Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sans Comics

What has happened to the state of the comic strip?

Comics (the daily newspaper kind, not the superhero/pulp magazine kind) have always held a kind of awkward space in America's culture. While still a primarily children's domain, there was certainly enough room for social/political commentary (think Doonesbury, Bloom County, The Boondocks), content that, while not strictly "adult," could certainly be enjoyed on several levels (Lil' Abner, Calvin and Hobbes, Pogo), and of course an appreciation for the artwork itself--which could go from the relatively simple (yet brilliant) doodlings of comics like Hagar the Horrible or Beetle Bailey to more high-culture quality of strips like many "dramatic" strips.

Still, scanning the pages of the standard Sunday comic section of your local dying dead-tree newspaper, and it looks just like a graveyard of nostalgia. Strips that once contained spark and life are shells of their former selves. Intrinsically rotten jokes have been pound into the ground, and comics that should have died long ago--when their creators retires or died themselves--have been taken up by the empty creativity of a syndicate (or an uninspired child). While there are some reasonably fresh newcomers (think Pearls Before Swine), there aren't many--newspapers and syndicates preferring the stable, boring staples of the past (and, understandably, zero desire to get thousands of upset letters if you dare cancel the moribund Garfield).

One would think that this is, in fact, OK--the fresh, sharp, updated writing is now found in the form of the webcomic. It makes sense--the internet is the place for free creativity, and cartoonists are no longer bound by the small panel sizes, conventional daily strips, censorship, or the fate of fickle readers. And yet, for me, that is not how it has gone. There are very, very few web comics that have even come close to the conventional popularity of the newspaper. And while you would think this would create a diverse environment for all sorts of creativity, they all end up being the same comic strip over and over again--angsty, hip, sexually frustrated white tech-savvy guys living vicariously through the medium of comics, with barely humorous gags and, for some reason, a burning desire to confront social issues in the most ham-fisted and least effective manner possible. And--let's be honest--many don't have the artwork or graphic design that decades of polished industry techniques have produced. (Not to name any names, but how the poorly-drawn and almost painful to read webcomic Questionable Content is so popular is beyond me; it looks like a seventh-grader who just discovered MS Paint draws it, and the storylines aren't much better.) 

There are rays of hope, of course. The quality of webcomics has gotten much better, and it's allowed some unique comic strips to rise to the top (think xkcd or SMBC). And the genre of gaming-related strips, such as Penny Arcade and PvP, have actually utilized conventional comic strip standards and produces some pretty high-quality (if somewhat narrow) content.

Sadly, though, the things that allow webcomics to thrive--niche subject matter, freedom of format creativity, and the ability to address controversy--are the exact sort of things that will keep them out of newspapers. It seems highly doubtful that there will ever be a golden age of comic strips, since it seems as if the age of the newspaper (at least on paper) is nearing a slow decline. And I am not sure if the free-wheeling, unrestricted webcomic scene has the resources and discipline to create a thriving and popular medium again.

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