Funny how the comics get under our skin

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

Will Mr. Pi ever get home? We'll never know and I, for one, am relieved. He was cute and it was fun watching him try to get a grip on Monty's household, but, honestly, I don't believe that he was ever going home. Something painfully and incomprehensibly silly would come up at the last moment. That's why he was on the comics page.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

Now, as we are getting to know some new comics in our local paper, is a good time to reflect on what makes a good comic strip. Let's review some of our old favorites and share what we get from them. I'll start with Peanuts because it's older than most of us and, frankly, better drawn. Not much happens each session and nothing new has happened in a very long time. But, like our '60s cassettes, we don't toss it out. We relive the first time we watched Lucy hold the football and would be upset if the next panel weren't full of flying socks and shoes. We read the greatest hits over and over because we like them, just like singing along with "Unchained Melody." I've probably gotten more ink on my hands over the years from Peanuts than any other part of a newspaper.

We accept and love Peanuts as a classic, but what is the deal with Cathy? She's been struggling with the same issues for years, issues I can't get behind. She has shopping, workload, dieting and parental problems that never get resolved. She claims she doesn't enjoy them ("Aak!"), yet never puts them behind her. She acknowledges current electronic devices and office fads (or we would assume the same 10 strips are looping), but does not develop personally. Compare that to Sylvia's situation. Then report back to me because I don't get much of what comes out of the typewriter perched on the edge of the bathtub.

I have been reading Alley Oop since I learned to read. I wonder why, too. When I can read it daily, I get frustrated with the snail's pace of the story, but am grateful when I'm away for a few days and can easily catch up. The prize for glacial story pace goes to Prince Valiant, of course. Sure, we've watched the children grow up in real time, but even a faithful reader can skip weeks and not really miss much.

We've watched other children grow up in the comics, as in For Better or For Worse and Doonesbury. Sadly, far more, like the Peanuts children, don't grow up. Dennis, Marvin, the Family Circus family and even Nate are never going to learn to drive a car. I wonder about that. Why would a cartoonist keep a child the same age? Hobbes helped Calvin reach far beyond his years, but Marvin's world ends at the edge of the sandbox.

There are two strips in our local paper that have puzzled me for years. One is Beetle Bailey, the other is Garfield. I read them both, always hoping for something new to happen. All the characters stay firmly in character, which is admirable, but I'd like to see a line-up of Beetle Bailey fans. Discreetly, behind a one-way glass. I know who the Garfield fans are because of the little suction cup plush toys sprawled on their car rear windows and computer monitors.

Another mystery for some folks is that there are comics in the paper that are not on the comics page. You'll find Doonesbury on the opinion page and Dilbert with the financial news. They aren't exiled to the far-flung sections because they aren't funny. In fact, many people put them at the top of their list of favorites. No, those two serials hold places of honor in the regular grind of the newspaper because they carry the flag for their subject matter. Actually, Doonesbury was thrown off the comics page many years ago for certain portrayals that certain people felt were unseemly on a family page, but has been an icon of political pique through several administrations. And Dilbert, well, Dilbert is the most stable fixture in our economy. In the Bleachers is a sport-based one-frame comic appropriately in the sports section. I believe it's there for all the people who don't appreciate the sports news, yet want to learn about sports. Just like the others do for their sections.

So you see, the cartoonists who dwell in subject matter that has a section in a daily newspaper find a comfortable home in those sections. If we devoted a wing of the paper to a slice of family life involving perennial toddlers, Marvin and the Family Circus would be there. If we had a section for whacko multi-worldly species domestic situations, Monty would have been there with Mr. Pi. Please don't suggest that our remodeled Empire create one.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.



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