What Happened to the Funny Pages?

10/27/2009 4:30 PM |

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Two weeks ago, New York Magazine caught up with Berkeley Breathed (apparently [part] of his real name), creator of Bloom County, a comic strip popular in the 80s, as well as several less popular spin-offs. Their conversation turned to something I’ve been thinking a little bit about lately: what happened to the funny pages?

They’re still there, of course, every day in the tabloids—and in a big color wrap-around in Sunday’s Daily News. But have you tried to read them lately? None of them are funny. Not a single one. “People loved comics the last 100 years, and they’re dying,” Breathed said. “Nobody talks about it. They’re not even noticing.”

Well, I was noticing. At first, I thought it might be a case of nostalgia and the romanticization of my youth, common to all generations: that things—music, movies, TV, etc.—were better when I was growing up. The old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was so much cooler than today’s TMNT. Same for Batman. (Well, that one’s true.) But this isn’t the case for the comix. The Funny Pages, once (historically and in recent memory) a place where innovative graphic storytellers could flourish, has become the stalest of media, a blandly reactionary black hole, an artspace clinging to committee-approved formulae.

As often happens to artists of all kinds, those in old age are losing their bite. The Lockhorns, which used to be a hilariously caustic portrayal of a contemptuous couple, now relies on lazy jokes about new technologies, like text messaging. Doonesbury hasn’t been relevant in about 30 years, but these days, like The Lockhorns, it reads like dispatches from a totally out-of-touch grandpa struggling to show off his with-it-ness. This Sunday’s strip was full of corny jokes about Twitter (hyuk hyuk!) and Contemporary Politics: says a tent-city franchisee, “There were no TARP funds to buy tarps!” That shit wouldn’t fly in the Catskills. And this is the age of The Daily Show.

Also this Sunday, Hagar the Horrible didn’t want to eat his vegetables. Family Circus, God help us, is still publishing, as is Blondie and Beetle Bailey, all dishing out stale gags as always. This week’s Dilbert revolved around a joke involving—wait for it—the inefficiency of hierarchies and chains of command. In an office setting!

The unique problem of the Funny Pages is that no new generation has emerged to accept the mantle that Charles Schulz, Old School Trudeau, Gary Larson and Bill Watterson—artists who anchored the pages in the 80s and 90s (and, for the first two, even earlier) with their artful and clever comics—tried to pass down.

The new comics are worse than the “moribund franchises” next to which they appear: The Argyle Sweater and Tundra (the worst of them all) bastardize The Far Side’s legacy with watered-down imitation; Zits and the insufferable Girls & Sports try to capture the zeitgeist—being a teenager (e.g. “Six Reasons Why Zombies Would Make Good Parents”) and being a young and single, respectively—with jokes as cutting-edge as those told by the guest-comics on Leno’s new show; Get Fuzzy is a humorless replacement for Garfield because, presumably, we’ll always need a strip about a man’s relationship to his krazy kat.

Perhaps such a study is unfair: after all, today’s young artists interested in the comic strip format probably aren’t publishing in the Sunday Daily News: they’re probably on-line. But, as far as I can tell, there have been no great Internet breakthroughs, no popular strips radically changing or challenging the medium’s established format. The majority of today’s comics, whether in print or on-line, mainstream or underground, seem to be like those straight-to-DVD releases that rip-off whatever has proven popular. Snakes on a Train. Transmorphers. The DaVinci Treasure.

Alternative comics are hardly faring better. Earlier this year, Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World was suspended by Village Voice Media, which controls a significant number of the country’s Alternative presses, along with all other comics. It has since been reinstated, but even that once trenchant strip has become bland in its predictability.

It may be that the comic strip has reached its endpoint: that what began its greatness with Winsor McCay and George Herriman can be taken no farther. But Berkeley Breathed offers a more compelling hypothesis: “The future great cartoonists aren’t sending their stuff to newspapers anymore,” he told New York. “They are rightfully working on graphic novels or doing something else.”

With the legitimization of the comic book, artists no longer aspire to be the next Charles Schulz: they want to be the next Art Spiegelman.

I caught Inherit the Wind for the dozenth time this weekend, and was particularly caught by one of Spencer Tracy’s big speeches: “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it,” he says. “You can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance…you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder. And the clouds will smell of gasoline.” You may get your graphic novels, America, your legitimate comics, your Mauses and your Watchmens. But you’ll never have another Peanuts. Talking about the time when “the newspaper comic strip [was] a pop-culture superpower,” Breathed told New York, “It will never happen again.” The Funny Pages are dead.

5 Comment

  • Watchmen and Maus are perhaps poor choices for your point of contrast between the future of comic books versus newspaper comic strips, inasmuch as they were published when Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side were all still being made.

    The problem with newspaper strips isn’t just their audience’s dwindling size but its age and sensibility. People who read the funnies are older, and often easily offended and ready to fire off an angry letter at the drop of a hat. There are papers whose readership still debates whether Doonesbury belongs in Comics or Editorial, and even a strip as bland as Dilbert provokes letters of complaint. (Scott Adams has related readers complaining about such things as Dilbert’s use of the phrase “jeepers crackers” in one strip, and said the papers made him change “Cubicle Gestapo” to “Cubicle Police” in another.) So what we get in the papers is, usually, stuff that’s not going to offend anybody, and therefore is painfully unfunny.

    There are a few exceptions. Aaron McGruder had a great run with The Boondocks, but he still had trouble getting circulation (none of my local papers carried it), and often fought over content. There’s a reason he quit doing the strip.

    Format is a consideration, too. Many papers now have rigid requirements for what size a strip can be (from what I understand, part of why Watterson bowed out was that the papers were trying to get him to shrink his half-page Sunday strips).

    And of course the Internet has none of these concerns. It’s hard to monetize a webcomic, but creators get total control over what they post.

    As far as audiences — well, thing one is just the size of the selection. There will never be a webcomic read by as many people as Peanuts, just as there will never again be a TV show as popular as MASH; people have more choices, and all in all that’s a good thing. (I would add that Achewood’s gotten some pretty good attention in the mainstream press, so it’s probably the closest anyone’s come up to this point to a webcomic with mainstream popularity.)

    And the most important distinction Web comics have over the Sunday funnies is that many of them are actually funny.

  • Breathed is the wrong guy to ask. He retreaded the great Bloom County so many times with Outland and Opus and he wonders why no one cared. it’s because we’d already read it.

    YOU read the wrong comics: Perry Bible Fellowship, Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Cul De Sac, Ink Pen, What the Duck, Tom the Dancing Bug, Bad Reporter, Basic Instructions, Pooch Cafe, Tom Tomorrow are all great great comics.

  • @Thad: I think “Maus” and “Watchmen” are fair examples; they mark the ascent of comics are serious forms of fiction, which loosely coincides (temporally) with the advent of the decline in comic strips. Anyway, they were the only totemic examples I could think of off-hand!

    The fear of offending is a good point. Maybe we can think about mainstream comics as CBS: it may get the most ratings, but no serious fan of television has any interest in its dreadfully bland shows…

    @idly_by: the point is that these are the strips readily available, at least to me. I could hunt down alternative comics (you’re right, Ruben Bolling is hilarious) but once upon a time, you wouldn’t have had to hunt down Bolling–he would have been right there next to Trudeau.

    Maybe it isn’t graphic novels that killed the comic strip star; maybe it’s an industry, like Hollywood, increasingly afraid to bet any of its money on something that isn’t one form or another of a tried-and-profitable property.

    (Or, it’s a little bit of both?)

  • Along with fear of offending, I think one problem is a crowded field. I find it interesting that you say that no one has taken up the mantle that Schultz (among others) tried to pass down while Peanuts is still around. While Peanuts is an iconic strip, I don’t think that gives it the right to be in perpetual reprints. (I remember reading a Peanuts strip a few years ago that name checked Rodney Allen Ripley as a punchline.) Hank Ketchem’s death (and the death of the cartoonist who took over for him) hasn’t stopped Dennis the Menance either.

  • Ah, the NY Daily News (the epitome of a comics section for me) has stopped carrying Peanuts, which I figured was probably a national trend–because, agreed, like Seinfeld it shouldn’t be around forever–but maybe I’m wrong.

    But, yeah, the comics that have continued after their creators have expired is a symptom, I think, of publishers’ unwillingness to surrender a proven success, which might be a unique problem to comics. Well, and reuniting classic rock bands.