The 10 Newspaper Comic Strips that Need to F**king End

By Rob Bricken in Comics
Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 5:06 am

cathy-as-featured-on-30-rock.gifBy Alicia Ashby

So, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse ended not that long ago. Well, not “ended” ended. In an example of true comic strip insanity, she’s opted not to simply retire the strip from papers, but to send the strip into reruns that are interspersed with new strips created in the style of the old strips. In the wake of the long-awaited Foobocalypse, the strip has become some sort of horrible shambling zombie that desperately needs to have its head blown off by a shotgun shell.

This is a clear example of why today's newspaper comics page is an increasingly sad, run-down place. In our youth, we were able to read The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes; sure, we were sad when they ended, but in retrospect it's much better being able to enjoy re-reading them, rather than have the strips continue indefinitely and inevitably become terrible. When strips continue past their prime, they needlessly clog space which could be given to new, potentially funny strips...and thus, this is why the newspaper's comics pages feature the same bland horrible pieces of shit we all hated as a kid. These strips are terrible, shambling zombie that long since stopped making any sense or even being mildly funny, and have been in papers for longer than most of us have been alive. And like all un-living monstrosities, these 10 comic strips desperately need to die.



10) The Amazing Spider-Man, 1977+
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There are a few things I’ll give the newspaper's Spider-Man credit for. It’s the only adventure strip launched after the genre’s heyday in the '50s to pick up an audience, and the only place where you can read Spider-Man stories written by the character’s co-creator, the indefatigable Stan Lee. The stories are upbeat and cheerful, and feature Spider-Man with a supporting cast that hasn’t yet been turned into evil aliens, corpses, or evil alien corpses. He hasn’t even traded his marriage to the devil yet!

That’s all the credit I can give Spider-Man, though, which is otherwise a real mess. While it was originally drawn by John Romita Jr., the current artist is far less talented at cramming superhero fights into three tiny panels a day. Spider-Man has a tendency to become a surly asshole during the brief action scenes, which are brief respites from weeks-long stretches of Peter Parker loafing around watching TV.

There are worse things than this strip in the papers now, but it’s obvious from the sitcom writing and total lack of major storylines that it really has no particular point to make. Stories amble along, using the premise of a married Peter Parker that the comics threw out not too long ago, and using villain designs that sometimes acknowledge the '90s and other times don’t acknowledge major stories like Kraven’s Last Hunt. It basically makes no sense if you don’t know anything about Spider-Man, and makes no sense if you do, and at this point is just trudging along out of sheer inertia.

9) Funky Winkerbean, 1972+
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I remember reading Funky Winkerbean for a bit when I was a kid. Even back then I could tell it was something of a stoner’s comic, telling slice-of-life jokes about school life in a sort of dreamy haze. I checked back on it earlier this year, just in time to see the “Cancer” phase of the strip in full stride, which gave way to the mind-boggling melodramatic Death of Lisa and her even more ridiculous afterlife of dancing with some jackass dressed up like the Phantom of the Opera.

Now the strip is still sad and depressing, but in a more subtle and poignant way. Now we see all of those once-vivacious college stoners as broken-down old men and women, energy blissfully sapped away by their children, still talking to each other out of the sheer inertia of daily routine. There is very little I can count on to depress me more in a day than a new Funky Winkerbean strip, provided I don’t go try to read letters to the editor.

Do you know why people stop talking to each other after college? Because they don’t want to see their wild frat buddies begin the slow slide into becoming middle-aged, emotionally drained shells of humanity. For whatever reason, the creator of Funky Winkerbean has decided to document that degenerative process in excruciating detail. Why not just toss a little snapshot of an animal carcass passing through the stages of decay onto the comics page while you’re at it? It’s about as easy to look at as modern Funky Winkerbean.

8) The Wizard of Id, 1964+
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When you see Wizard of Id in your newspaper, you’ll see it’s still credited to “Parker and Hart.” You might assume this refers to creators Johnny Hart and Brant Parker, but both men died in early 2007. What Wizard of Id has become is the very definition of a zombie comic, an assemblage of terrible panels with no clear source and no real point. The Parker now might refer to Brant’s son Jeff Parker, who assisted in the creation of the strip prior to his father’s death, but the Hart side of the equation could only be carried forward by one of his many faceless assistants.

Wizard of Id originated in the '70s as a comic strip about people living in a squalid kingdom of misery, which America could easily relate to at the time. As its creators aged and it got into more papers, its satire became more watery and its jokes less coherent. Now it exists as a sad parade of human misery, where the joke is inevitably some variation of the simple truth that we will all work excruciatingly hard, and then die alone and unloved due to the incompetence of our rulers. Doesn’t that sound like fantastic breakfast reading?

The best thing Wizard of Id could’ve done is gone into rerun after both creators passed on, if it had to stay in papers at all. The early strips are sharply written and cleverly drawn, and manage to say a few timeless things about the sordid facts of the human condition. The zombie version of the strip running now is a bland horror without so much as a discernable creator, and even less to offer in the way of identifiable entertainment value.

7) B.C., 1958+
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When I was a kid, sometimes you’d go into a Hallmark and find weird little B.C. gift collections waiting there, the skinny ones printed in landscape ratio. They were usually stocked alongside the much funnier early Far Side collections in the same format, and I preferred to read those. When I was through with them, though, a B.C. or two was decent enough for passing the time until my mother had gotten her fucking fill of ogling quaint porcelain statues of angels.

What the fuck happened between then and now? It’s like the strip developed a degenerative brain disease. It was never fantastic, but I can recall a time when you could count on B.C. for a gentle chuckle. In the years building up to the death of creator Johnny Hart, the strip turned into an increasingly right wing, bizarrely Christian screed that failed to mock liberal depravity because it couldn’t form coherent sentences. Now that Hart’s passed on, his grandson Mason Mastroianni is drawing the strip… which is still credited to Hart in the strip’s opening panels… but which Mason is signing with his own name, anyway.

This is another strip that would’ve been well-served by going into reruns upon the death of its creator, if it really needed to stay in papers. I tracked down one of those ancient skinny collections recently, and the early strips hold up. Instead, we’ve got… what the fuck is even going on in this strip anymore? There are jokes where characters comment on how the strip is dull and boring. Jokes about cavemen playing golf? There’s even a joke about a turtle trying to fuck a piece of headgear that doesn’t exist yet. Why is anyone getting paid for this shit?

6) Gil Thorp, 1958+
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Seeing the way shrinking strip sizes have castrated once-great adventure strips is pretty hard. Most of these strips had little to offer besides beautiful art to begin with, and now they’re somehow expected to advance coherent plots with roughly three tiny panels a day. For most strips a sense of overwhelming despair has set in, but perhaps nowhere is it more evident than in Gil Thorp. The Chicago Tribune has a sample of the original strips drawn by series creator Jack Berrill in 1958 up, and they are beautiful work.

Jump up to the current run of strips, which have suffered through a series of religion-oriented strips by one of the jerks who created Left Behind and a round table of artists who have no idea how to fit dynamic figures legibly into the tiny spaces allotted for them. We’ve got storylines about teenagers with life-ruining heart conditions in lieu of anything that might be harder to draw than random football practices, characters mutating so much in appearance that following storylines is impossible, and some really horribly inconsistent anatomy.

Gil Thorp is a mess. You can read it every day for a year and have pretty much no idea of what’s going on in it. This is yet another strip that could’ve ended on a high note when its creator retired in 1996, but no, instead, it had to go through a stultifying series of alternate writers and artists who appeared to have no particular idea of how to make a comic or what it could be about. I guess people just couldn’t bear the thought of losing the daily strips about… football practice? Doing poorly at baseball? Poorly-drawn Basketball? … man, whatever the fuck it is Gil Thorp is about by now.

5) Cathy, 1976+
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Cathy’s in a unique position, relative to the other strips on this list. The original creator isn’t dead yet, and much like Amazing Spider-Man, it’s a relatively recent creation in a genre little-explored by comics. Cathy was one of the first strips to tackle the daily life of a working woman, and deal extensively with women’s problems in a way that wasn’t related to living as a dutiful housewife with a numbskill husband and a passel of funny kids. By all rights, Cathy should be a great addition to the comics strip page… but no, it isn’t. In fact, it completely sucks ass.

Originally the strip was based on Guisewite’s life as a working woman, and so they have a certain bite to them. As the strip settled into comfortable formula, her fictional avatar’s problems became increasingly predictable, bland, and vain. Cathy has featured possibly thousands of strips about how she wants to stuff herself like a pig but is then saddened by her inability to lose weight; about how her job, which clearly pays for a comfortable lifestyle, is somehow unbearably lousy and terrible; how she has difficulty meeting men, possibly due to what a boring impersonal crone she is; and, finally, how she feels inferior to her mother, because she quite frankly is.

Cathy rapidly degenerated into a caricature of what a woman’s problems were, all but enshrining the detestable neurotic tendencies of a white upper-middle class that had grown too wealthy, too complacent, and far too self-centered. Cathy as a character long since ceased to be anything a modern woman could identify with, and is instead a pitiable and hateful remnant of the Mary Tyler Moore era of failed feminism. On top of this, her strip hasn’t been funny in roughly twenty years, and Guisewite’s recent decision to marry Cathy off to her recurring boring love interest Irving has only made it more clear that the creative well has long since run dry. This comic, through sheer virtue of how hard it sucks, needs to get the hell off my comics page.

4) The Lockhorns, 1968+
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My earliest, dimmest childhood understanding of the Lockhorns, that I can recall, is that it appeared to be a comic strip about two people who hated each other so much that they had no greater goal in life beyond insulting and belittling the other. Later on I found out they were supposed to be married and realized some terribly depressing things about modern American lifestyles.

The Lockhorns hasn’t changed much since that early, soul-crushing exposure. It’s for the most part still a comic about existential urban dread, about the inevitability of misery in any sustained relationship, but occasionally pauses to discuss all manner of mundane irritations, like the hell that is air travel. The key theme here, the leitmotif if you will, is unrelenting misery and hate. Now, a newspaper is a fairly appropriate place for all this, but the misery of The Lockhorns is strangely one-note and eternal.

It is also, frequently, not funny at all. I mean, look, I find hate as funny as the next guy. Actually I probably find it a lot funnier than the next guy, actually. The Lockhorns is just relentlessly depressing, though. It’s a domestic incident occurring forever, a rolling pin coming down on a head forever. It is the perpetual reminder that the most horrible people on Earth are out there, failing at life entirely, with only these sad little panels of bitter non-humor to show for it.

3) The Born Loser, 1965+
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I haven’t seen early strips from The Born Loser’s run, but a cursory glance at its cast and its horrifyingly outdated art style identify it as a nightmare of the '60s. He has clearly long since suffered death of the spirit, and is just waiting for his damnable shell of flesh to cease moving.

This is a fucking terrible strip, and how it ran for over forty years is baffling to me if those first thirty years are anywhere near as bad as the last ten. The Born Loser of recent memory is one of those strips that makes you want to go drink a fifth of whiskey and then blow your brains out to end the suffering. Its sole theme is this unending agony of white suburban middle-class life, and day after day we watch the protagonist humiliated persistently by a callous employer, a hatchet-faced cow of a wife, and his cold-hearted, ignorant children. It’s like reading a Kafka story, only at no point will the protagonist enjoy the blissful release of turning into a cockroach.

No, The Born Loser is a mobius strip that leads to and exists in hell. It’s the endless wheel of samsara, grinding a man ever more finely into dust for our supposed amusement. It would be one thing if The Born Loser’s endless parade of hate was a good hilarious black comedy, but most of the jokes are like malformed one-armed Ritalin babies, too deformed and nonfunctional to live. This strip is never funny, never interesting, never even passably well-drawn… it’s like a perfect diagram of everything wrong with the vast majority of insufferable, “family oriented” newspaper strips.

And yet, somehow, it’s not the worst strip on this list That’s how fucking miserable the state of newspaper comics is at this point.

2) Snuffy Smith, 1934+
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In the '30s, a weird and terrible transformation took place in American comedy. People discovered the hillbilly stereotype, the eternal bane of West Virginia. Hillbilly jokes were like ethnic jokes, but since you were telling them about poor white people, nobody minded. In fact, many old jokes about the Irish seem to have transformed themselves into hillbilly jokes as a survival mechanism, possibly because most of the actual hillbillies at the time were dirt-poor, uneducated descendants of oppressed Scots-Irish mine workers.

People went nuts for hillbilly humor in all forms. It was all the fun of racism without any chance of one of those darn pesky unpleasant race riots! The craze spawned movies, radio shows, comic books… and it infected the funny pages, too. Not everything to come out of this trend was negative, mind you. Both Al Capp’s excellent Li’l Abner and Walt Kelly’s equally excellent Pogo owed a lot of their backwoods flavor to the hillbilly craze. Both Li’l Abner and Pogo weren’t content just to repeat redneck jokes, though, instead injecting their farcical settings with a lot of clever social commentary. Also, not incidentally, both strips were amazingly well-drawn, and both graciously ended their runs in the '70s, both as a result of cultural changes and aging creators.

Good art, biting satire, clever jokes… you won’t find any of these things in Snuffy Smith, which stands now as one of the worst strips currently running in newspapers. Such was the power of the hillbilly craze in the '30s that a one-off hillbilly character inserted in the long-running Barney Google strip could pretty much take it over, almost overnight. Snuffy Smith is everything horrible and tiresome about the hillbilly premise without any of the funny bits Li’l Abner and Pogo added. Snuffy is lazy and awful and shiftless, his wife is a horrible man-faced hag, everyone speaks in godawful phonetic accents…

Oh, and did I mention Snuffy Smith is a legacy strip? Of course it is, if it’s been running since 1934. It’s actually gone through the creator, the creator’s assistant who took it over, and now the assistant’s assistant is in charge. By this point the strip has reached an insane level of inertia, a totally ossified status quo, and jokes that rarely conform to any linear concept of human thought or behavior. At this point Snuffy Smith is like something drawn and written by aliens who have no concept of human life save what they’ve learned by watching Beverly Hillbillies reruns, and I believe it is mathematically possible to prove it is incapable of entertaining anyone, anywhere, at any time.

1) Family Circus, 1960+
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Hey, speaking of things that are incapable of entertaining anyone! God, how do you even make fun of the Family Circus at this point? It’s made out of the equivalent of spent-comedy uranium, dense and impenetrable. You can do all the nasty little frat boy parodies with sex and cursing and eviscerations you want, and yet Family Circus still exists, undamaged, oblivious and eternal. Someone must enjoy this comic strip, given the sheer volume of newspapers it runs in, but I cannot begin to fathom who this person is… perhaps someone’s quaint grandmother. Does this country really have that many quaint grandmothers left in the population?

Family Circus is on a basic level flawed in pretty much every way a newspaper strip is going to be. It runs in a single cramped circular panel most days, which means utilitarian and unattractive art. The Sunday strips occasionally look better, but not terribly often given the stiff and unnatural character designs. The family-oriented jokes are safe and predictable and profoundly incapable of being funny. It’s a legacy strip, with the usual awkwardness made much stranger by the fact that creator Bil is still around to write, in collaboration with son Jeff, who is telling stories about his dim-witted melon-headed fictional child self, Jeff.

Like so much on the newspaper comics page, Family Circus is a curious artifact from an earlier era, and reflects a frustratingly naïve view of family and gender dynamics. It seems it’s meant to be comforting, but its assertion of cheerful reality is so insistent that you start feeling outright guilty if you happen to read it while having any sort of emotional dysfunction. And, let’s face it, most people are going to experience more emotional dysfunction than the endlessly saccharine fake family seen in Family Circus, with only their own horrible imperfections as people to blame.

I would also point out how fucking unfunny the strip is, but at points I’m not sure it’s even all that interested in bothering with the gags. Sometimes the strip tries to be inspirational, which results in flagrant insanity. Sometimes it’s whimsical and childish, which just gets tedious in newspaper strips after awhile. Family Circus is really the terrible newspaper strip at its apex, something that can’t possibly amuse anyone that is still on the equivalent of every single channel. It’s the tyranny of an invisible, utterly idiotic majority.

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