Two thoughtful blog posts about the late Mort Walker coincide with King Features’ decision to finally shut down a pair of moribund old strips, Henry and Hazel, as reported elsewhere at DailyCartoonist.
Calvin has a point about the brutal mistreatment of comic strips by newspapers, though, as I’ve said before, if you’re reading this on a phone, you are estopped from complaining about the shrinkage of strips in newspapers.
However, there’s another, more central issue in comics and it has to do with a dual identity in which they dwell.
When Walker died in January, I re-posted an interview with him, as well as a very large number of Beetle Bailey strips from throughout his long career, and I’d recommend going back to read that. But I’ll save you a bit of clicking by excerpting this:
There’s a lot more to say about Mort Walker — not just his other strips but his other major contributions to the industry, but that’s a book. And I’m sure someone will write it and it will be worth having.
Now Jason Whiton has written that book and, while I haven’t seen it and can’t comment on it one way or t’other, Brian Fies has been following its production and his blog entry is very much worth a click and a read.
In fact, if you read my piece on Walker, and Brian’s, and then Jason Whiton’s own reflections on the man, the comic and the book, you’ll have quite enough to do, and I’m going to give you some other links as well.
Hey, it’s Saturday. Put on another pot of coffee.
The critical point is that Fies and Whiton both note the difference between old-style commercial comic strips — of which Beetle is one, as are any number of Old Guard standards like Blondie and Hagar and Garfield — and the auteur style, exemplified by Peanuts and including Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side, but also more modern titles like Pearls Before Swine and Cul de Sac.
One reason the Old Guard comic strips hang around more or less forever is that they are not unlike TV sitcoms, in that they are somewhat committee designed and factory produced, such that, even before the original artist retires or dies, he may have handed off the work to ghost writers and uncredited artists.
Who knows who wrote the scripts for the last two seasons of “Friends”? The nerds, not the viewers.
Ditto with any number of ancient Old Guard comic strips. There is a recipe that any competent cook can follow.
A major difference, however, is that the actual popularity of a TV sitcom can be specifically traced by ratings, so that, when a long-standing sitcom jumps the shark, however a critic might note that it is no longer funny, it’s the audience response that determines whether it is renewed or canceled.
Nobody traces the specific popularity of a particular comic strip. Albany Times-Union editor Rex Smith is hardly the first to observe that they get angry letters when they mess with the lineup, but he’s also not the first to refer to a “survey” when what the paper has attempted is nothing approaching an actual survey.
Nor, as Bill Hinds has pointed out, is it anything they’d apply elsewhere in the paper.
But here’s something else for you to click on and read, because, in 2003, I redesigned the comics page of the paper where I worked, including replacing five of 22 strips, and got about half a dozen fairly mild complaints. I also added substantial savings to our cost.
The process was written up in Editor and Publisher, and one — one — other paper contacted me for advice.
Beyond that, they continue to let themselves be bullied and mislead by their own phony “surveys” and by the small number of retired people who have time to sit down and write letters of complaint.
The bottom line is this: There are auteur comic strips with a distinctive voice and there are commercial strips that follow a formula, and a good comics page should have a mix of both.
A good newspaper, after all, serves a geographic area, not a demographic group, and there are people who get a laugh out of watching the ladies committee barge in on Dagwood’s bath yet again because it’s a familiar gag, like Henny Youngman complaining about his wife.
There’s also an audience looking for fresh wit and new approaches. You need to cater to your entire audience, not just one segment.
But here’s where the limited real estate in newspapers becomes an issue: Audiences don’t buy comic strips. Editors do.
This is where the difficulty of tracking the popularity of a strip with readers collides with the fact that today’s editors are literal people who know the rules of how a page should look and the rules of how words are spelled and which ones should be capitalized.
The vast majority of editors, then, are as clueless as Alice Otterloop as to how a comic strip works and how to read and appreciate it. (Which is also, BTW, why they grab up maudlin “Pearly Gates” obituary cartoons for their editorial page rather than incisive critiques of complex topics.)
So what’s the takeaway?
The takeaway is that the old pioneers like Mort Walker and Ernie Bushmiller and Johnny Hart may not have produced strips that put you on the floor or plowed new ground or lifted the art form to heights it had never known.
But they knew how to create a strip that would sell, which is to say, a strip that works, that follows the rules, that succeeds, and, if you want to understand the medium, you need to understand them.
Study their pacing, their set ups, their punch lines, the way they block a scene.
You don’t have to do what they did, but you have to know what they did. There are rules you definitely want to break and rules you probably shouldn’t and you have to know which is which.
After that, hey, it’s easy!