Back in their golden age, the 1930s and 40s, the daily newspaper comic strip was an event. People couldn’t wait to read the latest exploits – both funny and adventurous – of their favorite characters. People talked about comic strips around the water cooler at work. A good strip was the equivalent of a viral video with lots of hits.
But over time, a lot of the classic, older strips, though still producing, lost their edge and maybe their relevance. But they’re still there, day after day. Sarge still pounds on Beetle Bailey. Dagwood still naps through chore time and crashes into the mailman. Garfield still eats lasgna and pushes Odie off the table.
Charles Schultz died in 2000 after fifty years drawing the legendary comic strip “Peanuts”. That was, it seems to me, the, perhaps unofficial, death of comic strips. Since then, everyone’s kind of been spinning their wheels.
There are some exceptions, at least in my opinion.
One of them is “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis. The strip features a rat, named Rat, who is arrogant and hostile, and his friend, the kind-hearted Pig, They hang around with Goat, the level-headed one, and Zebra, who is constantly feuding with the dim-witted crocodile next door who wants to eat him. The strip is a melange of light social commentary, witty repartee, and bad puns. It’s actually a tad out of place on today’s more staid comics page (my local paper doesn’t even run Doonesbury).
The other strip I really like is “Get Fuzzy” by Darby Conley.Everyman Rob Wilco has a kind-hearted, if dimwitted dog named Satchel (could be a brother to Pig in some sort of weird, illustrated, inter-species comic cross-breeding scenario) and a hostile, but also sort of dense, cat named Bucky. This strip is perhaps a little less nasty then Pearls can be and Conley tends to focus a little more on high-concept word play rather than bad puns. But I like it.
One Fuzzy strip in particular has stayed with me long after Dagwood’s exploits in domestic angst or Edison Lee’s brilliant mind has dimmed in my own. It was the January 9, 2010 strip. I’ll try to describe it here, but you can see it for yourself here.
In the first panel, Rob Wilco is sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. He glances up, mid-chew to see a slightly worried looking dog he doesn’t recognize sitting next to him.
Rob: Who are you?
The Dog: A deceptively tricky question. Subjectively, I am a consciousness traveling through what I perceive to be space and time.
The next two panels have Rob and the Dog just sort of staring at each other. Then the final panel:
Rob (pointing at his plate): Waffle?
The Dog: Yes. It is. That one was easier.
That strip just kills me. So much so that three years after it ran in my local paper, I went looking for it on the Internet. Why do I like it so much?
Well, for one, WAFFLES. Duh.
But I also like it for what it says. It’s reaching for something more than the typical daily four panel comic. Yeah, the real point is to just make the reader chuckle for a couple seconds before moving on to the obituaries, but I like that, with this strip, in that couple seconds, I’m also thinking about something bigger than what the Lockhorns are fighting about. I’m laughing at the biggest question of all: WHO THE HELL AM I? The dog doesn’t know. Neither do I. Not really. Who does?
I’m no philosopher. The only class I ever withdrew from in college was an entry level philosophy course because we spent the whole first week dissecting what it would be like if a chair had feelings. (Conclusion: it would suck to be a sentient chair. It took a week to get there.) But that strip…
I’ve read Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. I’m reading right now Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside which is edited by Courtland Lewis and Paula Smithka. So, I guess I like flirting with philosophical thought without the commitment to a philosophical ethos. Also, humor helps.
Chairs with feelings? Not funny.
Dogs with existential angst? Hilarious.
Whatever that says about me, sign me up for more.