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“It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.” - Sir William Osler

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    Monday, September 10, 2007
    Funky Cancerbean, or "What is Wrong with Comics These Days??"

    Back when I was a newly hatched tad just about to graduate from medical school, I agreed in a fit of temporary insanity to co-edit the school yearbook. That year the yearbook committee was in serious trouble because the previous year's class (the senior class was always in charge of the yearbook) had fallen down on the job, badly. Some alumni send checks every year to support this project, God bless them ... and the year before my class graduated they never got one because the damn thing wasn't finished for months and months and months. The administration made it clear that my year had to atone for the delinquency of our predecessors, and in an attempt to do my part I spent the first two months of my internship desperately finishing layout in my apartment when I wasn't taking call. (I also had to try to think up clever captions for the many pictures that were submitted. I solved that by conjuring up an imaginary evil twin, who produced some memorably snarky commentary.)

    In the end we met the deadline and produced a yearbook I'm still proud of, partly because that was back when Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side were still in print. Clippings of both these comics appeared regularly in the class note service and monthly newsletter to liven things up. (In the third and fourth years when we were scattered among various hospitals for our clinical rotations, the newsletter was the only way to communicate with the entire class.) For the sake of nostalgia I decided to reproduce some of the comics in the yearbook; looking back more than fifteen years later, I'm glad I did. These strips have become classics, and since neither Gary Larson nor Bill Watterson are drawing comics any longer they will always remind us of that time and place. One night recently I ran through the yearbook and these twenty-year-old or more strips stood up well... they did not date.

    I can't think of many, if any comics of which you could make that claim today... maybe Lio. (I worship Lio.) Today's strips, for the most part, are simply not that good. Maybe most of the 'classic' comics we like to think about never were as good as we remember. The drain of writing a daily strip, coming up with a quip or joke every day, is something I can only imagine; it must be like trying to blog every day.

    This is all a lengthy lead-up to my main complaint, encapsulated in the title to this entry. Why aren't the comics fun to read any more? One of the blogs I link to in the side menu is Josh's The Comics Curmudgeon, a man who performs a valuable public service in sieving the wheat from the chaff and snarking on the chaff (this would be maybe 80 percent of the comics page). Favorite targets of his are the soap strips, such as Apartment 3-G and Mary Worth. These strips have always been hopeless, but now at least they're funny thanks to Josh. Their plots move at a glacial pace and the dialogue is usually ridiculous.

    Josh's two biggest targets, though, cordially loathed by pretty much everyone who visits his site, are comics that used to be good: For Better or For Worse and Funky Winkerbean. FBOFW broke a fair amount of ground in its day; it used to be funny and even insightful. The strip's artist Lynn Johnston is retiring soon and seems to be more interested in tying up the remaining loose plot ends than she is in letting the characters drive the strip, the way they used to do. It wasn't enough, apparently, to let daughter Elizabeth go off to teach in Mtgiwaki up north and become interested in native culture, maybe even accepted into the locals' world. No, she had to rush back to Toronto in a fit of homesickness and get tied up with ghastly Anthony, her (now divorced) high school sweetheart. Every strip of Johnston's ends with a feeble pun or some sort of wordplay, no matter how forced, and none of the characters seems believable any more.

    Funky Winkerbean, drawn by a high-school teacher named Tom Batuik, used to be kind of funny in a laid-back sort of way as it detailed the adventures of a bunch of high-school kids back in the seventies. But now it's one big downer. One of the main characters is currently dying of breast cancer (hence the nickname "Cancerbean"), and as if that weren't enough, nothing good ever happens to anybody in the strip. The most gratuitous example of Batuik's pessimism is Harry Dinkle, the former band leader and a man obsessed by his job: A running joke every year showed him selling candy to raise money for his high school band, going door-to-door in full uniform (he was never drawn any other way). Guess what's happened to him? He had to retire because he's losing his hearing. See? Irony. Watching events unfold in this strip is like watching a train wreck in slow motion, but less entertaining.

    There's still some good stuff out there - Sally Forth, Frazz, Zits are all usually funny - but many of the strips have fallen into a pattern of tired repetition. One reason for this is that often when an artist dies or retires the syndicate will continue the strip instead of retiring it and giving new artists a chance. This makes it very difficult for most new strips to get a foothold.

    I'm not really sure how to end this rant, but I do think there's still hope for the comics. When fresh, imaginative strips come along they're greeted rapturously by readers. And newspapers will never be able to get rid of the comics; in a few years they may be the only thing that keeps people buying papers instead of getting all their news online. What we need is a few more strips like Lio and a few more blogs like the Curmudgeon.




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