Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Top 5 Tuesday: comic strips

I love comic strips -- always have. In fact, some of my most frequently-read books as a kid were comic collections. Surprised? I suppose I should, as an English prof, maintain the fiction that "on my tenth birthday, looking into the new vistas of double digits, I realized that Tolstoy was now too childish for my tastes ..." or something.

Not so much. I still read the comics obsessively, as you might guess by the link I have on my blog to "GoComics" ... my morning ritual involves coffee, email, and comics. I don't read all of the ones there mind you, or just any comics that cross my view. There are, after all, some pretty inane ones out there. Family Circus comes to mind as something that needs to be put out to pasture, and Dagwood, and Beetle Bailey (I still have a bit of an odd affection for Hagar for reasons passing understanding, given that it stopped making me laugh when I was about eight).

Well-written and -drawn comics are truly an art form ... one of the things I love about them is their economy of storytelling: they have very limited space to achieve maximum effect, and when done well can make a pithy point more eloquent than wordy op-eds or essays (I imagine this acc0unts, at least in part for my fascination, never having been able to be particularly pithy or concise myself -- as regulars on this blog will attest!).

And so today's top five: my all-time favourite comic strips. As usual, I want to hear other people's favourites ...

1. Bloom County. Hands down, no contest, everyone else pack up and go home. It was a sad sad day when its bizarrely-named creator Berkely Breathed retired. I discovered Opus and the gang while in grade school, and was immediately a devotee based on a comic I saw in which Opus sang a very offensive love song while accomanying himself on the tuba. I was hooked. And nowhere else will you find such a beautifully absurd cast of characters: Milo and Binkley, the sleazy lawyer Steve Dallas, the mangy Bill the Cat, and the assorted woodland creatures who regularly recreate episodes from Star Trek. And of course dear dear Opus.

2. Doonesbury. You've gotta love a comic strip that is still going strong after thirty years of being on top. Not only do the characters grow and evolve, but they propogate: the second generation of Doonesbury is now college-age. It's a rare talent to take a medium so generally considered, well, cartoonish, and make it not only a laser-like political commentary but a genuinely engaging series of narratives with characters we feel real empathy for. A telling story: when Gary Trudeau was thinking of having one of the veteran characters B.D. lose his leg in Iraq, he did research by interviewing soldiers who had lost limbs there. He was understandably nervous about what they might have to say about him portraying their trauma in a comic strip, and was surprised at how they reacted in horror -- "You can't do that! Not to B.D.!"

3. The Far Side. Cows. Bears. Large women in cat-eye glasses and beehive haircuts. Birds of prey wearing sunglasses. And did I mention cows? Truly the most inspired absurdity ever. And also a sad moment when Gary Larson retired. What is it with these comic strip artists that they need early retirment? Is there some kind of stress involved that they just don't advertise to the public at large? Learn the lesson of longevity from Gary Trudeau, people!

4. Calvin and Hobbes. Really, what can I say? Bill Waterson hit on a magical formula with this comic, one that appeals to the fabulist and non-conformist in all of us. If Doonesbury is all about evolving and changing, Calvin and Hobbes is all about stubbornly refusing to stop being a kid. And like most little kids I've known, he has a pretty clear-eyed view of the world, one uncluttered by the illusions adults willfully deceive themselves with. I suppose that's one of the lessons: who's delusional here? The kid who imagines an intelligent, loving close friend for himself, or the adults who wish to burden him with the bullshit of the world?

5. Non Sequitur. While the preceding four are all comics that have been with me for years, Non Sequitur is a relatively new discovery (courtesy, I might add, of GoComics). It alternates between general commentaries, frequently political, and the travails of a single father of two girls -- the elder of the two, Danae, being now one of my all-time favourite comics characters (I'd had the thought of doing a top-five favourite comic strip characters, but we'd be down to number four or five before leaving Bloom County).


Lesley said...

That Tolstoy comment made me think of the commercial they run in the movie theatre about the little kid passing a note that contains prose that is much older than his age...the point is that reading affects kids more than you know...

Anyways...here are my favourites:

For Better or For Worse: been addicted to this for some time now. And it's actually been quite good the last few years. The cliffhangers with the kids are fantastic and I find myslef disappointed that they don't answer questions quite quickly. A soap opera for the newspaper set I guess.

Calvin and Hobbes: I used to say I wanted a child JUST LIKE Calvin until I encountered difficult children. Now I'll just read the anthologies. Man how I wish Bill Waterson had continued with this strip. It was so great.

Zits: Jeremy is a must read for anyone who was, is, or has a teenager. It's so deliciously funny. I find myself laughing along to the "when I was your age" ideas.

Dilbert: The must read for the working class. I can just see people out there who are no longer in the rat race reading Dilbert and laughing ruefully at all us sorry suckers. I think I am cursed with having a pointy haired boss everywhere I go.

(The I can't remember the name of it comic): There's a new comic in the Globe and Mail, can't remember the name of it, but it involves a pig and a rat (I think it might be called Pig and Rat or something). This comic is so well written, if that's possible for a comic, and I love reading it daily. My personal favourite story lines have to be the one about the Crocodiles who move in next door and are making a point of trying to convince the Pig he needs to come over so they can eat him and the one involving the Pigs little viking dolls that he has write in a journal which the rat hats because THEY'RE VIKINGS! THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO HARD AND COLD AND KILL PEOPLE! "Dear Diary, today I burned down a village, and then we watched Ellen."

Good blog entry. Nicely done!

Mark P said...

I'm not sure if I quite like Zits, given how it's a little too blatant a "what if Calvin was a teenager?" premise.

Good call on Non Sequitur, Chris. What I like about the strip is how it's evolved from a single strip of random stuff like Far Side into actual regular characters with Danae and her family, just because Wiley wanted to have the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted.

My two cents: Ben Wicks' political cartoons from the 1980's. Dated, but very funny -- they actually taught me a lot about Canadian politics in my formative years. You're never too young to learn that Brian Mulroney is a douchebag.

Lesley said...

I found it, it's called Pearls before Swine. Link: http://www.comics.com/comics/pearls/

Swain said...

Your top five are decidedy excellent cartoons. I still recall the Bill the Cat posters put up on Post No Bills walls. Well, Lesley has already mentioned Pearls Before Swine, so there is no need to do that.

Here are five you might want to look into:

Get Fuzzy: A sociopathic cat named Bucky and a naive dog named Satchel. Its Garfield, only funny. Any comic that features a dog who wants a garden gnome and to name it Chomsky is great. Plus, he did a great crossover week with Pearls Before Swine where he hijacked the PBS strips.

The Boondocks: The strips are hilarious, and the tv show is insane.

Ted Rall: He's an editorial cartoonist who doesn't publish every day. He's topical, he's liberal, and he's funny. Sometimes he's also incredibly offensive. But in that offensiveness lies his effectiveness.

Tank McNamara: If you're not a sports fan, much of this might go over your head. But it touches on some of the broader social issues that show up in sports.

Bizarro: Piraro is fairly odd, but sometimes really gets you laughing. His comic featuring the Family Circus family eating with Satan as the secret to their longevity was brilliant.

Oh, and here's a comic you may (not) enjoy.


Chris in NF said...

I should have made a runners-up category.

Dilbert! Yes, Lesley, one of the most brilliant cartoon contributions of the 90s. I am always amused at the frequency of Dilbert cartoons on the office doors of professors. Sad statement that in the groves of academe we have many of the same issues.

Swain, the Boondocks is one of my faves too. While the comic itself might not make my top five, Huey as a character certainly does. I've seen the TV version and have to say I was not particularly impressed -- what's sharp and subtle in the strip gets exploded into pretty egregious stuff in the show.

I love Bucky the cat.

And I do in fact read Tank McNamara -- I am not much of a sports fan, but that's a strip that does a good job of marrying sports obsessions with broader cultural concerns. Very smart.