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.