I hated having to add those qualifiers — (in The State, currently) — because it’s sort of lame limiting oneself to the comics in one paper at a given moment.
You find yourself leaving out legendarily good and bad comics from over the years — from “Calvin and Hobbes,” which is unquestionably the best strip in history, down to lame ones such as … I don’t know… “Snuffy Smith,” or “Kathy.” Or “the Yellow Kid,” for that matter.
Also, y’all know I believe strongly in the Nick Hornby Top Five principle, and if I limit myself to what’s in The State now, it’s hard to come up with that many, for best or worst.
But here’s the thing: These are the only comics I’ve regularly seen, for decades. I subscribe to several newspapers, but since I read them through the apps, I never see the comics — if they have comics.
So for those reasons, while I’ve wanted to compile such a list, or pair of lists, for years, I’ve repeatedly put it off. But now, I see The State is about to revamp the comics, so it’s now or never. (“The State is refreshing our comics and puzzles offerings beginning Monday,” an email ominously announced Friday.) If I’m going to pass judgment on the ones we know, it must be done now.
So, let’s start with the “best,” which is a short list, and a sad one. This is a dying art form (a subset of a dying industry), and has been for some time. At the end of 2020, there was a good piece in The Washington Post about “1995, the year that comics changed forever.” It was accompanied by another headlined, “‘Calvin and Hobbes’ said goodbye 25 years ago. Here’s why Bill Watterson’s masterwork enchants us still.” I recommend them both.
There has been nothing nearly as good on comics pages since that fateful year a quarter-century ago. The first story I mention above reminds us that Watterson ended “Calvin & Hobbes,” Gary Larson stopped doing “The Far Side,” and Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County,” abandoned his Sunday-only “Bloom County” spinoff, “Outland” — all in that same year, 1995.
It’s one of the tragedies of the genre that they quit the way they did — although maybe that’s why we remember their work so fondly. They deliberately quit before sliding into the habitual monotony of cranking out repetitive garbage decade after decade — which regularly happened, because once a strip was established, it didn’t have to maintain any standards. Newspaper readers, back when such existed, were creatures of habit who would howl if their familiar strips disappeared.
We all would have been right to howl, though, in 1995. We’ve had an occasional chuckle since then, but not the everyday brilliance to which we were once accustomed.
Here are the best that are left, in this one paper. While they are nothing like the great stuff we once knew, these two rise far above the best:
- “Overboard.” It was launched in 1990, and we started running it in The State almost right away. I remember Jim Foster, then the features editor, bringing proofs of it for me to see. I was delighted — while they weren’t “Calvin and Hobbes,” they were really good. I have tried many times to Google my favorite from that era, without luck. It went like this: Two of the pirates are standing by their ship’s rail. I think one is drinking coffee. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing, which is fairly standard with these guys. Another pirate comes and stands on the rail, preparing to swim. He asks the first two whether those are shark fins or dolphin fins down there. One of them says, “Dolphin,” and the swimmer dives in. The pirate who said “dolphin” turns to the other and says, “Like we’re ichthyologists or something….” Now I’m not saying this strip is still as good as it was. (OK, so maybe you needed to see it.) But it still stands out, even though it has resorted to one of the oldest shifts in the book: moving largely from the pirates to concentrating on personified dogs, cats, mice and sharks. But it’s still mildly amusing, and that’s remarkable these days.
- “Dilbert.” A lot of people adored this when it came out. I thought that reaction was a bit much. I saw it as good, but even within the limited class of workplace satire, I didn’t like it as much as, say, Mike Judge’s “Office Space.” (Which was brilliant.) But as I say, it was good, and it has stayed almost as good as it started out being. Which is always remarkable, and rare, which is why Watterson quit at the peak of his game — he wanted Calvin and his tiger to be remembered at that level. Scott Adams soldiered on, and hasn’t fallen completely on his face yet, except in the area of political commentary. So he deserves credit for that. By the way, I thought I saw some significant changes in the title character’s arc this past year: Did you notice that during the COVID crisis, the formerly deadpan Dilbert started occasionally getting really frazzled and upset? Like, freaking out? Maybe it’s just my imagination. But I need to say this for Adams: He and Chip Dunham of Overboard did more with the pandemic than any other strip that I paid attention to.
There are miles between those and any others. I still look at “Peanuts” every day, out of respect. Even though they’re all reruns, I’m a traditionalist, and Charles M. Schulz was doing fine work back when no one else was. Looking around further on that page, I can remember when “Zits” was occasionally amusing, but that was a long time ago.
It’s been a quite some time since “Doonesbury” has appeared in the daily comics. (Based on the Sunday version, we’re not missing much. It lost the raw freshness that made it something special in the early days, decades and decades ago.)
Now, for the worst. This is tough, and the competition is fierce. Two lie far below the others, and I’m likely to pick either as worst depending on my mood. But at the moment, I say:
- “Funky Winkerbean.” This was always, always awful, even in its original iteration. Remember when it was a high school “comedy,” a sort of lame forerunner of an actual good strip, “Kudzu?” (Remember that? We lost it in 2007, upon the untimely death of Doug Marlette.) “Funky” was never funny, but it seemed to be making an honest, though inept, attempt to be. It was bad, but in a perfectly ordinary way — not so it would stand out. It could have continued in that vein indefinitely, and I’d be ignoring it now, because it would blend into the herd. But Tom Batiuk wasn’t satisfied. He jumped not only a shark, but an ocean of them. The strip has gone through two inexplicable major changes, with the characters aging. And call me mad for saying it, but I think this was a failed attempt at seriousness. When I read it now, there is often a smirking, smug stab at something that I think is intended to be seen as… meaningful or something. Only it isn’t. Wikipedia respectfully describes the current state this way: “Since the 1992 reboot and especially since the 2007 time jump, the strip has been recast as a serialized drama, though most strips still feature some humor, often based on wordplay.” Yes. I’ve seen some of those puns. The fact that Batiuk has gone to so much effort to take the strip from bad to much worse, and done it in such an odd way, is what earns him the bottom ranking. The other “worst” strip just didn’t try that hard, ever, in my lifetime.
- “Mary Worth.” For decades, I have mocked this one as the worst, but frankly, it doesn’t deserve the distinction, because it has never made the kind of effort that Batiuk has invested. How to describe “Mary?” It’s like someone took the worst soap opera on TV, and determined to strip it of anything — sex, or whatever — that might seem even slightly interesting to anyone on the planet. (You know how in soap operas — at least, on the ones my grandmother used to watch — two characters would sit and talk about nothing over sherry, and the conversation would go on for weeks? This is like that, only without the sherry.) This all took shape well before I was born (the strip began in 1938), and it has just lain there and stagnated ever since. Anyway, it feels like I’ve been making sarcastic remarks about this strip for my whole life. About 10 or 15 years ago, I think someone at Free Times heard one of those remarks and misinterpreted it, think that I was saying I liked Mary Worth. I gathered this from a couple of remarks I heard from different people at that paper, who seemed very amused that That old guy Brad actually likes “Mary Worth.” At least, I think that was what was happening. Each time it did, I would challenge the person speaking, and that person would just smile and change the subject. Anyway, it occurs to me that this is by far the funniest, and possibly most interesting, thing that has ever happened in connection with this “comic” strip.
OK, I’m tired now, and frankly, the comics pages are so sad that it’s not really worth it to pick on any others, as lame as “Garfield” and “Dennis the Menace” and “Hi and Lois” and “Sally Forth” (not to be confused with the softcore pornographic classic by the same title, which at least on its own terms was interesting) are. I just don’t have the heart.
The comics were once a wonderful thing, back when newspapers were thriving. We live in a different time now…