Two Week Comic Binge Bores Columnist

Michael Roberts, a columnist for the Denver Westword paper, recently forced himself to read every comic in the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News for a two week period to gauge the state of the the funny paper.

To find out what else I’ve been missing, if anything, I read every comic in the Post and Rocky â?? more than sixty of them â?? each day for a two-week span, August 13 through 27. The project promised to be an entertaining one, but that pledge was soon broken. All but a relative handful were creatively slack, aggressively unoriginal and about as amusing as an attack of intestinal distress miles from the nearest restroom.

Of course, if I had watched each show on network television over a similar period, I probably would’ve come away just as depressed. Yet I was still shocked by the dearth of fresh ideas and the overflow of derivative ones.

He goes on to describe who he thinks are derivatives of classics such as Peanuts, Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County.

Does he accurately describe the state of newspaper comics today?

35 thoughts on “Two Week Comic Binge Bores Columnist

  1. Yes. A few of the ones he mentions I thought he was too hard on, but for the most part, I think he’s right.

    But the fact that as a whole newspaper comics are stale and predictable isn’t news. It’s been that way for a long, long time. The only thing that surprised me about his piece is that he seems to be surprised.

  2. The next question along this line is WHY are they stale and boring? Personally, I don’t blame the cartoonists for the state of things since any time a strip tries to do something inspired and outlandish a couple complaints come into the editor from a handful of readers and the strip is pulled or censored. The fact that the editors of these papers never go to the mat for cartoonists who try something new and in fact actively discourage such behavior has really squashed a lot of creativity in the comics pages of newspapers everywhere.

  3. I wonder if there isn’t a bit of a generational aspect to Mr. Roberts’ opinion. Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side all had their hey-day during the 80’s. I was in college during that time, own the complete collection of all three of these cartoons, and in my opinion they are not as funny as the cartoons Mr. Roberts criticizes in his column. Obviously, there are going to be influences from previous cartoons. Pearls may be influence by Bloom County, which was influenced by Doonsebury. Calvin was influenced by any number of cartoons from the forties. I think that only the Far Side was truly unique. However, I also think that many of today’s cartoons have expanded on the originals. I find Close to Home and Rubes far more clever than the Far Side. Cow and Boy, while clearly a take off from Calvin, seems to present a more realistic view of childhood.
    I agree that today’s newspapers seem intent on covering every possible demographic with comics. This is not necessarily bad. Poor comics will fail even with a huge demographic. But the comics can be a great way to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

  4. I’ve been on record before that I don’t share the same drizzly view of today’s comics. I think we’re in an era of some really great work being published.
    It is the notion that ALL comics should appeal to ALL people that is perpetuating this dim view of today’s state of the industry. Comic readers need to have the same attitude toward comics as they do with other entertainment (T.V., movies, etc.) – find as many comics that you can connect with and simply enjoy them and forget the rest.

  5. I’d like to see him read sixty columnists for two weeks and then compare who is more derivative and in a rut, columnists or cartoonists. There are still outstanding comics out there and most humor is derivative at this point anyway. Often what makes the humor work isn’t the newness of the gag (although that can help) but the newness of the expression of it and placing it in different ways and different situations. Basically you can say the same for most “tonight show” type monologues and comedian routines, yet it’s still entertaining. And, in the case of comics, 99.9% better than most other newspaper content. IMO!

  6. I have to agree, Alan. In fact, I think the comics section IMPROVED.

    Not saying that all old strips sucks, but I think there’s more good strips than, say, 40 years ago.

  7. I tend to agree with Roberts. Last Sunday, I went through our comics pages and there was really nothing that made me want to read it, except Opus (My paper is running the Islam strips).

    Call me a snob, but I gravitate towards good art and writing. Most of the strips in my paper look hackish and are unbearable to look at, even if they have something funny or profound to say. Another big disappointment is the Sundays have become even smaller (poor Bill Watterson). They are nothing but colorized dailies and it comes off as lazy.

    I had high hopes when Watterson stood up for himself and won the fight to produce his Sunday in the format HE wanted. What resulted was incredible art and writing. I thought this would change the comics for the better, but in the last ten years since Calvin and Hobbes ended, the opposite has happened.

  8. “I had high hopes when Watterson stood up for himself and won the fight to produce his Sunday in the format HE wanted. What resulted was incredible art and writing. I thought this would change the comics for the better, but in the last ten years since Calvin and Hobbes ended, the opposite has happened.”

    Yeah, I’m equally disappointed in baseball. I thought the minimum standard would be playing like Babe Ruth. So all of baseball and everyone who has played since just sucks!

    Then basketball… how come EVERYONE doesn’t play like Michael Jordon? So all basketball player suck and it’s just not worth watching!

    And have you noticed there hasn’t been a playwright who comes close to Shakespeare in the past 600 years? What’s up with that?! So all playwrights suck!

    And once Michelangelo set the standard in sculpture….

    Give me break. If the state of the art is so bad, then that leaves the door wide open for you to show everyone how it should be done. Talk is cheap. Show us your greatness.

  9. Again, I think the comics page as a whole is stale and largely uninteresting, but I don’t think it’s cartoonists’ fault, for the most part. There’s very little room to work– both physically and in regard to the 1950s sensibilities that newspapers demand. And the seven day a week expectation is brutal and grinding. So artists naturally fall into patterns.

    Of course, there are some great strips and there are also some really good strips. And I certainly do agree that you shouldn’t expect to like all the comics. But my paper, The Oregonian, runs two full pages of strips and panels and out of all of those, only six successfully keep my attention. Seems to me it’s not outrageous to be disappointed that this number isn’t higher.

  10. Take a chill pill Wiley.

    You are one of the greats and I read your work religiously. You are one of the few that saves the comic pages these days.

    I never said I could do it better. All I was saying is very few comics grab my attention anymore. Is that a sin to want to read good strips?

  11. I don’t think it’s a sin to want to read good strips. I’m kind of into good comics.

    I think as a whole comics are better than they were ten or twenty years ago…

    …but then again I like Diesel Sweeties and F Minus, both of which seemed to take a beating in this article.

    Personally, I think the issue is that we’re all getting conditioned to having entertainment that tends to be more niche, and comics are no exception. Most people will say they only like maybe six or eight comics in their daily paper, but when asked which six, those titles can vary broadly.

    The issue seems to me that these days newspaper comics sections are like sampler platters. They tend to show a decent range of comic options, but they just can’t satisfy individual tastes that well.

  12. ��You are one of the greats and I read your work religiously. You are one of the few that saves the comic pages these days.

    Ahhhhh… the smell of smoke being blown in the morning…It smells like ….victory.

    I also smell yet another long drawn out argument about the sad state of the comics these days, a hint of legacy strip bashing on the horizon and perhaps a whiff of shrinking formats and bad syndicate editors lingering on the tongue.

  13. We should all know by now that humor is extremely subjective and one of the most difficult forms of entertainment to work in. There are a few strips that seem to be almost universally accepted as funny, but almost all the rest speak to a very specific sense of humor. There are strips out there right now that are very popular that never make me laugh even once. And there are strips that are supposedly stale (like Blondie) that I get a real kick out of. Is this because one strip is funnier than the other? I don’t think so . I think it is becuase one strip is funnier to me and my particular sense of humor but not to someone else.

    I get pretty ticked off at the Academy Awards every year when all the big “English Patient”, “Piano” tear jerkers get Oscars and all the terrific comedies get diddly squat. There are some pretty tried and true formulas for getting people to cry but humor evolves continually as society evolves. Catching that lightning in a bottle is what all comedians strive for but few achieve.

    When you consider that a daily comic artist/writer has to come up with 365 jokes a year and that they are working without the direct audience feedback that a stand-up comedian would get, it’s amazing anything is ever funny at all.

  14. I think he was unnecessarily hard on a few features, mainly the single panels he mentioned. Iâ??ve never read “Cornered,” “Natural Selection” or “Bound & Gagged,” but the rest of them I do read regularly and they are very good. It just underscores how humor is subjective and this guy appears to have no taste when it comes to single panels. Except for The Far Side. He got that one right. (Yeah, I know…everyone has a right to their opinion–even if it’s wrong.)

    Some strips he mentioned are indeed stale and should be yanked. But on the whole I think a lot of strips that have come recently are of high quality–especially considering the size constraints and the fact that editors freak out if a joke might be considered “offensive” by their readers.

  15. It sounds as if Michael Roberts is just being a snob against popular culture in general, and chose to target the comics page this time around.

    We all have strips we love and strips we don’t love so much. The art form is alive and well and it will keep turning and evolving as all good art forms do.

  16. Michael Roberts subsequently said … “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some … people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South African, and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and … I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., er, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children.” … or maybe he didn’t … I don’t know because I lost interest in his article.

    However, if people did have maps, then the comics would be funny to U.S. Americans and perhaps even Michael Roberts. 😉

  17. I think that overall, we have better comics today than in many previous decades. We have more diversity among cartoonists, with latino artists, more black artists and more women.

    No, there isn’t a Calvin on the funny pages, but strips like Pearls Before Swine, Lio and Get Fuzzy are bringing people to the funny pages and selling books(not Lio yet, but soon I’ll bet).

    How many really great comics come out in a decade? One if we’re lucky? I get tired and bored by the peeps with the attitude that comics started and ended with “The Big Three”. We got lucky in the ’80’s with Calvin and Hobbes, The Farside, and Bloom County. There were plenty of borish toons then, too, it’s just that those three were just so good. Nostalgia can be exagerated…

    The ’70’s gave us how many “great strips”? Most I don’t like at all, but let’s recognize Cathy, Garfield, Doonesbury, and…hmmm. That leaves alot of newsprint real estate for comics that would probably be considered the “other” comics on the funny pages just like all “the other” comics that surrounded Calvin, Opus and Larson’s cows.

    Maybe the comcis in Roberts paper really are boring. He should go online, find some funny toons on the syndie sites, and walk down the hall to the editor of his paper and make some suggestions and stop his griping…

  18. I don’t see how this is at ALL a gloomy time for comics. Sure, not everything in the papers is to everyone’s tastes… but there are literally THOUSANDS of good web strips out there to be read, every single day.

    If the major league games are too expensive and hard to get to, enjoy some minor league ball! It’s still fun.

  19. “but there are literally THOUSANDS of good web strips out there to be read, every single day.”

    Literally thousands of good web strips? LITERALLY?

  20. literally whining and crying on almost any post I’ve ever read.

    What this particular columnist should have done was read two weeks worth of comics from a handful of papers throughout the country. Then maybe his assessment wouldn’t have been so gloomy. If you ask me, I find Mr. Roberts article amateurish and unprofessional.

  21. That’s what makes his article so amateurish and unprofessional. He didn’t stick to his own assignment! On top of this, he went in to it to analyze the comics rather than just read them as a casual reader. No art form holds up that sort of scrutiny, especially when you have no understanding of the art form going in. I couldn’t help but wonder if it ever occurred to him that there might be a reason newspapers carry a variety of comics. If there was just one way to be “funny”, they wouldn’t need to carry more than one cartoon.

    And what has truly gone past tiresome and into the area of ennui is this juvenile notion that the quality of comics begins and ends with “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side”.

    This is just another case of a typical columnist waking up one morning, scratching his ass, belches, then decides what subject he’s going to be an expert in that day. Comics have all too often been the victim of such journalistic idiocy.

  22. What bothered me most about the article was that Mr. Roberts works in the same building as the Arts Editor, yet he does nothing proactive to change a situation he believes to be in need of repair. Why not talk to his co-worker about getting some more comics in the Westword? I wrote to him and told him as much.

    I lived in the Denver area for years and submitted my comic to the Westword: they wouldn’t even look at my samples. Their rationale? They’ve already got one (1) cartoonist on staff.

    I doubt many people would be bothered with a couple extra comics in the newspaper. Heck, circulation may even increase.

  23. Our rebuttals, correct though they may be, also are subject to scrutiny by an outsiders standards. We are all cartoonists and our opinions are biased because of it. If one is looking to take the wind out of Michael Robert’s sail in respect to his assessment in this article, it should be a reader of the art form, not the creators.

  24. Garey, it’s true that we are biased in favor of cartoons, but I’ve also noticed that some columnist seem biased against. Perhaps they think it’s easier to draw up a cartoon since it uses so few words and cranking out words is their business. Regardless though, I doubt Robert’s cares what we or the fan base thinks … it was enough words for his column. Time to move on to the next topic.

  25. Can anyone say, “everything in moderation”? Gorging for (almost) two weeks on strips from one lone newspaper, with the obvious intention of NOT enjoying it, is bound to make you sick… But there’s the problem: the “average reader” only HAS access to one or two papers. Meanwhile, everyone talks about how many great strips there are right now compared to 10-20 years ago, and you know what, you’re right!

    However, I doubt there’s any one paper out there that carries all the great strips at one time. One paper may carry Pearls Before Swine and/or Lio, but the rest of the page consists of Garfield, Mary Worth and For Better or For Worse repeats, I mean, “Hybridâ?¢ strips” (remember, Hybridsâ?¢ and recycling are environmentally friendly.)

    Which leaves the problem of where you can showcase all the syndicated strips, good and bad, and give readers ready access to them on a daily basis. Gee, I-I can’t really think of a venue… oh, wait… Now, this is not another rant about webcomics vs. newspaper comics. This is about Comics Syndicates regrouping for the new age.

    And I’m not just talking about web publishing, the syndicates need to find another viable PRINT venue as well (I have this great idea for collecting the comics into things called, get this, “Comic Books”, I wonder if that’s been tried before.) Even if I and a number of other people are wrong about newspapers disappearing in the next 20-30 years, it doesn’t automatically mean comics will remain in them, does it?

    Which isn’t to say the syndicates haven’t tried: Daily Ink, Comics Extra and My Comics Page are all good ideas in general. But to read ALL your favorite strips, you have to subscribe to all three. And $50+ a year for comics, seems a little steep. I know it’s not so much when you really analyze it and factor in the columns and puzzles you get with some packages, but convince the average reader! However, if there were a multi-syndicate â??iTunes for Comicsâ?, things might work better.

    The point, for me at least, isnâ??t so much about the quality of the strips themselves, itâ??s about how the strips are being handled. And frankly, the way theyâ??re being handled has hardly changed in many, many years, and I donâ??t see how thatâ??s okay anymore.

  26. The point, for me at least, isnâ??t so much about the quality of the strips themselves, itâ??s about how the strips are being handled. And frankly, the way theyâ??re being handled has hardly changed in many, many years, and I donâ??t see how thatâ??s okay anymore.

    Well said. The fact that comics are only a portion of a larger media package – and a regionally restricted media package at that – is somewhat unique in the realm of popular media. This arrangement incubates mediocrity, because people who no longer care for the comics are probably still buying the newspaper for other reasons – there is no direct way for the public, in mass, to register their disapproval of the comics by no longer paying for the product. It’s part of a package deal, though to many it may be about as interesting as the classifieds.

    Above and elsewhere, comparisons have been made between comics and other media ventures such as movies and television, and the comparison isn’t really accurate. When a movie is terrible or derivitive, people don’t see it, it makes no money, and it is unceremoniously dropped from the theaters in favor of new product. Television shows are also subject to direct assessments of audience interest. When a show no longer pulls in the viewers, it’s quickly removed. Same with books, music, subscription services both online and in print, etc.

    Comics are not subject to this direct scrutiny. The closest we get are those online polls, and I think we can all agree that those are a bit silly. Certainly unscientific, to be sure.

    These differences in business models are the reason why we’re no longer subjected to reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show during primetime, yet Marmaduke is still a staple in newspapers across the nation. Does anyone really believe the comics section could stand on its own as a separate product, considering the quality of strips at present? Remember “News Free Comics,” anyone?

  27. Actually, $50 a year is a steal compared to what I pay annually for my newspaper – $216.
    Thankfully, I read the other bits of the newspaper and not just the comics but I have to say the comics are the only thing I read every day consistantly. That has been true since I was 10 years old, in fact, the only reason I subscribed to a paper during my college years was to continue to read comics daily – I wasn’t really too jazzed about the local news of my temporary college town.

    There has to be a better way – I love my daily ink but agree with Danny that limiting subcriptions by syndicate is not the best solution. I like his itunes idea. itoons anyone?

  28. “Above and elsewhere, comparisons have been made between comics and other media ventures such as movies and television, and the comparison isnâ??t really accurate…”

    Great point! I love how when anyone is bold enough to bring up the troubled state of comic strips, other people pull examples of other media forms M.O.’s out of thin air as grand comparisons, and label the initial commentators as crazy for thinking about the future of the form beyond the status quo.

    Or worse, bring up the usual, “Well, Calvin and Hobbes’ existence on the comics page 12+ years ago didn’t make the comics page any better/different than it is today,” yet, in the same breath say, “Because Lio and other really good strips exist, everything is fine.”

    To me, it’s a smokescreen and distract technique:
    Like talking about the popularity of blogging and bringing up the lack of really, really good basket weavers (Ha! You see what I did there, I brought up an irrelevant, distracting point to the discussion at hand, to illustrate the point of um, irrelevant, distracting points… never mind.) Simply put, it’s apples and oranges!

    I don’t mean that there haven’t been the likes of Boondocks, Pearls, Lio, Get Fuzzy, etc. to shake up the CONTENT of the comics page, but the very nature of the “comics page” itself needs a kick in the pants. While I don’t agree with his tactics, this columnist’s article at least illustrated that.

    Regrouping every so often is an important element for any company to survive (case in point for unrelated media comparisons, Nintendo+GameCube= 🙁 ; Nintedo+Wii=$$$), yet, when was the last time the syndicate’s truly regrouped? Perhaps when they posted the aforementioned subscription packages on the ‘net, but beyond that, things are pretty much the same.

    And this isn’t about gloom, doom and dire predictions like I WANT to see the comics page fail, this is about fostering creativity and getting the comics out to as many people as possible, not just the select few who get the paper or have $50 to spare.

  29. I agree with Danny. I am not a cartoonist, but I enjoy what the rest of you put out. The reality is most of us have very few comics in our local newspapers. But I subscribe to 2 of the big 3 comic sites, and get about 130 comics daily. I tend to buy a lot of the compilations that are released. I would love to have compilations from Ink Pen, Retail, Cow and Boy, Todd the Dinosaur and any other number of currently unavailable comics. Surely there must be a way to inexpensively release some of these compilations. If not in print, then how about in e-book format? This could broaden the audience beyond just newspapers, and help some of the clever strips (like Franklin Fibbs) survive. Independent music labels have learned to use the internet to market themselves. Cartoonists need to do the same.

  30. Since you gave me an opening, Dave, I can’t help but mention that I do have a book coming out on October 16th. It’s a parody self-help book for retail employees called Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook. It is mostly a work of satirical writing, but it does contain 200 strips from the first year and a half of Retail

    Here’s the link:

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