I don’t know if anyone but me reads comic strips anymore, but here are my thoughts on a few I follow:
Pooch Café: Bill Watterson once called Pogo “the last of the enjoy the ride strips,” by which he meant that while it often had continuing storylines, the point wasn’t to get to the end but to see how many enjoyable tangents you could take along the way. (Mid-series episodes of The Simpsons are a good example of this as well.) Pooch Café has a lot of this quality to it, with stories often making vertiginous twists and ending up in much odder and funnier places than you might have imagined from the beginning. I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that Paul Gilligan, the writer/artist, just lets the stories run in whatever direction they like the way Walt Kelly did.
Zits: The subject matter may not be particularly unusual (though it’s done in a more original way than any other “teen” strip) but Zits is one of the few strips today that is actually doing interesting things with art. Bill Watterson (again) famously dismissed a lot of comic strips as being (I’m paraphrasing) “Xeroxed characters standing talking to one another,” and for the most part that’s true today — almost literally true, since many strips make use of scanned images of their characters that are used over and over in slightly different poses (Shoe has been done this way since Jeff MacNelly’s death, something I hope has him turning in his grave.) Zits, on the other hand, often makes the art a key part of the action, in strips like this one. Not the greatest gag in the world, to be sure, but compare it to a typical strip in the same paper. Here’s a test: cover the bottom third of each of these two strips. Which one is still (vaguely) funny? Tip to cartoonists: comic strips are not supposed to be funny without the art.
Mutts: Okay, after praising two strips I’m going to get mean. But how can you be mean to Mutts? It’s so charming, so cute, so lovable. And I do love Mutts. I think that Patrick McDonnell is one of the best artists working in any medium today. So what’s the problem? He’s coasting. I may say that in part because I usually read it online, so I don’t get to see the creative things he does with the Sunday strips, but even still the strips have a disquieting sameness. If you are a Mutts fan, as I am, try to think of a particularly good one from the last few years. Of course, they’re all good; they’re all fine… but none are really better than the others, or different from the others in any way. It’s as though McDonnell had an endless bag full of strips, from which he drew one at random every day. So while McDonnell is probably a better artist than Jim Borgman, who draws Zits, and each individual Mutts strip is usually better than each Zits, I find myself more interested in reading Zits.
Doonesbury: Speaking of coasting… Like a few other things I read Doonesbury out of habit, and I wonder if Garry Trudeau might be drawing it out of habit as well. The characters marry, procreate, get old… it’s like Gasoline Alley for liberals, or an inside-the-beltway version of For Better or For Worse. I also wonder if Trudeau, like Tom Lehrer, might just not find the news funny anymore: politics seems to be receding further and further into the background for the last while. Obama, for instance, has barely been a blip — the only appearance I can remember was in a series of fourth-wall-breaking strips about him learning how to be in Doonesbury.
Fisher: I’m getting really obscure here, as I think this strip is only published in the Globe and Mail, but what the heck. What I find interesting about this strip is not necessarily the content (though it is usually fairly funny) but that it takes the same approach to young-ish urban married life that Dilbert took to offices. A lot of comic-strip mavens have expressed bafflement at the success of Dilbert, pointing out its crude art and fairly uncreative gag-a-day structure. What these critics miss, in my view, is that the appeal of Dilbert is not primarily its humour or its art but its relevance: rather than being set in the sitcom never-never land of Blondie or Hi and Lois or any number of other worthless comics, it’s set in something with a recognizable connection to real life. Scott Adams has said that most of the crazy stuff he showed going on in offices (tethering laptops, for instance) was based on things that had happened to himself or his readers, and Fisher has very much the same feeling. Like Dilbert, it may not be the funniest strip out there, but it may be the most clippable.