Last week, I was reading the newspaper, feeling depressed, dismayed, and disheartened about the state of the world. And that was just after reading the funnies.
I have to come clean: our family does not subscribe to a newspaper. Luckily, my parents– who subscribe to no fewer than three daily papers– make up for any deficiencies on our part. (In fact, I almost wonder if my parents are single-handedly keeping the newspaper industry afloat). So, when we visited my parents last week for Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to do something I don’t normally get to do: eat a coffee roll, decipher a Crypto-Quote, and read me some comics.
Now, I’m not suggesting I never read any modern-day comic strips; I didn’t pull a Rip van Winkle, waking to realize the Golden Age of Comics had passed me by—that glorious era when Broom Hilda ruled the skies, when Ziggy thrilled us with his scintillating wit, when Marmaduke… OK, Marmaduke always sucked. The point is, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
But “underwhelmed” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt after reading these sorry excuses for comics. I was actually startled with how un-amusing they were—all of them, from A to “Zits.” And that’s not just me being curmudgeonly. Even my twelve-year-old son had to remark, “These funnies are not funny!”
It would be one thing if they weren’t aspiring to be funny—if they were trying to be thought-provoking (in that “B.C.” kind of way) or even heart-warming (in that “Prince Valiant” sort of way). But the comics I read last week did none of those things. They didn’t inspire laughter, or provoke thoughts, or even warm hearts. If anything, they only induced groans.
Where did it all go wrong? Why are today’s comic strips so stripped of joy and humor? I have a few theories:
They’re so old! Here are some comic strips currently running in the Boston Globe, along with the date these strips originally debuted, from oldest to youngest: “Doonesbury” (1970), “Zippy the Pinhead” (1970s), “For Better or For Worse” (1979), “Rose is Rose” (1984), “Mother Goose and Grimm” (1984), “Arlo and Janis” (1985), “Monty” (formerly “Robotman,” 1985), “Curtis” (1988), “Dilbert” (1989), “Rhymes with Orange” (1995), and “Zits” (1997).
Now, I don’t know about you, but that list gives me some serious pause. I mean, has “Arlo and Janis” honestly been around for twenty-seven years? And “Rhymes with Orange” for seventeen? And here I thought they were the newbies!
And then there’s “For Better or For Worse,” which is so old, its creator Lynn Johnston isn’t even putting out new content. Instead, way back in 2008, Ms. Johnston “rebooted the franchise” and started re-drawing her older strips—a curious arrangement she called “new-runs” (half new, half re-runs). That lasted for two years, and then in 2010, newspapers just started re-printing the old ones… which is particularly interesting to me, since I never liked “For Better or For Worse” the first time around! Which brings me to my second theory…
They’re tired! The truly shocking thing is not that so many of these comics have endured, but that they’ve endured despite their profound inability to inspire to laughter, moderate giggling, or even knowing smiles. Yes, “Dilbert” had its day, but how many times can our hapless cubicle-dweller muse about the paradoxes of the corporate jungle? How long do we have to see the mug of Zippy the Pinhead before everyone collectively acknowledges that everything about the strip is incoherent and creepy?
Even the new strips are inane. Of course, some brave souls have launched new strips over the years. The Boston Herald, for example, has a whole bunch of (relatively) “new” strips, including “Mutts,” “Baldo,” and “Pearls Before Swine.” The problem, though: these “new” strips are just as insipid and uninspired as the old ones. (Honestly, have you ever once laughed at “Mutts”? Rather: have you ever even understood “Mutts”?)
Where are the feisty up-and-comers waiting to muscle the old guard out of the spotlight? And will any of the current crop of comics be running, in any form, fifty, twenty, even ten years from now? Somehow, I don’t see it.
Maybe the comic scene is an obsolete medium. Maybe, at some point in the near future, there will be no funny pages… or pages at all, for that matter. Or maybe a new batch of artists will crop up, who will create new iconic characters—new Garfields and Dagwoods and Woodstocks.
Till then, today’s funny pages may resemble the cereal you’re probably eating as you’re reading them: a soggy mixture of stale old comics and hollow new ones. That’s the state of things… for better or for worse.