Saturday, May 9, 2009

Peanuts, Zits, Cathy and Pluggers: When will you have a baby? or The limits of relatability.

One of the things that makes Peanuts so great is how relatable it is. In today's reprint from 1962, for example, we can relate to Linus because, while we've probably never been blown over by a Beagle, we have all had our assumptions and expectations unexpectedly overturned.

But there's other stuff going on here, too. The characters are (obviously) very well-defined, and their interaction is realistic within the world of the strip. The drawing, meanwhile, is expressive and sufficiently illustrates the absurdity of the joke.

In Zits, the characters are somewhat less well-defined, being at times little more than broad archetypes. In this strip, Jeremy isn't really a specific character so much as a stand-in for every teenage male everywhere; the same goes for Connie, who is just a stand-in for every mother of a teenage male everywhere.

As such, the strip has a tendency to lean a bit too heavily on relatability, which is the case here. The drawings, however, are often very well done, which is also the case here. While the joke isn't really anything special, basically just amounting to "Kids sure do eat a lot, don't they?", the image of Jeremy detaching his jaw and swallowing an entire ham in the second panel is funny enough that the lazy premise gets a pass.

I'm not generally in the target audience for Cathy, but I can relate to this particular strip. And that's a good thing! But it's still not funny.

The problem is that merely being relatable isn't enough. The characters in Cathy, like the characters in Zits, tend toward the archetypal. (The other big working woman comic, Sally Forth, actually has far better characters, despite being written by a man.) Cathy Guisewite's drawing, meanwhile, just isn't expressive or absurd or, just in general, good enough to be funny on its own. And so there's a lot of times when all the strip has to recommend it is its relatability. Which very nearly makes it Pluggers for working women. And that's not a good thing to be.

Because as much as I thoroughly despise Pluggers' self-congratulatory blue-collar populist bullshit, that's not its biggest problem. Pluggers' biggest problem is that it's basically relatability porn, so much so that it's actually written by the readers. The characters are not even archetypes, but instead completely blank slates onto which the readers are to graft themselves. And the drawing rarely has anything to recommend it; the characters exist as animals, for example, but for no good reason.

Today's installment isn't a great example for making this point. The joke is actually decently constructed, and the dog-husband's mortified facial expression is almost sort of amusing. As such, it's probably the best Pluggers comic I've ever seen. And, yeah, that's probably the faintest praise ever.

Of course, a lot of people like Pluggers. And a lot of people like Cathy. Because those comics are simple, and people understand them. Readers don't have to think about them or read them carefully or really even look at the drawings. And that's the problem. Relatability is a good thing, but using it as a crutch isn't. Doing so cheapens the relationship between the readers and the comics, turns it into something lazy and cheap and superficial. That's where Pluggers started, and where Cathy is at now, and where Zits could end up if its not careful. Peanuts never did give into that impulse. And that's another one of the things that makes it so great.

Family Circus: If you happen to get breakfast in bed tomorrow, Mommy, which is your fave--Sugar Oats or Corny Crinkles?

This cartoon is hilarious because the children are going to serve Thel cereal on Mother's Day.

Friday, May 8, 2009

9 Chickweed Lane: Do you really believe women wear six-inch heels without practice?

In which Juliette teaches Elliot how to be a transvestite.

Mutts: Let. It. Go.

It's Earl's helpless expression in the second panel that made me laugh. He wants to let it go. He knows he ought to let it go. But he just can't do it.

It's just like that time I was addicted to heroin.

Family Circus: How long do I have to sleep before a catnap becomes a people nap?

This cartoon is hilarious because Dolly thinks that the definitions of "catnap" and "nap" are strictly differentiated when, in fact, they are not.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shoe: But the government is taking over its health care.

Ohs noes! Not the socialized medicine! Next thing you know, we'll all be communists, like the Canadians or the French or, you know, everyone else in the civilized world.

Every once and a while, Shoe just has to remind you that its written by pluggers.

Family Circus: I gotta give your reading of that story a rave review, Grandma.

This cartoon is hilarious because Dolly liked the way her grandmother read her a story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

La Cucaracha: What are you lookin' at!?

A computer screen, actually.

Can we be done with the newspaper jokes now? Please?

Drabble: Sounds like my kind of show!

Yes, yes it does.

But at least Drabble seems to recognize its lameness. I'm just not sure whether that should me make respect it more or respect it less.

Pickles: Those aren't serious journalists. Those are sound effects.

Fuck you, Pickles. Seriously, I mean.

Blondie: I'd like a book of stamps, please.

I would just like to point out that mailing a letter is, in fact, absurdly cheap, and it's about the last thing in the world people should complain about. But that's Blondie for you, always out in front, tackling the important issues.

Family Circus: Isn't it 'bout time for PJ to take a nap!

This cartoon is hilarious because PJ is annoying Jeffy, so Jeffy wants his mother to put PJ to bed, at which point Jeffy will be able to go back to annoying everybody else.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dennis the Menace: You're not out of shape, Mr. Wilson. You've got lots of shapes.

What the hell are Dennis and Mr. Wilson doing in the bathroom together? And why is Mr. Wilson not fully dressed? And where is Mrs. Wilson? How can she just turn a blind eye like this?

I think I'm beginning to understand Dennis the Menace for the first time. It's not really meant to be funny at all. That's just a thin veneer, designed to make the comic palatable to a mainstream audience.

Dennis the Menace is actually a horrifying and heartbreaking portrait of the seedy underbelly of 1950s suburban life. Mr. Wilson's hatred of Dennis the misdirected self-loathing of a man unable to control his own urges. Mrs. Wilson's endless cookie-making a futile attempt to cope with the awful truth about the man she loves. Dennis's misbehavior a desperate cry for help. The Mitchells' obliviousness a shocking indictment of parents too wrapped up in their own lives to see their child's pain.

And the worst part is that they're all trapped there, in that nostalgic single-panel Hell, never getting the help they need or the chance to grow and age and change. I'm just surprised the comics section has been willing to provide a home for a comic with a subtext this daring and bleak and controversial. It's almost as if nobody else notices.

Blondie: I think it's a crying shame that so many peope base their political views on what radio talk show peope say.

Personally, I get all my political views from bloggers.

Family Circus: I bet he'd be good at blowin' out birthday candles.

Seriously, what the fuck is going on with the television? I can forgive the coloring, as the author isn't responsible for that. But the television is also apparently both flat-screen and square, which is not the sort of television that, you know, exists.

It would be one thing if the Keanes thought they were doing good work and were accidentally lame and unfunny. But, really, they're just lazy.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Candorville, Non Sequitur and Pearls Before Swine: My stupid newspaper.

It makes a lot of sense that comics authors would want to write about the looming death of the newspaper, considering they depend on it for their livelihood and whatnot. But one of the dangers of tackling complicated issues in a form as compressed as a comic strip is that it's easy to be a little glib. Take that Candorville strip, for example. (Which, by the way, would have gotten extra points in years previous for the Watchmen homage, but doesn't anymore.) The point of the strip is that young people don't buy newspapers because they've shrunk their comics sections.

But that's a pretty silly point, not least of all because of the situation today's Non Sequitur acknowledges. While comics shrinkage might play a small part in the loss of young readership (I know I like reading the comics in newspaper form), the ability to get all the same information, including the comics, on the internet is a much bigger part of it. Non Sequitur, meanwhile, having recognized the reality of the media shift, inexplicably lashes out at young people, builds a strawman argument about how without newspapers there can be no journalism, and then ends lamely with an arrogant "You stupid kids will be sorry, you will."

Pearls Before Swine is more effective, mostly because it doesn't try to diagnose or solve or even really bitch about the problem. Instead, it just uses the problem as a platform to tell funny jokes about post-it-sized newspapers and Pig beatboxing.

*Candorville from April 30. Non Sequitur and Pearls Before Swine from today.

Family Circus: I can't play today 'cause I've got something-itis."

This cartoon is hilarious because Billy's dying of swine flu and his parents don't have the heart to tell him.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Garfield: We always read the funnies together.

This isn't really meta, since, judging by their laughter, they couldn't possibly have been reading Garfield.

Famiy Circus: Super Market

This cartoon is hilarious because children like candy.

Wizard of Id: I'm caddying for the king next week. Any advice?

While the new caddy might think he isn't supposed to let the king near schools because of all the swearing, I'm pretty sure it's actually because the king is a pedophile.