Published Articles by Bill Griffith
COMICS AT 100
by Bill Griffith
THE BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE Magazine, 11/10/96

The daily newspaper comic strip is one hundred years old. And it looks it. Shrunken. Pale. Shaky. One foot in the grave. Diagnosis: In desperate need of new blood.Instead, it gets "Dilbert". Dilbert is all the rage. Dilbert is on the Best Seller list. Like the Ninja Turtles of a few years ago, you cannot avoid Dilbert. But is Dilbert a comic strip? Kind of. More to the point, Dilbert is a marketing strategy. It's the most popular and successful new comic strip in America today. What does this tell us about the medium? The comic strip exists in that twilight zone where art meets commerce. Daily comics first made their appearance toward the end of the last century primarily as a way for publishers to increase newspaper circulation. The fact that they were graphically innovative and exciting to read was a bonus. Can the same be said of today's crop of strips? Comic strips today seem more of a comfort than an artistic statement. They're there . And, with a mind-numbing regularity, they'll be there, recycling the same diet jokes and lifestyle gags again and again, day after day. They're not really meant to be read. They’re meant to be scanned, quickly absorbed and just as quickly forgotten. But this wasn’t always the case. At one time, newspaper comic strips,along with radio, performed the function in people’s lives that television does today . They were a powerful mass entertainment medium. "Dick Tracy" (Chester Gould), for instance, not only furnished readers with a daily dose of crime drama and fast-paced action, but did so with a gripping graphic sensibility. The strip literally leapt off the newsprint. The same can be said of "Krazy Kat" (George Herriman), "Popeye" (Elzie Segar), "Little Orphan Annie" (Harold Gray) and a host of other "classic" strips from the teens to the fifties. Does a contemporary strip like "Cathy" draw our eye to its spot on the page? Do the characters come alive in the way characters from good fiction or film do? Or are they simply caricatures of life, flat, stereotyped, and two-dimensional? This kind of work is what gives rise to the pejorative term, "cartoony". It could be said that today’s comic strip readers get what they deserve. Long since psychically kidnapped by the gaudy, mindlessly hyperactive world of TV, they no longer demand or expect comic strips to be compelling, challenging, or even interesting. Enter "Cathy". And "Dilbert". Sure, comics are still funny. It’s just that the humor has almost no "nutritional" value. In the tiny space alloted to them , daily strips have all too successfully adapted to their new environment. In this Darwinian set-up, what thrives are simply drawn panels , minimal dialogue, and a lot of head- and -shoulder shots.Anything more complicated is deemed "too hard to read". A full, rich drawing style is a drawback. Simplicity, even crudity, rules. And when the graphics havebeen dumbed down, the writing follows in short order.What we’re left with is a kind of childish, depleted shell of a once-vibrant medium. Comics is a language. It’s a language most people understand intuitively. If cartoonists use a large and varied "vocabulary" to entertain their readers, those readers will usually come along for the ride. It’s not a problem of the audience’s expectations having been hopelessly lowered, it’s a problem of the cartoonists’ ambitions needing a boost. Even within the size restrictions imposed on them today, comic strips can be more than filler. Given the user-friendly, low-tech intimacy of the printed page, the newspaper comic strip still has the potential to involve and reward the reader. Unfortunately, both cartoonist and reader have gone a bit flabby over the decades. Does it have to be that way? Perhaps, with competition from video games, CD-ROMS, special effects movies and plain, old TV, comic strips are fighting an uphill battle for attention. And, on top of that, they play out their role in the archaic print medium, soon to be relegated to the communications boneyard , according to common wisdom. Not necessarily. There may be hope yet. Just as the automobile did not replace the bicycle, the over-hyped Internet will not replace newspapers. Newspapers will simply adapt to a different purpose. "Slate", the on-line electronic magazine , recently came out with "Slate on Paper", a real newsstand magazine. Why? Because people like print. Not to mention the fact that Slate cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty’s strip looks a lot better on paper than it does flickering on a computer screen. Another factor contributing to the anemic state of contemporary daily comics is the propensity of newspapers to target their "product" at readers much in the way that politicians use focus groups to pander to constituents’ "needs". Daily comic strips are regulartly subjected to popularity polls to determine who reads what. Too often, as a result of low numbers, an interesting or controversial strip will be dropped. Editors and publishers who lament their narrowing readership are only contributing to this trend by opting for the lowest common denomenator. Not everybody has to like "Doonesbury" for it to have a valid spot on the comics (or, in many cases, the editorial) page.Is the idea of diversity only to be encouraged in other areas? Recognizing that one person’s " "Beetle Bailey " is another’s "Bizarro", can only be healthy for the survival of the species. Non-mainstream comics could actually help to bring back those demographically treasured under forty-somethings, who now flip channels the way they used to flip newspaper pages. Of course, compelling, regularly published comics on newsprint do exist. For the most part, though, they’re found in the pages of weekly, not daily newspapers. Strips like "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" (Ben Katchor), "Troubletown" (Lloyd Dangle), "Story Minute" (Carol Lay),"Life in Hell" (Matt Groening) and "Red Meat" (Max Cannon) are all noteworthy examples.There was a time about ten years ago when it seemed possible strips like these could find their way into daily syndication. But, through a combination of syndicate timidity and cartoonists’ lack of faith in the flexibility of the daily strip world, not much happened. There are a few lively, well-crafted dailies bobbing bravely in a sea of blandness. "Mutts" (Patrick McDonnell) stands out, as does the venerable "Doonesbury’ (Garry Trudeau) and the occasionally adventurous "Bizarro" (Dan Piraro).These few, and a few others, are, however , exceptions to the rule.Can readers drifting toward brain-death from one too many "Garfields" ever be expected to enjoy the charms and subtleties of the quirky Ben Katchor?"Odie" can rest easy on the daily comics page. He won’t be seeing competition from the likes of Julius Knipl for a long, long time. What does the future look like for the daily strip? Some, among them many comics syndicate executives, believe the brave new world of comics will have an exclusive on-line address. Forget about the chore of having to scan the comics line-up for your favorite strip (and, perhaps, not finding it there). Just click on "Peanuts" with your trusty mouse and catch up on Charlie Brown’s latest trials and tribulations. But what will be lost in that rosy scenario is what’s already disappearing as digital supplants analog; namely, the gestalt of the comics pages, the fun of thirty or so different (one would hope) art styles vying for the viewer’s attention.In the best of all possible daily strip worlds, it would be a genuine kick to see"Life in Hell"’s Akhbar and Jeff give Spiderman a run for his money.

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