Strip Mining

Here are some of the stories and characters that appeared on page B3 of the Arizona Republic on February 27: a gnomish man with a bulbous nose reading a sign. A smarmy, overweight woman with a Seventies hairdo and a heart on the front of her shirt who is mystified by a computer. A dog that thinks to itself in English. Another dog thrusting its "lollipop" into the face of its cowering master. A balding man in his underwear cleaning his ears. An older woman spraying her plants with something and talking to a panting, sweaty man in a Marine Corps jogging outfit.

No, this isn't the news section, it's Ziggy, Cathy, Fred Basset, Marmaduke, Drabble and Mary Worth, respectively, all residents of the comics page. And comics are supposed to be funny, aren't they? They're not called funnies for nothing.

There are more laughs in the obituary section than there are among the 26 stinkburgers that pass themselves off as strips on B3.

I stopped reading this stuff a long time ago and, after ingesting this collection of tired one-liners and cloying observations, I can see why. Who swallows the comics anymore? More to the point, who actually laughs at them?

I worked for years in a series of lousy office jobs (read: mailroom), and there always seemed to be some secretary (well, that's what they called 'em back then) asking if I'd seen Calvin and Hobbes or the utterly obnoxious Garfield that day. When I'd say no, she'd hand one to me--having clipped it out, of course, to join the gallery of yellowing single panels Scotch-taped to the wall of her cubicle. It would usually consist of a kid bathing in a toilet, or a cat smiling after eating a lot, or a kid and a tiger doing something even more hilarious, like crashing a wagon into a tree.

I would hand it back grinning politely. Which was never enough for these women; they just could not understand why I wasn't chuckling away, red-faced, sputtering something like, "Oh, that Hobbes!" or, "I can't believe that cat!"

So, just out of curiosity, after all these years, I once again opened the paper to that magical page. And nothing had changed. Literally. There was decades-old Ziggy, staring at a sign that read, "YOU ARE HERE ... but where have all the flowers gone?" Boy, a line from a Kingston Trio song. What an insightful hoot. Why Ziggy didn't disappear with those "Hang In There, Baby" posters of cats dangling from branches, I'll never know. I'm surprised they aren't still running Funky Winkerbean next to him.

When it comes to Cathy, at least I know the problem is not just with me. Many's the time I've heard friends and strangers commenting on the amazingly high level of bland mediocrity that the strip achieves on a daily basis. And they're not kidding. On the 27th, Cathy is told by some guy that she "will never understand computers," presumably because she is a woman. In the final panel, Cathy--using a form of lobotomized Mary Richards reasoning--thinks to herself, "No wonder men have such a natural affinity for electronics."

Where's a laugh track when you need one?
This is what an informed tome called The Art of the Funnies--An Aesthetic History by Robert C. Harvey has to say on the subject:

"Meanwhile, we can take heart from the successes of Calvin and Hobbes, Non Sequitur, even Dilbert and Cathy" (Dilbert seems to be about white business-nerd types, and Non Sequitur is a sad rip-off of Gary Larsen). "Each of these works is a highly eccentric achievement that affirms through its uniqueness the pivotal role of individual creativity in cartooning. This medium, more than almost any other in the entertainment industry, responds to the individual's impulse for self-expression."

Is this guy kidding?
Cathy is an eccentric achievement? Maybe if you consider yawning an eccentric achievement. I wonder if Robert C. Harvey has ever heard of Robert Crumb. All right, I know most of Crumb's work would never fit in the family-oriented pages of a daily--but Cathy?

Drabble is another fine strip that must take at least five minutes to create. Panel one: guy in underwear wiggling a Q-Tip in his ear. Panel two: guy wiggling a Q-Tip in his ear. Panel three: Guy is standing on scale while little kid says, "It's pretty sad when you can lose weight just by cleaning out your ears!"

It's a good thing whichever two-bit vaudeville comedy team this line was stolen from is long gone and can't sue. But Drabble is by no means the only strip to smell things up with gags your grandparents wouldn't smile at. Fred Basset, the thinking dog, watches a sleek greyhound saunter past and observes that "you wouldn't think it, but we have a lot in common ... neither of us ever caught a hare!"

Where's my scissors and Scotch tape!

Maryanne Grimes is a promotion manager at United Features Syndicate and Newspaper Enterprise Association, two groups that are responsible for syndicating 36 strips, including heavyweights like Peanuts, Marmaduke, Nancy (which I think is funny) and the loathsome Dilbert.

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