Saturday, August 30, 2008

Mostly, For Worse

It’s the end of an era—a lame and annoying era, sure, but an era nonetheless.

This weekend, Lynn Johnston is kinda ending her long-running comic strip “For Better or For Worse.” On August 30, 2008, after twenty-eight years, the oh-so-heart-warming adventures of the Patterson family will finally come to an end.

In appropriately hokey fashion, the final panel has an old lady named Iris advising a young bride that she needs to be there for her husband “for better or for worse.” (Now that’s clever!)

Now, I have to admit, I never saw the magic in “For Better or For Worse.” I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t love-to-hate-it. I just found it groan-inducing. And so, I can’t say I shed a tear when I found out it was ending.

What’s that? It’s not actually ending, you say?

Did a call from the comic-strip governor trigger a stay of execution? Did Broom Hilda threaten to turn Lynn Johnston into a Ziggy-like newt if she doesn’t keep writing? Not exactly.

Note how above I said Ms. Johnston is “kinda” ending her comic. I used that qualifier for two reasons:

(1) Ms. Johnston has already been in semi-retirement for a year now. Since September 2007, she’s been writing new material while also running some old strips, as flashbacks.

(2) August 30th merely marks the end of the current storylines. Starting on September 1st, Ms. Johnston is going to go back to the beginning—that is, back to the original strips from 1979—and start telling the same story over again.

Confused? Me, too... but this is how I understand it.

See, the thing that distinguished “For Better or For Worse” from other comics is that the characters aged in real time. (In contrast, the Family Circus kids have stayed the same age for 48 years, while the eldest Blondie kid should be 74.)

And as the "For Better or For Worse" characters got older, the stories got more complicated. So that’s why Ms. Johnston wants to go back to a simpler time. Back to when Michael and Elizabeth were new parents, and the kids were young and carefree. Back to before she had to deal with competition from the likes of FoxTrot and Drabble.

And just like George Lucas touched-up the original Star Wars movies (to the unanimous delight of fans everywhere), Ms. Johnston promises to “fix” things the second time around—maybe add some new dialogue, say, maybe change some of the drawings.

But overall, she’s going to write and illustrate the same stories over again. She even has a name for this concept: “new-runs.”

This plan, as far as I can tell, will allow her to enjoy her retirement without having to walk away completely. See, eventually, papers will run old “For Better or For Worse” strips half the time, and these “new-runs” the other half.

Now how is this different from her current arrangement, with old strips running as flashbacks? It seems hard-core fans (and apparently, they’re out there) thought the flashbacks messed up the continuity. Also, Ms. Johnston has evolved as an artist over the years—so much so that the old comics seemed as if they were drawn by a different person entirely.

But with the "new-runs," she can run old strips and new strips, but since the new strips will look exactly like the old strips, the transition will be seamless.

And yet, though I give her props for blazing a trail with her “new-runs” concept, I wonder if 50% new “For Better or For Worse” is 50% too much. Maybe it’s time to hang it up. Just walk away.

And not just "For Better or For Worse"; maybe it’s time for all the great comic icons from the past to put the quill in the inkwell for good and call it quits.

Here’s what I mean: a few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Cape Cod. My family has been doing this vacation for over thirty years. A lot has changed in that time: Thompson's Clam Bar has shut down (despite having the coolest radio commercial ever); the Cape Cod Mall got a makeover; videogame staples like Dig Dug and Galaxian are long extinct, replaced by those stupid games that spit out tickets (which you can trade in, after you collect about a hundred, for a pack of Smarties).

But a lot has stayed the same: the beachside hotels; the pine-needle driveways; and most of all, the comics.

Look, I like nostalgia as much as the next guy, but I have to say, the geriatric array of comic strips in the Sunday edition of the Cape Cod Times bummed me out a little. Below are some of the titles the Cape Cod Times ran in its funny pages on August 17, 2008 (along with some facts and figures I got from that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia):

Classic Peanuts: The original Peanuts debuted in October 1950. Since Charles Schulz' death in 2000, papers have been re-running old strips as “classic”: according to the fineprint, the comic running on August 17th was from 1961.

Garfield: Debuted in 1978. (Yes, that means the fat cat turns thirty this year.)

Doonesbury: Started in October 1970.

Hagar the Horrible: Started in 1973. Creator Dik Browne died in 1989.

Wizard of Id: Began in 1964. Creators Johnny Hart and Brant Parker both died in 2007. (Interestingly enough, they died a little over a week apart—with Hart dying on April 7th and Parker on April 15th).

Andy Capp: Started in 1957. Creator Reginald Smythe died in June 1988.

Hi and Lois: Debuted in 1954. Of the two co-creators, Dik Browne (of "Hagar the Horrible" fame) is dead, and Mort Walker is 85.

B.C.: Began in 1958. Creator Johnny Hart died in 2007.

Dilbert: Began in 1989.

Beetle Bailey: Began in 1950 by Mort Walker. One of the only comics of that generation still produced by its original creator. (Did you know Beetle Bailey is actually the brother of Lois, of "Hi and Lois" fame? It’s true.)

Family Circus: Debuted in 1960.

The Lockhorns: Started in 1968. Creator William Hoest died in 1988.

Blondie: First published in 1930. Original artist Chic Young died in 1973.

Shoe: Debuted in 1977. Creator Jeff MacNeally died in 2000 (and with him, any chance of knowing why the strip is called “Shoe” when the main character, that sort of plump, world-weary reporter-bird, is actually named Cosmo. Shoe is another guy. What’s up with that?)

The Born Loser: Debuted in 1965. Creator Art Samson died in 1991.

And, of course, count in "For better or For Worse" in that list as well.

Now, just look again at the birthdates of some of these comics. Dilbert is the “new kid,” and he’s almost twenty. Beetle Bailey originally enlisted during the Korean War, for crying out loud! And if the comic "Blondie" is 78 years old, that means the character Blondie has to be in her late 90s!

Not only that, how do some of these comics continue to survive, having offered such little in the way of actual entertainment for so long. Don’t get me wrong: I thrilled to the philosophical musings of "B.C." back in the day, and I admit to owning three or four of the ninety-seven Garfield books.

But Andy Capp—never found it funny. Not once. And Family Circus? Family freakin’ Circus? Come on! Bil Keane has made a career out of recycling five running gags:

* Billy takes over for Bil Keane
* Dead grandma looking down from heaven
* Dotted Arrow follows one of the kids around the house/ neighborhood
* Kids blame mishaps on “Ida Know” and “Not Me”
* Parents imagine what kids will be like as grown-ups

How has Bil Keane been able to stretch out five gags for forty-eight years? It boggles the mind.

Quite simply, they’re just too old. All of them. They have to go—“For Better or For Worse,” included. No new-runs. No nothing. Just done.

Problem is, I don’t see a ton of feisty up-and-comers waiting to take their spots once these strips step down for good. As part of my extensive research, I also reviewed the comics in the Boston Sunday Globe and the Boston Sunday Herald. Both papers ran some old chestnuts, but they ran some (relatively) "new" ones as well, such as "Rose is Rose", "Stone Soup," and "Zits."

And I have to tell you: these new comics weren’t great. At least, I didn’t find any that I could see running, in any form, fifty years from now.

What does that mean? Maybe the comic scene is an obsolete medium. Maybe some day, there will be no funny pages... or, sadly, pages at all, for that matter.

Or maybe a new batch of artists will crop up, who will create new iconic characters—new Garfields and Dagwoods and Woodstocks.

Till then, I’ll guess we’ll have to suffer through “new-runs”… for better or for worse. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)

1 comment:

Crow said...

I admit to having a soft spot for Shoe, although I don't know why exactly. Maybe the subtle political humor during the Clinton administration. But I agree with you on the rest. They all need to go, especially Marmaduke.