Comic Strippers

Greetings from the noon train to Toronto.  Already this morning I’ve had a complete workout, backed up my computers, cleaned my condo from top to bottom, splinted all my drooping tomato plants, organized my taxes (though didn’t get around to actually doing them) and, um, plucked those stray nostril hairs.  Okay, so maybe the last bit wasn’t necessarily extraordinary, but it was sort of fun.

Now the question remains, how much work will I get done in the next five hours of uninterrupted first class travel?  I guess it all depends on the coffee-to-booze ratio, no?  First order of business is, of course, updating this blog, because it’s clearly the most important item on my lengthy to-do list.  It’s well above my overdue corporate taxes, the two presentations I’m giving next week that I haven’t written yet, a late student recommendation letter, and an outline for a new book that’s already a week behind schedule.  So let’s get to it.

Check out this letter from Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, announcing his discontinuation of the beloved comic strip.  That got me thinking about the roles of various comic strips to various generations of North Americans.  It’s interesting how a handful of strips rise to capture the public imagination, usually reflecting the ethic and geist of the times.

Blondie, which today is a forgettable distraction about bumbling Dagwood Bumstead and his stereotypical family, actually started back in the early 1930s.  It was so popular at one point that it spawned a series of films and radio shows.  Reading it today, it’s easy to forget how it provided relief and distraction for suffers of the Great Depression and World War II, and evolved to reflect the new wealth and power of the American post-War period.

I was a kid in the 1970s, and really started to become aware of the nuances of society and history in the late 70s and early 80s.  I had heard of this legendary strip called Doonesbury, but really didn’t get its importance.  Doonesbury was born in the American Viet Nam War era, the product of the fabled Counter Culture.  It went on hiatus in the early 80s, and I remember the hype surrounding its return.  Newscasters of the time –much like the overblown windbags of today– were hot and bothered about the kind of impact the return of Doonesbury would have on the new selfish, yuppie-centric, Reagan Era America.  The unsurprising answer: no impact at all, really.

Doonesbury‘s real impact, I think, was that its creator actually managed to force the newspapers that carried it to publish it in a significantly larger format than other comic strips.  Since then, other strips have successfully negotiated the same honour.

Personally, I grew up with Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.  I think everyone reading this understands the importance and cultural impact of Peanuts.  But, more than that, those characters are universally beloved and lovable by children of any time and culture.  It was also my first exposure to the ways that a corporation can take ownership of an artistic phenomenon and continue its production well after its creator’s death.

Today, I rank Peanuts as the second best comic strip of all time.

My adolescence was made better by Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, which at the time seemed to be the funniest thing ever created by human civilization.    Bloom County was there for the birth of the video generation, and its style reflected the opulent garishness of those times; but its cool did not survive the onslaught of MTV excess.  It’s hard to believe it was as big as it was, since so few speak of it or its sequels Outland and Opus.

Calvin & Hobbes was, like Peanuts, transcendent.  It was hilarious, touching, sometimes sublime, and always worth reading.  I rank it as the third best comic strip of all time.

So what do I rank as #1?  Well, The Far Side, of course.  This was the perfect blend of medium with content.  I can’t imagine a better way for Gary Larson’s twisted genius to be conveyed than through the drawn panes of a newspaper strip.  Though Larson retired to commune with the apes, his timeless work lives on in medical waiting rooms the world over.

Note, of course, that I have not included more classic comics (like Popeye), or ones from non-Anglophone nations (such as Tintin).  But them’s the breaks.