Friday, November 23, 2007

Fixing the Funnies

Warning, nerd alert...

Just about every day, for almost ten years or so, I have been reading the daily comic strips that appear in the newspaper (first in the San Diego Union-Tribune, and for a long while now the Washington Post.) For me, it's the perfect thing to read with breakfast, on the Metro, or at night in bed before going to sleep.

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal had an interesting analysis of the current state of comics pages, and the challenges editors face with regards to circulation and selection at a time when newspapers themselves are in deep trouble.

Adding to their problems, I've always felt, is that the comics pages feature so many boring and/or old strips that don't attract new readers. For every good long-running strip (e.g. "Pickles", "Baby Blues") or still-valued classic (e.g. "Peanuts"), there are easily many more terrible soap-opera comics (e.g. "Mary Worth", "Apartment 3-G") or well-past-their-prime clunkers (e.g. "Beetle Bailey", "Garfield", "B.C.")

So in the spirit of positive thinking, and on the chance that this might introduce some worthwhile strips, here are ten of my current favorites:

1. "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau
Though this strip debuted almost 40 years ago, it still manages to be fresh and feel "with it", while offering hilarious political satire and pop-culture commentary.
2. "Pearls Before Swine" by Stephan Pastis
Great for its lovable set of anthropomorphic animal characters, dark humor, self-awareness, and occasional satire of other comics. Its series depicting Osama bin Laden living with the Keanes' of "Famiy Circus" was priceless.
3. "Watch Your Head" by Cory Thomas
A newcomer to the Post, this has fast become a favorite of mine due to its college setting and a cast of characters easy to identify with.
4. "Lio" by Mark Tatulli
Another newcomer to the Post, this wordless comic featuring the adventures of a quirky young boy takes a little getting used to, but its (very) dark humor is hilarious.
5. "Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!" by Tim Rickard
Hilarious characters and plot-lines from yet another new comic, the strip often parodies of movies or books, or takes stabs at pop culture topics.
6. "Sherman's Lagoon" by Jim Toomey
This was always one of my favorite Sunday strips in the Post, and I was thrilled when they decided to run it daily.
7. "Single and Looking" by Matt Janz (formerly "Out of the Gene Pool")
Since this strip changed its name and focus in July, it has covered relationship humor and pop culture.
8. "Speed Bump" by Dave Coverly
There are many one panel daily comics out there, but this is the funniest and most consistent.
9. "F Minus" by Tony Carrillo
The only comic strip I regularly read that appears online only, it won an mtvU competition a couple years when the author was an undergrad.
10. "Non Sequitur" by Wiley Miller
Miller employs many different styles and the strip's traditional storylines are hit-or-miss, but its political satire and social commentary is usually terrific.

...and an honorable mention has to be made for "Foxtrot" by Bill Amend, which earlier this year ended its daily-run to become a Sunday-only strip. As I was reminded while reading my compilation Foxtrotius Maximus on the can earlier today, this is a damn good comic strip.

As to how to fix the funnies, I hope that newspaper editors can push aside worries--about costs and about the threat of receiving angry letters from senior citizens disgruntled by change--and start taking risks on adding fresh new comics. No knock on the old, "family-friendly" comics, many of which I like and/or think at least belong on the funny pages...but surely everyone can agree that "Mark Trail" and "Zippy the Pinhead" suck!