Serious About the Funnies

One advantage to being on the same machine at work every day is that I know what to expect. Most of the time, the mail falls fairly evenly on the first pass; it's unusual for us to have more than a tray of mail for any of the stackers. Sometimes, though, we get several trays for one particular stacker, and it stands out like a pig moving through a python. Last week, we had three or four trays of mail fall in stacker #15, and the mystery was solved when we looked at the mail: Almost all of it was going to the Naples Daily News (henceforth, the NDN). They were doing their annual "Best of Naples" survey, and some companies were trying to flood their mailbox with votes in order to be able to brag about winning the award in their advertising.

Well, yesterday, we got five full trays of stacker #15, almost all of it going to the NDN. I didn't look at it closely, figuring that that the "Best of Naples" survey was still going on. Today, we got SEVEN full trays for stacker #15, and I happened to notice something different: Most of the letters were coming from individuals, not on company stationery, and they were addressed to the NDN Comics Survey. Aha!

This is the most mail I can remember going to the NDN at one time. And it's not over the "Best of Naples" or a Letters to the Editor controversy or anything like that. Nope, it's over comic strips. Ironically, people take their funnies seriously. Evidently the NDN is either replacing a retiring strip or auditioning for adding one. Well, the people have spoken, "twelve trays worth of mail over two days" spoken, although I don't know exactly what they're saying. But obviously, people have strong enough opinions about the comics that they will fill out an envelope and fork over 39 cents for a stamp to send it. The pig in the python agrees.

So, what comics do I like? "Dilbert," "Get Fuzzy" and "Mallard Fillmore," these days. The last strip appears on the editorial page in my newspaper, along with "Doonesbury," since both usually have strong (and diametrically opposite) political points of view. My favorite defunct comics are "Bloom County" and "Calvin and Hobbes."

Those last two are kind of unusual, with both Berke Breathed and Bill Watterson going out while they were still on top. The secret, of course, is to leave while your readers will still wail, "But that's my favorite comic strip!" rather than snarking "It's about time." I often wonder how someone can draw a strip like "Garfield" or "Beetle Bailey" or "Blondie" and still come up with something new. When you've been drawing the same strip with the same characters for many years, you start running out of things you can do with them that you haven't already done before. How many times can Sarge pound Beetle into a pulp? One more, apparently.

Also, comic strips are often artifacts of a specific period of time that don't wear well with the passage of time. "Doonesbury," for instance, is still stuck in the Vietnam/Watergate era. Garry Trudeau was relevant in the early 1970s, but that was a long time ago. I haven't found much to laugh about in his strip since 9/11. I used to like "Doonesbury," but that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the Twin Towers still stood. Today, I just find it tiresome.

And then there are the undead comic strips like "Peanuts," "Blondie," "Hi and Lois," and "Hagar the Horrible." In the first case, "Peanuts" has been in reruns since the death of Charles Schulz a few years back. The strips are old, but if you haven't seen them before, they're new to you. The other strips I mentioned are being drawn by the sons of the original cartoonists. They've become franchises. In the old days, when the cartoonist died, his strip died with him. Today, if there's enough merchandising involved, the strip can outlive its creator. I'm sure that Schulz's heirs said, "Hey, if it's good enough for Elvis Presley's heirs, it's good enough for us."