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Archive for November, 2007|Monthly archive page

The Funnies Page: Your Five (or Three or Two) Must-Read Strips

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2007 at 12:24 pm

Like most people, I imagine, I’ve always been a selective reader of the funnies. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly desperate for distraction, I’ll take on the entire comics page as if it were the TLS–as if, that is, I’m getting bonus points for reading THE WHOLE THING. In such moods, I valiantly slog through Garfield, Gil Thorp, and the aptly named Hagar the Horrible, a task made bearable only by the leavening presence of reliable stand-bys, those strips that I may not read every day, but whose drawings and gags immediately draw my eye as it passes over the page.

When I was quite young, my favorite strips were Garfield, For Better or For Worse, Blondie, and Beetle Bailey. Garfield was explicable by three notable facts: mine was a cat-owning family, it was the favorite strip of a girl that I wanted to impress, and of course, back then, Garfield was funny. My For Better or For Worse fixation had similarly autobiographical origins–though it was also drawn so differently from other strips at the time that its “realistic” detail was immediately attractive to a boy who, in adolescence, would worship the pencils of George Perez. I also liked the art in Blondie–so much that the strip’s rather old-fashioned jokiness didn’t bother me–in fact, it may have been part of the appeal.

And Beetle Bailey? Well, what can I say? It was a funny strip, too, back in the day. But I suspect that, once again, it was a love affair born of identification with the luckless, bossed-around protagonist. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud notes that the simpler the drawing, the fewer its individuating details, the easier it is for a reader to identify with it. Highly detailed portraiture obviously repels our unconscious processes of identification for the same reason that Charlie Brown or a stick figure invites them. Hapless Private Beetle Bailey was an image that spoke particularly to me, perhaps because we never see his most individuating feature–his eyes. Sad case, wasn’t I?

At any rate, my tastes changed. Some of them, anyway. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I began to keep a scrapbook of three amazing new comics that I cut out of the newspaper every night: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side. I was still avidly reading For Better or For Worse, so it made it into the scrapbook too. The scrapbook (an old telephone book, actually) was, in effect, a primitive sort of comics blog. And like a blog, it immediately developed encyclopedic ambitions. Before long, I was cutting out many more comic strips–in some cases, pasting them in with my ink smudged fingers and my Uhu glue stick without even reading them!

One curious side-effect of my snipping and hoarding was that, because I read the comics page religiously, I began to follow the serials: Spider-Man, Gil Thorp, and Annie. I was already a comic book fan, so it might seem odd that I hadn’t been reading Spider-Man already. But remember how dull those strips looked–barely a supervillain in sight! It was just panel after panel of Peter Parker talking to Mary Jane. Still, I got into it. Even the gothic world of Annie began to seem interesting, though I was never really able to fool myself into thinking that the jock drama of Gil Thorp was cool.

And now? I barely recognize the comics page anymore. Zits? Get Fuzzy? Grand Avenue? And these aren’t even the cutting edge, fresh off the truck strips. (I don’t even know what those would be!) Are they funny? I don’t know. I can’t seem to compell myself to read them. This will come as a shock to regular readers, I’m sure, but my eye just keeps drifting back to those older, more recognizable strips:

Peanuts
Despite the ritualized viewing of tv specials like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas as a kid, I didn’t “get” Peanuts until much later. Now it is the first strip I read. I especially enjoyed today’s:

One often feels this way when reading parenting manuals, I’m finding.

Doonesbury

My home town paper The Winnipeg Free Press used to run Doonesbury on the editorial page, so I didn’t discover it until quite late either. It’s still sharp as ever–and though it’s not a political gag, today’s comic is priceless. One of the great surprises of my adult life was how much I enjoy teaching, and don’t get me wrong–I love my students. Except these ones:


For Better or For Worse
I won’t go on about this one any more than I already have, except to say that Supert Teddy rules. Deal with it.

I miss the exquisite nostalgia of Mutts, and keep intending to read Opus online, which is where I sometimes catch Sylvia as well. I still enjoy Dilbert, though not as much as I once did.

These are, I suppose, my favorites. What are yours?

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Judd Winick’s Titans East

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2007 at 1:43 am

I didn’t want to get too excited about my often wished-for reunion of the original Wolfman/Perez Titans, but this announcement made me very happy. Judd Winick is a hit-or-miss writer, so I was a bit nervous that he would be in charge (his Outsiders was grating, but I enjoyed his Green Arrow as well as the snappy but maligned Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special). In any event, his newsarama interview suggests that he might be a great fit with the classic Titans team. This, especially, curled my toes:

The way we’re going about it…is that they’re not actually a team. There’s not going to be anyone on monitor duty, there’s not going to be meeting s and roll calls – they basically are coming together because they are together…. They are a team without associating as a team, because they’re more than that. They have a lot more history. No one is getting in anyone else’s face about who’s the leader, or who will do this or that. The adventures that will occur, and the missions that they will go on will come from one of them needing some kind of help. Somebody will be working on something, and they could use some backup from their friends.

This is exactly how the classic New Teen Titans always felt, even when they did pull monitor duty. It’s a timely team concept for this particular configuration of characters too. As Winick says in the interview, “they’re one of the very few sets of characters who actually aged during their fans’ life spans.” Since this is a book that appeals directly to fans who aged right along with the characters (I was 12 in 1984), its nostalgia value as a superhero comic capitalizes on the real nostalgia that its now adult fans might have for their own teen relationships at the same time that it mirrors back to them their own sense of having aged and (in some cases) of how their teen friendships grew and changed into adult friendships. This is especially true for me because my own sense of what friendship meant as a teen was deeply bound up in the idealized fantasy of a “family of friends” that I found in the pages of the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans.

Long story short: I’m dying for this relaunch. Memo to Judd: since my wishes are being granted left, right, and center, and I’m getting used to being spoiled, please read this post attentively. Titans Together!

On Reading and Rereading For Better or For Worse

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2007 at 5:02 am

I’ve been intending to rip off Comics Curmudgeon Joshua Fruhlinger’s entertaining newspaper strip commentary concept for a long time, and now that fatherhood is upon me and all those 3:00 a.m. diaper changes have left me too sleep deprived to come up with ideas of my own, the time for shameless plundering has finally come.

I decided to begin with Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, the first strip that I ever truly obsessed over. Why it spoke to me so intensely and so conspiratorially is a no-brainer. The strip began running in 1979, when I was seven and my sister was two-and-a-half—an age gap that was very similar to the one between Michael and his baby sister Elizabeth in the strip. Indeed, everything about the Pattersons and their children reminded me of my own family, a connection that was enhanced by the strip’s real-time development.

Most importantly, it was funny. Younger readers who came late to the adventures of the Patterson family probably find its current slice-of-life tone a little too maudlin. There is also, undeniably, an element of Bill Keane’s (risible but unintentionally fascinating) Family Circus in Johnston’s sometimes precious humour. But perhaps not as much as people like to think. And even if the strip does reach too quickly for upbeat or consoling forms of narrative closure, I still appreciate its frequent focus on non-traditional—often depressing—themes (epitomized by the Death of Farley storyline and subsequent arcs concerning death and disease), something that is consistent with the serious edge that the strip had from the very beginning.

Reading the earliest strips from the late 70s and early 80s now, one might be amazed by the stringent honesty of their treatment of parenthood—or perhaps I should say, motherhood. Usually focalized through Elly and her frustrating struggle to reconcile conventional maternal and wifely roles with the liberating promise of second wave feminist ideals, the “comedy” of many of the early strips is propelled either by Elly’s barely suppressed rage at being taken for granted by her husband and children or by her melancholic reflection on the hurts, missed opportunities, and emotional disconnections that haunt family life. Johnston’s particular skill as a cartoonist is to give even the darkest of this material a genuinely comic turn—though, at its best, the effect is to leave the honest core of the cartoon harsh and undiluted.

One of the best early examples of this shows Elly ranting angrily to John as she stalks through the house: “I’m sick and %&@ tired of picking up TOYS! I’m tired of housework and dirty noses and cooking and the NEVER ENDING MESS.” John, always hilariously meek and nervous in these early strips (as if he’s living with a keg of dynamite), takes Elly in his arms and comforts her with characteristic platitudes: “Take it easy. Kids are a lot of work. They’re part of life—you have to accept these things. After all—you’re the one who wanted kids in the first place.” This one makes me laugh out loud every time I rediscover it in Johnston’s first For Better of For Worse collection, I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues…” What really gets me is the way this marvelously dark humour is punctuated by Johnston’s visual depiction of Elly’s rage—pop-eyed with Medusa hair—as she’s wrapped in the arms of her well-meaning but clueless husband. More generally, it’s this integration of Johnston’s feminism with the inherent cruelty of comedy that makes the humour of the early For Better of For Worse so delightfully bracing. It’s Johnston’s exceptional skill as a cartoonist that makes these strips classics.

Like Charles Schultz, who masterfully transformed melancholia into a kind of textured gallows humour in Peanuts, Johnston always took the “or for Worse” of her strip’s title seriously as a thematic compass for its gags, reflections, and plots. Usually, the sources of strife were the quotidian disappointments of family life—disappointments whose seemingly familial nature was often revealed to be sexist and systemic by Johnston’s astute comic eye. In the introduction to Washload Blues, Johnston names these disappointments “guilt”—an emotion that brings the most private experience of desire, moral responsibility, and social codes into complicated and uncomfortable relation. We feel guilty precisely because of some failure to regulate our desire in accordance with the social codes and values we’ve internalized—codes and values that present themselves as transcendent and unquestionable. As Johnston pointedly asks, “Who in this world could ever follow all the sage advice in all those parenting books and be human?” (a question that is as relevant to parents now as it was in 1981). The strip, she tells us, is thus a confession, a “diary”—“therapy, you could call it”: “When I start to draw the hunched and disheveled housewife, eyebags drooping, mop in hand, grimacing as she removes junior from the dog’s dish, I am cleansed.” Evidently, Johnston’s cartooning against guilt, her laughter that momentarily drowns out the self-condemning inner voice, was a kind of therapy for her readers, too.

The strip’s recent return to its beginnings by reprinting this old material using various framing devices involving characters in the present has fittingly returned to the theme of guilt that animates the early strips as well. The weekend comic from October 7th (top) is a savory blend of the strip’s current nostalgic direction and its longstanding confessional tone. As the reprints of the earlier strips remind us, Elly isn’t kidding: she really did want those precious kids to hurry and grow up; the split between an idealized maternal experience and a “selfish” desire to live her own life remains starkly unresolved—at least on its own terms as an historical event. Here, as Elly sees it in retrospect, however, her confession to the reader apparently “resolves” the contradiction. Now, we might infer, she is in a position to render a judgment on her earlier self and can finally embrace the maternal role she struggled with when her children were young. Of course, this kind of retroactive nostalgia is all too easy, coming, as it does, so long after the experiences in question, and after so many of the deferred satisfactions have been realized. And perhaps the strip, which looks nostalgically over Elly’s shoulder at the photo albums that stand in for the very newspaper strips of the 70s and 80s that are currently being reprinted, allows us to see this too. For the photo album’s selective preservation of happy memories—the memories that support Elly’s judgment on herself as an impatient young mother, necessarily tell only half the story. The other half—the half that is being put before us each week in the reprints of those early strips—must be temporarily suppressed in order for Elly’s internal conflict to be “resolved” in the rather pat manner presented here. All of which is to say that, for me, Elly’s ironic, self-recriminatory punch-line does more to sustain the comic’s delicious ambiguities than it does to secure a finally nostalgic representation of motherhood because the rift between the idealized photograph album and the cannier reprinted strips make any such resolution elusive.

Dear Readers…

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2007 at 2:53 am

Four months since my last post without a word of explanation? That’s terrible!

What the heck happened?

Well, for one thing, I became a dad. Is there any more surprising or absorbing event than the birth of your first child? Probably not. No matter how much you try to anticipate it, there’s no way to predict the way it’s going to feel. Nor, as I’ve discovered, is there any way to predict how much fun it’s going to be. Did you know that babies were fun? I didn’t! Jim Roeg Jr. was born a happy and healthy 8 lbs. 4 oz. and he is, as you might expect me to say, utterly perfect, beautiful, and amazing…and very distracting! I can’t lay my prolonged silence entirely at his feet, but the family time I’ve been enjoying certainly does have a great deal to do with it.

Besides that, I’ve been increasingly bored by comics over the last few months and just haven’t felt like blogging them.

Sure, there are several books that I continue to enjoy. Justice Society of America is still the jewel in DC’s crown—one of the few truly special books on the stands. Checkmate is a superb espionage drama, month after month. Ostrander’s Suicide Squad gives old fans something to chew on. Booster Gold is an enjoyable romp. The Green Lantern portions of The Sinestro Corps War are reminding everyone of the virtues of more contained crossovers. Tony Bedard is proving that Birds of Prey A(fter).G(ail). still has legs. Across the way, Marvel’s Thunderbolts is still riveting—something that cannot be said of many of their team books. World War Hulk has also been good for a chuckle.

On the whole, though, the mainstream comic scene has been kind of a let down this Fall. DC’s Countdown has been abysmal—truly wretched. (How did they manage to come up with a multi-character weekly series that didn’t have a single compelling storyline?) Marvel’s Annihilation: Conquest is perhaps objectively better (at least there is a story), but not interesting enough to keep me reading. Brad Meltzer’s JLA underwhelmed and McDuffie’s is worse—a surprise, because I’d enjoyed his Fantastic Four. I imagine that there are some interesting things happening in the Superman books, but I’m not reading them as monthlies anymore. I’d like to get the Donner/Johns “Last Son” story as a collected edition…once its conclusion finally appears (!), but my days of buying Superman floppies are over. And is it just me, or is Grant Morrison’s Batman turning out to be just kind of…average?

Well, anyway: it’s easy to complain. Despite my gripes, there are still a number of things I’m looking forward to…cautiously. Gail Simone’s Wonder Woman is at the top of that list. Dixon’s Batman and the Outsiders is close behind. The various rumored “adult Titans” projects are too vague to get excited about yet, but I am foolishly hopeful. Nightwing by Tomasi and Rags sounds intriguing, as does Wolfman’s new Vigilante series. And what old school fan isn’t at least curious about DC’s plans for the Legion in the coming year? Whatever they do, I’m just hoping that their plans include finally reprinting the Levitz/Giffen Legion in a nifty format (Omnibus?).

In the meantime, I’m savoring some older fare. I finally caved in and bought the Brubaker/Epting Captain America Ominbus (chapters-indigo.ca had a fantastic deal) and am really enjoying that. In keeping with my more limited attention span, I’ve returned to reading newspaper strips, particularly the original volumes of For Better or For Worse (very topical in my household, and really funny) and the early Peanuts. I’ve also just begun David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, which I can already tell is going to be as good as everyone says.

As for Double Articulation? I don’t know. I’m not one to give up on things once I’ve started, but the days of painfully long and tortured pseudo-academic essays in which I project my fantasy life and romantic values onto contemporary comics and Marvel of the seventies are probably over—at least for the time being. If you’re still out there, dear readers, you can expect to see some changes around here. What those changes will entail, well… We’ll both find out soon.