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.

In case you're wondering, as I was, just what qualifications a strip must meet to see the dark of newsprint, Maryanne will explain:

"First of all, it's got to be funny. It's got to be well-written and well-drawn, but I think well-written sort of wins over well-drawn anymore, because you want people to read it. If it's a character-based strip, you're looking for characters that people can relate to, or topics and themes that are current."

By that definition, it's surprising that anything other than Zippy is allowed to see print. I mean, to understand what's going on in Mary Worth, you have to have been reading it since 1952. Not to mention museum pieces like Blondie and Gasoline Alley.

"A lot of strips that most papers carry have been around for eons," admits Grimes, "so a lot of them are another generation's comics, and some of those stay fresh and current for today. ... I think when people get attached to a strip, it sort of becomes their friend, and that's what they like. You get to know the characters; they're very comfortable. You open the paper and they're there."

Which is part of the ongoing conservative nature of the comics page, where the bottom line rests in the tastes of the consumer. And when it comes to comic strips, America ... well, she still wants something the Beaver and Ward can enjoy hunkered down on the living-room carpet every Sunday morning. Before they go to church, natch.

"Papers are a pretty conservative medium," opines Grimes, "and if you're too far out, you're not going to sell it. Kids look at these, it's a family page, and I think papers are reluctant to go with something that's too far out."

Although--to cynical grumps such as myself--it seems to take less than a little inspiration to come up with something like Garfield, cartoon syndication is tough to get. "Newsprint as a whole is shrinking; it's tough to get a new strip into the newspaper," Grimes says. "We launch two new comics a year, and we receive between three and four thousand submissions."

To give you an example of exactly what kind of vital, new work makes the final cut, listen to this: "We just launched Over the Hedge, which is about a raccoon and a turtle," Grimes reveals. "It's sort of a suburban farce, where these two little critters are wreaking havoc on suburbia. Also Reality Check, which is a single-panel strip without recurring characters; it's sort of a gag-a-day thing."

To all those aspiring draftspeople out there, if you've got what it takes, the rewards are plenty. "It can be profitable over the long term," clarifies Grimes. "Peanuts, Garfield, they're in a gazillion papers, they have licensing programs, it's very, very profitable. Others, if they're in a reasonable amount of papers, they can make a comfortable living. It's a fun, interesting, creative profession."

Which set me to thinking.
Sure, I like my job, but I don't make the suitcases full of money that guys like Jim Davis drag around. Hell, he had a staff of 40 producing Garfield. Why not get into the comic-strip racket? After an in-depth analysis of the Republic's comics offering, I figured one would need only the following simple ingredients:

1. A cute animal or obnoxious/goofy child.
2. At least one stupid adult.
3. Simple-to-impaired drawing technique.
4. Very old, corny jokes.

So here goes. I found a copy of Milton Berle's Private Joke File, borrowed a black pen from the art director and went to work. As I'm sure you'll agree, it's time for me to say "adios" to this Screed nonsense and "hola" to marketing strategy, licensing deals and persistent hand cramps. From counting my money, that is.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap