starring the X-Men, Howard the Duck, The Human Fly, The Incredible Hulk, Invasion, Iron Man, Jack of Hearts, Journey Into Mystery/Thor, The Mighty Thor, Ka-Zar, Marvel Age, Marvel Chillers, Marvel Fanfare, Marvel Premiere, Marvel Spotlight, Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, Marvel Tales (Marvel Tales Starring Spider-man), Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Treasury Edition, Marvel Two-In-One, Micronauts, Rawhide Kid, Rocket Raccoon, ROM, Sectaurs, Spectacular Spider-Man (Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man), Spider-Man and Daredevil, Strange Tales (2nd series), Super-Villain Team-Up, Swords of the Swashbucklers, Tales of Suspense (Captain America/Captain America and the Falcon/Steve Rogers: Captain America), Team America, Transformers, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch (the entire miniseries), Web of Spider-Man, Werewolf by Night, What If..., X-Men, and X-men and the Micronauts.
Mantlo had an incredible sense of character voice and motivation. His series featured grand themes, but explored them in sophisticated ways. Relationships were passionate but never simple -- there was pain and joy in equal measure, and his heroes had to walk heroic journeys -- trawling the depths of despair before they could once again find hope. They were incredible.
And Mantlo wasn't afraid to take risks. He subverted the heroic and sympathetic Force Commander, turning him into a villain before killing him off to return Baron Karza to the universe. He killed every living thing on Homeworld -- a horrible, terrible loss -- without losing the idealism that held the Micronauts together. After setting the town of Clairton, West Virginia as the home of pretty much all of Rom the Spaceknight's human friends and secondary characters, he had the entire town killed off and replaced with Dire Wraiths in an effort to kill Rom and Brandy Clark. You couldn't take anything for granted in a Mantlo story -- except that in the end, after terrific pain and sacrifice, good would triumph. But would forever wonder at the cost....
Oh, over at DC he also wrote the Invasion miniseries. Yeah. He actually did one of the monumental crosssovers they did in the eighties, and it was one of the ones that actually did have impact and didn't suck. Who knew?
I can't overestimate the impact Bill Mantlo's writing had on me. I really can't. And it was a very sad day for me when he decided to move on from comics, and enter the legal profession. And even there, he was a hero. He became a public defender, apparently a very good and dedicated one.
And then came tragedy. In 1992, Mantlo was rollerblading when he was hit by a car. He had massive head trauma that led to a coma for more than a year. When he emerged, he had brain damage that he has never (and will never) recover from, needing constant care. Expensive care, I would add. His capacities are diminished at best and will never recover.
When I learned this... all the breath just left me for a while. It was so unfair. It was so wrong. Bill Mantlo deserved so, so much better.
But if there was one thing Mantlo wrote about, it's that being a good guy -- and deserving good things --was no guarantee that you would get them. Bad things happened to good people in Mantlo's stories.
The point, in the end, was what you did with the things you've received. Bill Mantlo needs us.
He needs me.
And he needs you.
Fortunately, there's an easy thing you can do.
Writer/Illustrator David Yurkovich has produced Mantlo: A Life in Comics, a tribute and benefit book that includes fiction, history, and interviews with everyone from Marve Wolfman to Jackson Guice. It costs seven dollars and fifty cents, and all the profits -- all the profits -- are going to help insure Mantlo's care now and into the future.
You can order it here.
My own circumstances aren't good right now (though thanks to you incredible people, they're vastly, vastly better), but on my next paycheck my order for this book is going in. And I pass it forward to all of you. If you were of the era I was, and you liked Marvel Comics at all, you know Bill Mantlo's work. If not, but you like comic books of any stripe, you're a recipient of his legacy.
When tragedy comes, it falls upon all of us to bring hope back into the light, to take off the cloak of the Shadow Priest and reveal the shining embodiment of idealism given form.
Put simply, he needs us.
That's reason enough, and probably all I would ever need to say.
Dallan and Sepsis preserve you all.
March 7, 2007
Eric: Right. That's it.
This is a spoiler. For Civil War, which just won't die. So if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read this.
Or CNN. Or any major news outlet, because congratulations, Marvel. You did it. You popped the rating. You have your fifteen minutes of fame, which is all you give a damn about any more.
Anyway. Here it is.
In an upcoming issue, Captain America, walking up the courthouse steps (because, see, he turned himself in for defying the Superhero Registration Act) is shot in the head by a sniper and killed.
When contacted, Joe Quesada -- Marvel's head -- said that Captain America "didn't live in the modern world," which is of course why he had to die. He went on to say:
"What happens with the costume? And what happens to the characters that are friends and enemies of Cap?" Quesada said with a smile. "You're going to have to read the books to find out."
Fuck you, Quesada.
I don't care what you do with Captain America's uniform. You've already pissed away his legacy. I don't know who you write comic books for, but it's not me.
I'm sure you don't care about that at all. After all, sales are high right now. They're peaking. And you have huge media buzz going on.
However, I remember when that was true of Superman, after they had him beaten to death. And then after they changed his costume. And when they made Hal Jordan a mass murderer and psychotic. I remember when they actually did do something significant and enduring to the Superman legend by marrying him to Lois Lane, and almost no one cared because they had cheap popped ratings stunts burn them out. I remember when the Green Lantern editors were pissed off at Comic Con because people were outraged at what they did to Jordan, and his response was "sorry for making the book popular."
It took over ten years before they brought Jordan back. It took less than one for them to bring Superman back. And it's not because their "stories lacked impact," like you said. It's because those were fucking stupid moves. And even Jordan's return hasn't really improved things for Green Lantern at DC -- it's just pissed off the Kyle Rayner fans. All they managed to do was damage the long term viability of Green Lantern as a brand and icon for a short term spike in interest which didn't pan out in story terms.
But hey. You don't care. You're smiling. This is just another comic book story, and we'll have to tune in next time to see what you do with a uniform that clearly doesn't mean anything to your company.
Well, my friend Mason Kramer said it best:
I mean, sure. Bucky was brought back, so he'll take up the shield. The Punisher has the mask, so he'll put it on. And then there'll be the guy in armor and the cyborg.
Fuck you, Marvel. I'm done. I no longer give a damn what you do in your comic books. Which is just fine, because you no longer give a damn about people like me anyway.
March 6, 2007
Eric: Seriously. Old *Jimmy Olsen* comics used to sell over seven hundred thousand issues a month. Not Superman -- *Jimmy Olsen.*
I was watching a show on the History Channel, called How William Shatner Changed the World. It was one of those shows that tracked the people who actually made things like ion propulsion drives for NASA unmanned spacecraft and the cellular telephone and had them saying "well, yeah. I was watching Star Trek and hey -- Data was listening to music on his computer so I went down to my job at Apple and then I wrote Quicktime and then we invented the iPod."
You know, a fluffy show, but fun. This one featured some of Shatner's trademark (for this decade) self-deprecating humor.
But... they made an interesting contention in this show.
See, Star Trek was low rated, but then snowballed. And was huge. And Star Trek: The Next Generation was even bigger. (And if you haven't been playing along at home... we're reaching the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation was as long ago as the original Star Trek was when TNG first came out. Feel old yet? But I digress.)
And then Deep Space Nine came out. Which was my favorite of the series. And it did okay... but it was significantly lower rated than Next Generation which was on at the same time.
And then Voyager was lower rated still.
And then Enterprise was lower rated enough that it tanked.
We all know these things. And we all know the justifications. "People were burned out on Star Trek. Competition from cable and the internet killed them." Et cetera. But that's not what they were saying on here.
No, their contention -- and it was a throwaway -- was simple. Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Roddenberry's vision of a future where humanity's problems were solved and technology was a good thing that made life a paradise and allowed humanity, who had matured, grown together and embraced that paradise, to develop themselves and explore the galaxy. Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise were darker shows where there were interpersonal conflicts between the crew, a more "realistic" approach to technology (which often failed) was adopted, and there were universal wars, terrorism, and lots of bad things and tense moments. And the millions of people who loved Next Generation didn't love these darker shows in such great numbers, despite their critical acclaim (the critics loved Deep Space Nine -- and so, for that matter did I). They loved the overall sense of optimism that Roddenberry had brought and people like Braga, Berman, and Behr eschewed as hokey.
Now, I don't know if this is right or not. I don't have demographics or interviews or statistical data. But it was an interesting contention for me, because it goes hand in hand with where I think comic books are dying.
See, comics used to be bright. They were optimistic. The good guys were good guys. The bad guys were bad guys. And the good guys eventually won. This was true at DC, where generally the heroes were stalwart and upright, and this was true at Marvel where the heroes were flawed and had problems. But it was still true.
Over the last several decades, comics have "grown up." They've become more realistic. And we ultimately had things like Zero Hour and Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and Civil War. And some of those series have been popular and everything, but comic books have been in major decline. The most popular books today get the kinds of numbers that middle of the road-to-unpopular books got in the seventies (and let's not even think about the forties or fifties. Superman used to sell many millions of issues a month.) Hell, over on Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics site (which is always good fun), an entire essay was devoted to pointing out that back when comics were stupid they vastly outsold the most popular comics of today. Even Little Dot.
And I've wondered for some time when the comic book companies became ashamed of superheroes. When did Realism, and "secret identities are bad" and "goofy heroes like Ralph and Sue Dibney need to die" and "the government needs to regulate all super heroes in a clear nod to Guantanamo Bay" and "hey, let's show Hank Pym immediately after employing the potential kinky sex acts that shrinking your body to the size of a dildo imply on his ex wife and former abuse victim Janet in our flagship team comic!" take the place of "Captain America beats up Hydra so they can't conquer the world" and "Iron Man is a good guy who fights bad people who want to take over the world."
I mean... what if the William Shatner documentary was right? What if the reason Enterprise tanked was because they'd lost the clear, clean message of the original series and Next Generation. What if the reason comic books are a niche item (and Manga outsells them in bookstores) is people liked the clear cut good versus evil stuff more than the 'popular' depressing 'realistic' stuff?
It would explain a lot, wouldn't it?
May 16, 2006
Eric: In other news, Marmaduke endures.
(From Peanuts, of course.)
For the second time recently we've got a Peanuts cartoon up on the old site for you to have a look at. And given the topic of this quick essay, this one's somewhat apropos. Loneliness in a crowd is one thing, but it's something else entirely when you're all alone.
On Sunday, the Winston-Salem Journal announced that it was dropping Peanuts from its comic page. It's kind of amazing that this is as significant as it is. After all, Peanuts by definition has been in reruns for years. And yet, it is in fact news when a major paper drops it.
In the words of Tim Clodfelter, the reporter who drew the short straw and had to write an article justifying dropping Peanuts (and whose surname is now my new favorite word):
Now, don't go sending the Red Baron after us. Just hear us out. We love Peanuts. It was a terrific comic strip, arguably the best in comics history. But the truth is, it ended more than six years ago when Charles Schulz died. Schulz was adamant that no one else would do the strip after him, an admirable sentiment in an industry where some long-running strips become little more than cartoon mills run by ghost artists and writers.
The Journal has been running repeats of the strip since 2000 because no one wanted to be the person who put Snoopy to sleep.
But the fact of the matter is, the strip is taking up a spot on our comics page that could be handed over to a newcomer. One reader wrote to us back in February 2000, when Peanuts ended, saying that he felt that Schulz would have wanted us to give the space to a younger cartoonist, to give the next generation a chance. That sentiment stuck in our heads, but change is hard, and changing something as fundamental as Peanuts on the comics page is even harder.
Clodfelter (seriously. Say it out loud. Clooooodfelter.) is right, of course. Charles Schulz didn't stipulate that no one follow him on the comic strip so that his own strips would continue being rerun forever and a day. He meant for Peanuts to end. And ultimately for other strips to come along behind. He deliberately eschewed the tactic that has Blondie, Dick Tracy, and that loveable acid trip Annie in the comics section to this day. It had a monumental run, but that run was over.
That run is over.
And yet, dropping the strip is problematic for the editors. Who indeed wanted to "put Snoopy to sleep," even if we were really just looking at Snoopy's home movies from an increasingly long time ago. And it's worrying to his successor, Mark Tatulli, who writes and draws a comic strip called Lio. Lio is itself a dramatically different strip than we've come to expect on the newspaper page. In a world of talking heads and situations, Lio is a comic that is all art, no dialogue, using a sense of wit and whimsy to convey visual humor. In a way, Lio is as unexpected as... well, Peanuts itself was back in 1953. (Yes, once upon a time Peanuts was considered edgy and innovative). I look forward to adding Lio to my own daily habit the minute they get on the web like every comic that actually wants an audience.
(You laugh. Opus was the big dramatic holdout. You can see how that holdout's doing right here if you like.)
Tatulli is understandably thrilled about the reception his new comic is receiving, but chagrined about who he's replacing in a major market:
Tatulli was a bit shell shocked to hear that his strip would be taking Peanuts' place.
"Oh, jeez, oh my God, you made me the bad guy," he said. He recalled a previous incident in the late 1990s when he was in a bar talking with someone about his other comic strip, Heart of the City. Another patron overheard their conversation and angrily declared "You replaced Calvin and Hobbes!"
Technically, that was true; Bill Watterson, the Calvin cartoonist, retired from the business, leaving a hole that newspapers had to fill.
"Like I had anything to do with it, but people immediately blame me," Tatulli said. "It's a real Catch-22: People don't want to change, but then there are other people complaining that the comics aren't relevant anymore. I'm trying to walk that line, make comics relevant but at the same time not make the people angry who have loved Blondie and Peanuts."
Look. I love Peanuts. I'm thrilled to see the growing library of Fantagraphics Peanuts books on my shelf. I'm thrilled to read through the strips. I will always, always love Peanuts.
But it doesn't need the increasingly small newspaper space any more. And I don't think it's bringing people to the paper -- or at least, not in the numbers necessary to reverse the decline of the newspaper subscription. It's time to let Peanuts move on... and for newspapers to move ahead.
May 6, 2006
Eric: Apropos of nothing, yes I saw Order of the Stick. Yes, I'm still bouncing. Now, a slightly older comic.
(From Peanuts. Click on the thumbnail for... well, yeah.)
I'm not sure this constitutes breaking Tharn. I'm currently drugged up on Nyquil but still can't sleep, after a pretty hard week. (102.5 degrees of body temperature makes for interesting hallucinations, however.) So I went through things, and saw today's Peanuts repeat over at Snoopy.com.
Really, it nailed my current dark mood perfectly. And yet also made me laugh. Which may be Charles Schulz in a nutshell.
For those who don't bother with the Peanuts repeats... this is a good time to revise that feeling. The repeats dart around, but usually cling to the late sixties through early seventies -- what's often considered the heydey of Peanuts. However, my personal favorite era of Peanuts is the fifties -- an era that for my money would work equally well as a webcomic today. This is a point late enough that all the major players (well, most -- Peppermint Patty and Marcie brought their forbidden love in a later time) have made the scene, and their personalities are coming out, but it's far less ritualized that Peanuts would later become. A little more gag-a-day. A little more whimsical. A little more surreal. This is a transitional time, right at the end of the fifties -- Snoopy's begun metamorphosing into the physical dog we all remember from the television specials and the strips most of my readers grew up with, but he still walks on all fours and in most ways acts... well, like a dog instead of Joe Cool. Have a look see. You might find it's not quite what you remember. Or, maybe you'll find it's exactly what you remember. Either way, really.
Today's strip is abject fatalism married to utter whimsy, and yet it somehow externalizes something we've all felt. God knows I have.
Right. More Nyquil. Time to hurl myself into the pit of unconsciousness.
December 4, 2005
Eric: A brief conversation
12:15:06 PM Eric Burns: Super Hero Postage Stamps!
12:15:12 PM Wednesday White: ?!
12:15:51 PM Eric Burns: DC Comics Super Heroes
Ten comic book heroes will be saluted on the "DC Comics Super Heroes" stamps next summer. Half of the pane of 20 will be portraits of the characters; the other half will show individual comic book covers devoted to their exploits. The characters include Aquaman, Batman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Plastic Man, Supergirl, Superman and Wonder Woman.
12:16:02 PM Wednesday White: ..............
12:16:07 PM Wednesday White: Waaaait. They aren't dead yet.
12:16:39 PM Eric Burns: They've all died at one time or other.
12:16:43 PM Wednesday White: Ah.
12:16:50 PM Wednesday White: That works, then.
August 21, 2005
Eric: And while I'm dreaming, I'd like to win the lottery.
So, I'm pointed over to B.C. earlier today. Which isn't a stop I usually make. Once upon a time, B.C. was a cheerfully surreal (and even somewhat countercultural) addition to the comic strip ranks. That time passed. These days, B.C. is... not so good.
But, B.C. is contributing to a pretty special event -- a three month storyline that is celebrating Blondie's seventy-fifth anniversary on the comics page.
I'd link to the strip in question, but the Comics.com version is being... unkind. And Mycomicpage's version is by subscription. So I'll spoil it.
See, the cameos are starting in other strips. Blondie characters have been showing up in strips ranging from Rose is Rose to Garfield delivering invitations to the festivities. (It's worth noting these invitations are being delivered across syndicate lines -- I've identified participants from both United Features and King Features, and I suspect there are others involved too.)
Now, it's one thing for Dagwood to show up at Jon Arbuckle's house. I mean, they're both pretty cartoony strips. It's another to have someone show up in For Better or For Worse, which is a much more serious and 'lifelike' strip. But we'll see how that goes. But how in God's name (no pun intended) do you have a Blondie character show up in B.C.? I mean, it's supposedly in the time before Christ (not that the cavemen remember that). Either Dagwood has to show up in an animal skin, or else he's got to show up in civilian clothes and it's The Village all over again.
(Actually, I'd pay good money for the cavemen of B.C. to be living in a sheltered and isolated community cut off from the rest of the world, only to have a helicopter crash land or something. But then, someone might think that was another backhanded knock on Johnny Hart's zealous religious convictions, and hey -- would I do that?)
But they pulled it off. In it, the turtle and bird combination are delivering mail. And struggling to get on schedule. They just barely manage it when POW! They're bowled over, letters everywhere. Chaos reigns. And we pull back and hey -- the Mailbox they're next to reads Bumstead. A subtle joke. From Johnny Hart. I suspect space aliens.
In any case, that's cool. And it's cool that a strip that launched with Blondie a wild Flapper chick in 1930 (yes, there was an era when Blondie was considered edgy) is ready to celebrate seventy-five years of mailman collisions, gigantic sandwiches, sleepings on the couch, interrupted baths, pesky neighbors, tool borrowings and guilty fourteen year old readers trying not to stare at Blondie's admittedly impressive rack.
But if I have a hope for this three month arc, it's not for good sight gags with Hagar the Horrible or the Pattersons. Or for some explanation why Daisy the dog can't speak but Grimm can. That's nothing. A flash in the pan. It's CRAZYLAND and that's just cool.
No, my hope for this three month arc is to have the one great dangling plot arc of Blondie's existence to be resolved. I'm hoping... for reconciliation between Dagwood, Blondie... and the Bumstead family.
Flash back to the 1930's. Blondie is a poor but wild flapper. Dagwood Bumstead, on the other hand, is a lazy, gluttonous, mind bogglingly rich playboy heir to the Bumstead Family name and fortune. The Bumsteads hated Blondie -- she was, after all, poor white trash, and probably loose to boot. And tried very hard to keep Dagwood from seeing her. Finally, they were engaged to be married, and Dagwood's family put their foot down. They forbade him from seeing her. They practically put him under arrest. In desperation, Dagwood played the ultimate trump card: he went on a hunger strike.
That's right. Dagwood Bumstead loved Blondie Boopadoop (I swear I didn't make that up) so much, he gave up food.
His family relented, but presented him with an ultimatum. Either he break off the engagement... or they would disown him for marrying beneath his class.
He went through with the marriage. His family threw him out. To survive, he went to work for Julius Caeser Dithers at the J.C. Dithers Construction Company, and the rest is history. (In fact, many of the most common tropes of Dagwood's behavior are holdovers from his days of wealth. His archaic business suit. His falling asleep at the job -- he wasn't used to working when he began, so he just took naps when he got tired. His odd closeness with Mr. Dithers's wealthy wife.
The actual change of strip happened because of the change of tastes on the comics page. Blondie premiered during the Depression, after all, and there was just so long a strip about a very 1920's flapper would remain popular. (Blondie had multiple boyfriends at the time. Dagwood was just one of them.) The storyline let them transition to strip about a poor family trying to make ends meet with a tyrannical boss browbeating Dagwood at a time when he wouldn't dare quit and look for other work.
But you know what? It's been thirteen presidential administrations since the Bumsteads threw Dagwood out. And Dagwood and Blondie have had two healthy children, plus Dagwood fathered that weirdass love child with a neighbor (come on. You can't tell me Elmo doesn't carry Bumstead genes. And Blondie wouldn't care, what with all the threesomes she goes in for with Herb and Tootsie Woodley). It's time for the aristocratic Bumstead family to swallow their pride, accept that their black sheep has done well for himself, and mend fences. And in the process create a whole new rush of issues. Suddenly, Dagwood could become a majority stockholder over at the Dithers Construction Company. Suddenly, Blondie's catering business could become an international concern. Suddenly, Daisy could have her pick of stud.
Now that would be an anniversary celebration.
June 9, 2005
Eric: There's something just right about "Renn Fest" Kestrel in sepia, and "Goth" Kestrel in greyscale, isn't there?
(From the Queen of Wands Rapid Fire Reruns. Click on the thumbnail for full sized avoidance!)
For those of you not following along on the Queen of Wands "Rapid Fire Reruns," where Aeire puts up the once thrice-weekly strips seven days a week and annotates and comments on them, this is a good time to go have a look, because this is the point in Queen of Wands where something interesting is going on.
Specifically, this is the point in the comic where Aeire went for the Cerebus Syndrome. And as one of the very few to actually pull it off, watching the actual points of shift is fascinating.
A number of things are happening here. Beyond the simple elaboration of story and backstory and the fleshing out and deepening of everything that's going on, Aeire's also growing in sophistication as a visual storyteller and as a writer. We went to sepia tones for a flashback (and then -- and I think this is hysterical -- we went to full greyscale for a flashback being told inside the flashback. At the time, I wondered if we'd go to black and white line art and another two year jump back in time next, and then maybe Microsoft Paint....), and her panels began to separate from one another to give more room for the dialogue boxes in between. The story began to fully take center stage at this point. You can even see the lightning path she used to tie her panels together visually appearing here -- interestingly, it's in the foreground, actually changing the shades of the greyscale here.
I was a Queen of Wands fan almost from the beginning -- I don't remember when I did the archive trawl on it, but it was pretty early. I remembered being startled by the more serious tone of some of these strips (and they get more serious still over the next few coming days), but I got pretty caught up in it. Later on, it looked to me like Aeire was moving fully into First and Ten syndrome. But then she hit a twist that threw the whole thing into perspective, and kept going up.
So, students of the form should be following along. They should be reading Aeire's notes on the process. And most of all, they should be seeing the way a Cerebus Syndrome that ended up working looked during the process. This is a good time to be following along with a so-called "rerun."
April 14, 2005
Eric: Some thoughts on the Eisner Nominations
So, I've gone through the Comics Reporter's list of Eisner nominees... and I have to say, I'm okay with it.
Obviously, the one that leaps out at me is the Best Digital Comic category, and just as obviously they're (mostly) not the comics I would have nominated, but that's subjective. The Eagles, back last year, were offensive in their lack of understanding of the medium. These are well picked. Of the ones nominated, I'm pulling for Athena Voltaire, which I think is a fantastic webcomic in every way, though as with most of the adventure comics I read, it's hard to snark it because it's so contextual. If it doesn't take it, I guess I'm going to shoot for Jonny Crossbones, which is definitely worthy.
The other big news is Scott Kurtz of PvP (for all two of you who don't know who Scott Kurtz is) getting nominated for the Best Writer/Artist -- Humor category. I think that's a tremendous validation both of Kurtz and of webcomics (even if they tagged him for his Image connection instead of the web connection) in general, and I think it's deserved.
I also think Kyle Baker's going to actually win, with Phil Foglio getting the outside chance. But just seeing Kurtz's name there makes me feel like our community is reaching out, not just in our own little ghetto (and a nice ghetto it is -- right in between the Science Fiction ghetto and the minicomickers) but in the broader comics community.
So, it's a first step. And it's an okay first step. And with time and greater penetration and understanding, more of what the webcomics community would expect to see on the Eisners list will be.
And then, Narbonic will win awards. Just you wait.
February 12, 2005
Eric: Oddly, it is a good grief, even after all this time.
Five years ago, on February 12, 2000, Charles Schultz's last Peanuts strip was being printed for the Sunday funnies, even as Charles Schultz himself passed on into that good night, once and for all. It was perhaps the best sense of timing in comic strip history.
A lot of people will claim that Schultz's best years were long behind him -- I know more than a few who were bitching then that Peanuts was taking up a slot that
their strip some more recent comic could fill.
I remember being so angry at those people.
Actually angry. Peanuts wasn't a 'multigenerational' comic. Every last strip was drawn by Schultz. Every last joke came from his pen. And maybe they didn't like it any more, but I liked it. I'm glad he could essentially do the work he loved for his entire life. I'm glad he got a chance to know how much we all loved him. And I miss him. I miss him on the comics page, even if there are reruns there now. I miss reading stories of cartoonists meeting "Sparky" and being stunned at how accessible and friendly and supportive he was. I miss knowing that in a world of rock and pop he managed to get piano jazz on his television shows and specials because he liked piano jazz. I miss the references to skaters I'd never heard of. I miss the words "Sopwith Camel."
Fantagraphics is publishing the finest public service I know -- the complete Peanuts, in sequential order, one book at a time. I have the first two books, from back at the beginning of the 50's. I'm stunned at how good they are. How clean, how well produced, how cheerful. I'm stunned at how much energy there is and how much evolution the comic needed to have. Those early days... I don't know how better to put it... read like a webcomic. Frenetic, trying out anything, too intelligent for the intended audience. This was an age where Charlie Brown was sometimes a troublemaker. This was an age where the three leads were Charlie Brown, Shermie and Violet.
Charlie Brown... Shermie... and Violet.
By the end of the second volume, most of the gang has shown up. Schroeder is playing Beethoven (something I still hear as "beeth" "oven" in my head because I first learned that word from Peanuts, and I didn't know how to pronounce it), though he went through a sequence where he absolutely stunned everyone because he could play complicated music on a toy piano. (The black keys didn't even exist -- they were just painted on.) We saw Lucy as a baby, growing slowly into a fussbudget. By the end of the second volume Linus and his blanket are there, but he isn't talking yet. Snoopy is a puppy, and acts exclusively like a dog. Pig Pen has just shown up.
I'm going to own every last one of these volumes. When we hit the Sixties, we'll meet Five, Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Shermie will finish his disappearance into the background. Freida with the naturally curly hair will show up. Woodstock will show up. Rerun will be born.
And thousands of jokes we're all used to a million times over will appear. And I'll read them and cherish them. We'll see the World War One Flying Ace, and Joe Cool, and the Head Beagle. We'll meet Spike and the rest of Snoopy's extended family from the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. We'll hear Peppermint Patty call Charlie Brown Chuck. We'll meet Sally and learn how selfish she could be, while still smiling. We'll see the opening of Lucy's psychiatry stand. We'll....
Well, I could go on for hours. It's a treasury waiting for us to enrich ourselves. I hope you all do so.
As for me, I'm going to remember that five years ago, Charlie Brown officially never kicked the football, and never would. And there was a purity in that I've never seen anyone else be brave enough to try.
February 7, 2005
Eric: Despite the fact that I prefer Foxtrot, you realize Jason's *never* going to actually grow up in that strip, don't you?
(From... I can't believe I'm typing this... Cathy. Click on the thumbnail for full sized nuptials.)
So, Cathy got married this weekend.
I don't like Cathy.
I don't like the strip. At all. I think it's not... well... funny. I think it peaked a long time ago. I think it's one of those strips that's found a dedicated slot on the Comics Page, so it's not going anywhere. I think there are a dozen strips I'd rather see get its slot, that do more as humor strips, as womens' strips, as any kind of strips. I'd kill to see Narbonic as a gag-a-day strip about empowered women in place of Cathy and her bathing suit and "acking."
So let's give it up for Motherfucking Cathy. She got married.
Look, part of the reason we despise so many strips on the comics page is because not only aren't they funny, they're not trying anything new. Ever. I have a perverse love for Beetle Bailey, but I know Beetle is exactly the same person he was in 1969. I know Hagar is the same person he was in 1979. I know Andy Capp remains the same lovable wife beating drunk.
But the core premise of Cathy is "a single woman trying to cope with life's issues, including dating and a mother who is desperate to get her married."
Cathy got married. The entire premise of the strip has changed. In an corporate culture where change is feared and editors are a cowardly, superstitious lot, Cathy Guisewite has completely twisted the entire core of her comic strip.
That takes guts, kids. Especially when you consider she could simply have done another ten solid years of strips exactly like she did before. I'm not saying the new strips will be any funnier. But they're not going to be exactly the same. And she might well lose some fans who liked the old way better.
That deserves recognition. Jim Davis won't marry Jon and the Vet any time soon. Beetle Bailey won't get promoted or cashiered any time soon. (Or losing a leg or getting shipped to the Gulf, for that matter.) The kids in The Boondocks won't be growing up any time soon.
But Cathy got married.
Good show, Ms. Guisewite. Good show.
Now make it funny.
January 4, 2005
Eric: Sad news.
Will Eisner has passed on. He had quadruple bypass surgery, and while he was expected to come through that, there's a host of problems that can arise when you have that extensive a surgery. One of them was enough, though we don't have details yet.
Which is almost odd, in a morning already made surreal by his passing. Will Eisner was all about the details.
There's always been an understanding -- at least among the cognoscenti -- that comic strips and cartoon art was really illustration, and worthy of something more than dismissal as "the funny pages." But the same can't be said for comic books. It's not that they were always seen as "kid's stuff." They weren't. Back in the heydey of the publishing world, when Superman and Action Comics sold millions of copies, they sold them to adults just as often as children. But there was still a sense that comic books weren't serious. They weren't art.
But Will Eisner knew different. And we know different now, because of him.
Eisner's storytelling techniques were seminal. The Spirit was more than an action pulp -- it was a dynamic study in how to tell a story in sequence. And it was exciting, but also poignant, and brought the funny in good and appropriate measure. The term "sequential art" is credited to Eisner. The first graphic novel was Eisner's, and there was nary a spandex clad gladiator to be found in it.
Most of all, Eisner was a teacher. He did more than produce remarkable art. He used that art to inspire and education a new generation of artists. Face it, when Jules Feiffer, Wallace Wood and Scott McCloud all cite Eisner's profound influence, you know you're looking at the headwaters.
Eisner also believed in the sequential form, as a tool as well as an art form. In his seminal Comics and Sequential Art, he covered comics as entertainment and comics as instruction -- and for many years he illustrated training manuals. He believed history and science and basic how to's could all be explained in a clear and entertaining fashion through comics.
The comics industry will mourn, of course. They loved Will Eisner. In a land of Stan Lees and Jack Kirbys and Julie Schwartzes -- beloved giants of comic art -- it was Will Eisner whose name became the highest award in the comics. And cartoonists will mourn -- Eisner was no stranger to the newspaper pages, and one of his characters still appears in Will Eisner's JOHN LAW over on Modern Tales -- that's right, the webcartoonists get to count just a little piece of Eisner among them as well. And his spirit runs through any number of webcomics.
It's odd, almost. I wasn't personally a Spirit fan. I liked it fine, but it didn't change my life the way so many others did. But I loved Eisner's technique and form and belief in the academic discipline of comics, so I feel this death. And I know many cartoonists who feel bereft now. It's like the uncle who taught you everything you knew has passed on, and you feel like he had so much left to say.
Perhaps so. But one thing is clear. So long as artists lay out stories in panels, where one panel leads to the next with a sense of drama and story... so long as men in suits fight for women in dresses who are no damn good for them... and so long as bristol board accepts india ink from a brush, Will Eisner is going to be a part of the comics.
That's the real Spirit in the comics, and he belongs to us all now.
Thank you, sir.
December 9, 2004
Eric: Sacred hamburger: the role of our heroes in the decline of the newspaper comics page
I'm in a bad mood today. I have a bad headache, I've been fighting technology and politics and idiocy at work, the weather is miserable and icy (it's never fun to plunge to the ground), there are money issues and Christmas issues and technology issues and people calling me to troubleshoot things they bought themselves, didn't jury through our department, and now can't get to work because they're wrong and somehow this is my fault.
Bad. Mood. Everyone got that? Good.
So, it's the right mood to finally write about something that's been bugging me for as long as I've been following syndicated comic strips with some degree of understanding.
We all know the syndicates. King Features. Universal Press. The Washington Post Writer's Group. Et cetera ad nauseam. And we know the continual cry about them. "They're hidebound! They're too conservative! They restrict artistic freedom! They shaft the artists they're working for! They want to make art into nothing more than a commodity! They exalt the bland and restrain the daring! They won't fucking cancel Cathy and Garfield, and they aren't funny!"
All that is true, and all that is a lie.
I'm not a fan of the syndication system. I think it's a relic of a different era, and I think that era has ended. I think we're moving into a new era, not just in newspapers but in all media, where art can flourish and grow and extend without needing the gatekeepers we once did. Distribution is getting too simple. Print on demand is getting increasingly economic. Micropayments are getting closer to reality. The world is changing, and the syndicates are trying to change while holding onto their turf, and that's causing trouble.
But quite honestly, I don't blame the syndicates for what's happening to the newspaper page. I don't blame them at all. I think that, when you consider they're a business making business decisions, the situation we've found ourselves in was inevitable. And I know one of the major reasons it happened, and I know the people responsible.
And their names are Breathed, Watterson, and Larson.
Let's pause for a moment, and give people a chance to blink, reread that, and begin to get mad. While we do that, let's also puncture a myth. It's felt by many -- especially cartoonists who have been rejected by the syndicates -- that the funny pages have no room for controversy, for violence, for sex, or for honest humor in today's world. To those people, it's all Garfield, Beetle Bailey, The Wizard of Id, Peanuts reruns, Nancy and fucking Cathy. The damn Syndicates won't let any real humor or art or controversy on the page any more.
There are strips with rampant gunplay and death, violence, terrorism, buckets of sex, racism, sexism, gays and lesbians, political and cultural commentary and bellylaughs, all to be found. There's Mister Boffo and The Fusco Brothers and Doonesbury and The Boondocks and Zippy the Pinhead and motherfucking Annie and Dick Tracy and Non Sequitur and Overboard and all the rest. The Syndicates aren't afraid of quality, or humor, or controversy. That's not what this is about. That's not what the problem is.
Comic strips, since at least the twenties, have been chock full of iconic creators. Segar. George Herriman. Chester Gould. Alex Raymond. Chic Young. Al Capp. Charles Schultz. Walt Kelly. Garry Trudeau. And many, many others. These were giants. Their strips were adored. Their presence or absence could make or break a newspaper as competing papers fought for the fickle public.
And the syndicates made a lot of money off of them. They merchandised and published collections and licensed the strips to Hell and back. There were Popeye lamps. There were Blondie movies (I used to watch them afternoons on WLBZ back in Maine -- they weren't bad, for 50's fluff). There were enough pieces of crap with Schmoos on them to fill a collector's basement to the door. And, while the cartoonists weren't particularly happy with the arrangement (I remember an Al Capp penned "Li'l Abner" where a cartoonist has a Syndicate head break his door down in the middle of the night, and demand immediate changes before the next morning, regardless of the public's desire or the cartoonist's desire. "Yessir," the cartoonist said, terrified. "After all, you own the strip. I just created it and have drawn it all my life."
But even that didn't capture the true heart of the problem -- that mythical syndicate head wanted changes in Fearless Fosdick because he didn't like the content, even though the public did. And while that's certainly not unknown in Comic Strip History, it's always been more about the comic strip as product that's driven syndicate decisions. It's not that controversy would offend the editors and publishers -- it's that the public might stop buying newspapers, or newspapers might stop running the strip. It was a business decision.
And honestly, it didn't lead to the collapse of the art form. Peanuts, Pogo, Li'l Abner, Doonesbury and all the rest were still great. There are ways they may even have been better -- unrestrained creativity is unedited creativity, and unedited creativity leads to self indulgence. We all know the pain of seeing some writer or artist we love become "too big to edit" or "too big to direct." It's not that they become bad -- it's that they could be better and they're not.
And so, we get to the eighties. And ultimately, we get to the latest three comic strip superstars. Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson. And they launched just slightly after a couple of other cartoonists you may have heard of: Jim Davis and Cathy Guisewite. Remember those names -- we will be coming back to them.
Bloom County and The Far Side first appeared in 1980. Calvin and Hobbes first appeared in 1985. It's pretty safe to say these three strips would be the most popular strips of their time. Certainly, they're the three strips mentioned again and again and again by current cartoonists and webcartoonists as seminal influences -- only Peanuts gets as many mentions by the current generation, with a few students of history to round things out.
That wasn't the only thing the three strips had in common, however. Not only were they of an age... they were written and drawn by a pack of troublemakers. Breathed and Watterson were champions of creator control for opposite reasons (Breathed enthusiastically played the merchandising game, and wanted to guide those efforts, while Watterson endlessly fought to keep Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised in any way) but with similar goals -- both were vocal opponents of shrinking art space for comic strips, and both eventually were able to make demands in that area. Larson was less contentious but the most likely to be censored, according to the published anthologies. (Breathed had more than a few brushes with his editors in that regard, of course.) Larson was clearly most interested in drawing what he wanted to draw -- though he was happy enough to be merchandised. Both Larson and Watterson took long sabbaticals during their strips' runs. Breathed, on the other hand, reached a point where his disputes with his syndicate and with the grind of six strips and a sunday were too much and jumped from the Washington Post Writer's Group to Universal Press Syndicate, a mostly new cast of characters and Sundays only with Outland. (Of course, as WPWG's contracts with Breathed ran out, his characters sidled over from Bloom County to Outland along with.) Watterson demanded and got a concession for more room on Sundays -- half the page would be his, no compromises, if Calvin and Hobbes ran -- and began bringing Herrimanesque layouts and imagination to the page.
Now, let's look at the list of the ways our heroes caused trouble: they demanded rights over their creation and its merchandising. They demanded space and creative control. They demanded their own forms of artistic creativity and integrity. If you think I'm coming out against any of these things, you're nuts. They took a stand and they held firm, and they were popular enough that they got their own way. Sure, the syndicates might not have made all the money they wanted (especially from Calvin and Hobbes), but they were still making more money from these properties than from their others, and they wanted that to continue.
But it didn't continue, did it?
Let's stop and consider the giant comic strips. Peanuts went on decades. As did L'il Abner. Annie and Dick Tracy and Popeye have been in newspapers since the 20's through the 40's. And even second tier strips (comparatively) like Blondie and Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois and Nancy and all the rest bring in money over a very, very long term -- owned by the syndicates, with new people coming it to replace retirees, they represent investments with tremendous return. The merchandising might not be the bonanza Bloom County or the Far Side represented, but it's there and bringing in money. In short, these strips are all good for business, and more to the point they're good for business over a very, very long time.
Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, on the other hand, were excellent for business... but honestly didn't last that long. Especially when one remembers the sabbaticals (where reruns took place -- and Larson's syndicate actually took criticism because they charged the same price for the reruns of the Far Side as they did for new strips) and the jumping from one syndicate to another. By the mid-nineties, they'd all ended. The shift from Bloom County to Outland had slowed the Breathed property merchandising up a lot, so there wasn't much left to continue. The Far Side kept merchandising for a long time, though when they put out their Last Ever Desk Calendar a couple of years back, I remember seeing it and thinking "they're still making those?" instead of being sad. And of course, Calvin and Hobbes doesn't bring in any kind of money except for print collections, and hasn't since the last, memorable strip.
Now, if our three troublemakers -- pushing boundaries, advocating for creative and artistic rights, demanding space and time to recharge, creatively -- had stuck the course... some real positive things could have happened. They could have demanded change across the board, not just for themselves but for all creators. They could have used their clout with the papers for the art form as a whole. Or, at the very least, they could have continued to advocate and draw in readers and inspire new generations of artist. But they didn't. Bloom County went nine years, Outland went five more. Calvin and Hobbes went ten years if we ignore the sabbaticals. The Far Side went the longest at sixteen. Which frankly is nothing compared to most of the strips on the comics page. The old school ethic was if your strip remained popular, you kept doing it. And for that matter, when you retired or died, someone else picked it up for you. (Even Peanuts, which ended when Schultz retired -- though as it worked out he died the day of the last strip's publication -- was a situation where the syndicate announced their decision to run reruns after Schultz's death instead of having someone else pick it up. And if you look at their web site, the copyright notice isn't for Schultz's estate. Instead, it's: PEANUTS © 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)
So. You have three very very popular but troublesome creators, who captured the public's imagination... but made a lot of demands, and then left comparatively quickly.
Now, let's look at Garfield and Cathy.
Garfield is inoffensive. It's designed to be. Jim Davis didn't develop it out of a sense of art or humor... he developed it as a marketing plan, finding an underrepresented pet -- cats -- on the comics page and developing a strip that would be highly accessible, unchallenging, and appealing to a broad demographic. Which is more or less how he presented it to United Features Syndicate in 1978, and they agreed. He managed to secure an early deal with the syndicate over merchandising, which was very friendly to both Davis (and his "Paws, Inc.") and United Features. And he designed it, very calculatingly, to have broad appeal -- no topical humor, no country or regional based humor, a simple, clean art style, and simple, easily grasped characters. And they have never strayed from this. Garfield is lazy and likes to eat. Jon is unlucky in love and is a dork. Odie drools and is stupid. Nermal is cute and annoying. Also, lasagna.
They have sold millions of copies of dozens of different books -- getting on the New York Times best sellers list several times. They have sold posters and signs and car suction cup things. They got a (pretty damn good) cartoon series and a (no idea if good or bad) movie made. Hell, when I walk down the hall past one of the Foreign Language classrooms, there's a Garfield on the door with his hands extended wide and "I love you thiiiiis much" written under it in Spanish. In fact, Bloom County's Bill the Cat was wholly created to be a parody of Garfield's merchandising and commercial intent. That Bill went on to make Breathed and his syndicate buttloads of merchandising dollars has been lost on no one.
No one who has a webcomic claims to have been inspired by Garfield. But we've all read it. People who've never heard of the Boondocks or even For Better or For Worse know Garfield. And Garfield continues to rake in oodles of cash. It's been successful enough that Davis started a second strip -- U.S. Acres -- and successfully merchandised it, though it wasn't as universal and faded out. And later, he was contracted to do Mister Potatohead for the good people at Hasbro.
Which underscores just what kind of operation Garfield is. It fits perfectly in the syndicate model, because drawn or not, funny or not, it's a commodity. It's content, and it never causes controversy and Davis never demands more space or time off (in fact, he doesn't draw the strip any more). It's a brand. And it sells. Well. And it's not going anywhere.
Move over to Cathy. Who's actually the longest running strip of the five we're profiling here -- it started in 1976. Cathy isn't the marketing bonanza that Garfield is but it's solid in that arena (and has an Emmy award winning cartoon in its past). Now, Cathy Guisewite isn't trying to create a marketing machine, the way Jim Davis was. She truly wanted to be a cartoonist, to draw her semiautobiographical comic strip about the overweight insecure woman and her travails.
(Note to the people who followed the snarks over the last few days. I mentioned wanting to see a female protagonist who wasn't a size six? Hi, this is Cathy. Have you met her? She's insecure about being seen in a bathing suit. No, she's not who I had in mind either when I said that, but if we ignore her, we're doing a disservice to ourselves, to the art form and to our argument.)
Most of all... Cathy has been consistent. Guisewite doesn't cause controversy. She doesn't make waves. She doesn't cause outrage. She just produces, day in and day out. And she's recognizable, instantly. She's a brand. And papers run her happily. She's safe, she's a known quantity, and there's a sense that if they dropped her, there would be letters. They're right, too. I don't know who'd write them, but there would be letters.
Now, there's something that needs to be said here. Jim Davis is, from all reports, a very nice man. Well spoken, cheerful, unashamed, and downright pleasant. And Cathy Guisewite loves cartooning. It's her life. I saw her once on the Tonight Show -- she was clearly nervous, but cheerful... and everything she was asked she related back to the comic strip. She's not ashamed of it. She doesn't think it's mediocre. She's proud of Cathy. She's proud of what she's managed to do as a female cartoonist. She's proud of the inroads she's made and her place in cartoonist history. And who the fuck are we to say she shouldn't be.
But in terms of the art form... almost all webcartoonists, cartoonists and creators of our generation look back to the three rebels -- Larson, Watterson and Breathed -- and want to be like them. They want to take up their causes. They want to make a difference and emancipate the comics page.
But look at this from the syndicates and their point of view. What do you want in your syndicate? The three monster huge strips, two of which had merchandising bonanzas, but with cantankerous creators who punched out after ten or fifteen years... or the solid, dependable strips that don't cause trouble and that keep moving along 25-30 years later, bringing in fees and merchandising dollars all the while?
If you look at the 90's instead of the 80's, there's really only one cartoonist who hit that same "iconic" status as Breathed, Watterson and Larson: Scott Adams. And let's be blunt -- Dilbert owes a Hell of a lot to Garfield. It found a receptive niche -- the disgruntled workplace -- and it leveraged and merchandised the Hell out of that niche. It's settled in for the long haul. It gathers strips from its readers (which is a convenient way to avoid needing those sabbaticals to recharge, isn't it?) and it's allowed the almost surreal, whimsical and anarchic humor of its early days -- Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light; Bob the Dinosaur -- to be wholly replaced with "gosh, managers are stupid boobs, aren't they? Boy, aren't human resources directors evil?" jokes.
Go to the Dilbert website. Check out the bottom: Dilbert © 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. Look familiar?
One of the few people to really challenge the Syndicates from within since the Rebel Heroes left was Frank Cho. And he ultimately left, too constrained by editors and structures. For the most part, whether some of the strips are wild and controversial or not, the comics page is now made up of sound, long term investments. Investments the syndicates are pretty sure will be here thirty years from now. And strips that have already been here for thirty years. Strips where the creators don't cause too much trouble -- they might fight for a plotline, or to reach their own niche. The Boondocks isn't out there to pander, and For Better and For Worse wasn't afraid to out a long standing character as gay or kill the family dog. But Johnston and McGruder aren't exactly demanding half a sunday page to themselves, are they?
No, the Syndicates have learned their lesson. When Scott Kurtz was approached by a syndicate, he wanted to retain rights -- merchandising, online distribution, the comic book deal with Image -- but the syndicate said "no." This was a proven quantity that would work on the funny pages. The syndicate knew it -- this was low risk stuff for them. But they learned their lesson: either they wanted the whole enchilada, or they'd go somewhere else for Mexican. They learned that from Larson, Watterson and Breathed.
So yeah. I give full respect to Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County. Hell, I fucking revere those strips. I love what they managed to do. I love the artistry of them. I love the humor of them. I think they're signs of brilliance. And I think we're reaping the artistic benefit of their inspiration today. I really do.
But when you look at the newspaper page, and feel like something's missing... remember those fantastic strips that blew into town, made a lot of demands, caused a lot of trouble, and then blew back out of town. This is part of their legacy too. And the sooner we all recognize that, the better our efforts to retake newspaper comics from the safe and marketable will be.
I told you I was in a bad mood.
December 1, 2004
Eric: A brief IM log about Annie.
Eric Burns 12:46: I'm in and out today. (Seminar. Pray for me.) How you?
Pip 12:46: Good, good. Took to reading some more of Annie. Watching Daddy Warbucks toss around the Satanist is just... weird. Daddy Warbucks, Action Hero. Duuuude.
Eric Burns 12:47: Hey -- he's got the power of the American Capitalistic System in those guns, pal!
November 14, 2004
Eric: Winning the race
My eyes ache and my eyelids are too heavy. My stomach is about like I thought it would be. I'd still be asleep, but my cat decided she wanted to be amused, and crawled on me until I made those noises she finds so funny. So I checked the news. No promises how long I'll stay awake, but regardless, I learned something that deserves acknowledgement. Namely, Harry Lampert, who with Gardner Fox created the Golden Age Flash, has died.
I always liked the golden age versions of super heroes. Generally, I liked them better than I liked the modern age heroes. I'm a huge Green Lantern fan, but when I was eight years old I read a reprint of the Golden Age Green Lantern, and no matter how much I got into Hal Jordan, he always seemed like a leotard wearing fancy lad next to the two fisted Alan Scott. One thing I liked was the abandon of the heroes. Barry Allen became the Flash only after lightning managed to twist its way into the room he was standing on the opposite side of the window of, so it could conveniently avoid all the metal in the walls or on the roof of police headquarters (hello? Radio tower on the roof?) to hit the stockpiles of chemicals and bathe him in its transforming chemical goodness. Jay Garrick? Fell asleep while breathing "hard water fumes." And when he woke up, he could play tennis by himself and he thought wearing a pie pan with wings on his head made for a good fashion statement.
I can get behind that. The visual look of the Jay Garrick Flash was always cool -- just this guy in a cobbled together costume who took joy in running. And from all reports that described Harry Lampert too. This is a man who, in his sixties, became a successful writer with a series of books on playing Bridge. In fact, his book The Fun Way to Serious Bridge is described by the Houston Chronicle as "the bible of the game." And that might have been a mantra for the man -- he made serious work fun, and he took fun things seriously.
Lampert was an artist from sixteen years old on. He was a part of arguably the most significant cross-media transition in sequential art, working on and inking Fleischer Studios cartoons. He worked on Popeye and Betty Boop for them. If you don't think that was big, bear in mind most kids today don't even know Popeye was a comic strip before it became a cartoon, and a Hell of a lot more kids watch the Justice League cartoon than read the Justice League comic book.
After his time in comic books, which sadly (for us) was short, he went on to draw cartoons for Time Magazine, Esquire, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and others. He taught illustration at the New York School of the Visual Arts. And he enjoyed life. And, in the 90's, decades after he created one of the most enduring characters of the Golden Age of Comics, he learned an entire subculture prized his work. He went to the San Diego Comic Con for the first time in his seventies, and discovered people would line up for his autograph, would pay good money for a sketch, and were buying first editions of his comics for thousands of dollars. He was amused when he told The Washington Post that he couldn't afford to buy one of his own first editions -- they cost too much money.
I think it's nice that he got to be a comics rock star at the twilight of his life. I think it's nice that a DC Comics representative noticed him at San Diego, got his social security number, and sent him back royalties for his work, too. I think it's nice he got to know just how many people were touched by something he created.
Sometimes, the best race you can win is the one you didn't even know you had run.
Right, I'm going to have a cup of tea, some Tums, lie down and die. Enjoy, kids.
October 19, 2004
Eric: I have a stuffed "Yuppie Opus" from this time period at home. He has sneakers and a power tie. I bet its worth a lot on eBay at this point. You can't have him.
(From Bloom County. Click on the thumbnail for full sized offscreen hair! (Subscription very required))
There were watershed moments in Bloom County, and every so often they come up as My Comics Page slowly fills out their archives of the strip. Today, we've seen one of the big ones -- the (offscreen) introduction of Lola Granola, a woman who ended up a major supporting character and Opus's love interest for a very long time.
The best part of the Lola years is Breathed set up a certain expectation in the beginning -- the first thing we hear about is Lola's hairy legs. And we don't see her for quite some time. If you haven't read the sequence, you now have a mental image of Lola. If you have read the sequence, you know how well that image does or doesn't match up with Lola herself. This all goes back to 1986, and Breathed was at his absolute storytelling peak, here. Perhaps it lacked the edge of the first few years (much less the Academia Waltz), but it also didn't fall into the esoteric banality that marked the late Bloom County and Outland years. (As for Opus... no clue. I've seen it once. Looked like Outland to me, only with less effort put into it. But I haven't seen it enough to have a real opinion.) Right now, Breathed was hitting on all cylinders, the strips were funny and the story made sense and remained compelling.
We're very close to the Bassalope years, too, and that's a fine, fine thing.
October 16, 2004
Eric: And just like that, a giant, oversized, lazy boy becomes a giant, oversized, lazy man.
(From Li'l Abner. Click on the thumbnail for full sized delayed puberty!)
1952 was a historic year for Li'l Abner. Not only was this the year that Daisy Mae finally got Li'l Abner to marry her (an 18 year quest), but, as you see in the above strip, it was the year Daisy Mae got Li'l Abner to kiss her -- and have him discover that he likes the kissing, as he said. And just three months after the wedding, too! As Mammy Yokum said a couple of days before, the Yokums are widely noted as passionate lovers, and clearly this is all that was needed, as it would be roughly nine months later that Li'l Abner and Daisy Mae's son Honest Abe Yokum would be born.
Comics.com has this milestone event in their reprints today. Check it out! And note the acknowledgment that while Abner and Daisy Mae would not be running in the Sadie Hawkins Day race that year, it would indeed be held. Some traditions are eternal.
September 12, 2004
Eric: Dis is whut we get today? Chee!
(From Superosity! Click on dis tumnale for full sized hully gee!)
Comics history time, kids. Richard Felton ("R.F.") Outcault created newspaper comics, for all intents and purposes, with Hogan's Alley, featuring the Yellow Kid, first published in Truth Magazine in 1894, then making the jump to Joseph Pulitzer'sThe New York World newspaper (and then other papers) in 1895. He was popular, so William Randolph Hearst lured Outcault away with a big salary and put newspaper cartoons on the map. Cartoons quickly became seen as important commodities for newspapers -- especially the "Yellow Newspapers" known for more sensational news as compared with the more staid, non-tabloid papers. Pulitzer and Hearst both published Yellow Kids comics for a while, and both merchandised the character, proving the market for such things. Consider the impact that had on cartooning through the new century, leading up to today. Outcault eventually returned to Pulitzer, by the way, and created Buster Brown for him.
Clearly, when Chris, Bobby and Boardy traveled back to 1895 to celebrate the first Labor Day, Richard Outcault's lesser known brother Ralphie met them and had his future changed, causing him not to die in a pile of pig manure and to take his brother's role as the grandfather of newspaper cartoons.
Which means Superosity was the very first Comic Strip! And you thought Chris Crosby wouldn't ever amount to anything. Sadly, this also means that Chris, Bobby and "Irony" are all in the public domain. But naturally, Keenspot will exercise its titanic merchandising muscles and force changes in Copyright Law to protect their huge profit potent--
Oh, who am I kidding. No one would be that nuts about comic strip characters.
September 4, 2004
Eric: Don't you fucking tell me there are no magic words. I know better.
So, having consumed Narbonic's archives over the past couple of days, I'm now ravenous for more. And that, by the way, is what a truly great webcomic does. It infects your brain with its premise, with its attitude, with its expectations and whips you up into a froth, so that you want more, damn it, now!
This does not, by the way, explain why some people are total assholes when it comes to updates, especially from hobbyist cartoonists. No, that's not because those people are so desperate for the next strip they lose all rhyme or reason. That's because those people are total assholes. Entirely different reaction, really.
So I went looking for more stuff. And saw on Garrity's web site that she had some old strips from her college days and the like. All very nice and neat, and I looked through them -- including the above strip, which was called "North of Space."
And there I saw it. The magic word.
Doesn't mean anything to you? Then your world is a much sadder place than mine.
Back in the forties, a man named Crockett Johnson wrote and drew a comic strip called Barnaby. This was a strip about a young boy named, appropriately enough, Barnaby -- who wished one day to have a Fairy Godmother. Well, the fates gave him a Fairy Godfather instead -- Mr. O'Malley, a small, portly pixie with a pork-pie hat and a "fine Havana wand" that looked a whole lot like a cigar. And so began a series of absolutely whimsical, absolutely magical, savagely sophisticated and satirical comic strips.
They were absolutely wonderful. When satirizing the campaign of Thomas Dewey for President, they revealed three ghosts coordinating his campaign strategy -- all of whom were working to turn back time, because they didn't like the modern world. One of them -- Colonel Wurst (a conflation of the names of the owner of the Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst -- two rabid anti-Roosevelt voices) -- published news in the papers that was old, each day pushing the news back another day in time. In the end, they gave up the campaign after Wurst published news from the day before Black Monday. Since they had decided they had moved back before the Great Depression, they were all rich again, so they didn't care about politics any more. The relationship of the Pixies, the kids who saw and believed in them and the parents who didn't (and who called them Pixeys -- a slight difference that made all the difference) is echoed in everything from Calvin and Hobbes to Mr. Snuffleupagus.
Duke Ellington once wrote to the newspaper that published Barnaby to state, for the record, that he believed in Mr. O'Mallery, no matter what Barnaby's parents thought. And Dorothy Parker wrote a review that she described as a valentine and a mash note to Johnson. This is the depth of impact Barnaby had on popular culture.
Johnson also wrote the seminal children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon -- a book entirely about unleashing one's imagination through art. It was beautiful and wonderful. But I first came to know Johnson through Barnaby. One of the greatest runs of the strip -- the Hot Coffee Ring -- was in that Smithsonian Cartoon Art collection I mentioned a while back.
Mr. O'Malley had an all purpose expression -- somewhere between an exclamation and a swear -- that he used all the time. "Cushlamocree."
When Garrity used Cushlamocree in her strip, she instantly brought all of the above back to me... back to my own childhood. Back to a lot of people's childhoods.
I owe her a beer if I ever meet her.