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Call Me Mr. Helpful January 10, 2013

Posted by Jim Berkin in Art, General, Writing.
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The other day the Los Angeles Daily News asked for reader suggestions as to how they might retool their comics & puzzle pages in the coming year. So, I wrote them the following email, from which I’ve yet to get any sort of response:

You asked for it, you got it! With today’s football games getting boring, I’ll go ahead and give you my thoughts on your “streamlining” the comics pages for 2013.

For me, the strips that are mostly funny are Pearls Before Swine, and the collection of single-panel jobs which all seem to follow in the wake of the old Far Side weirdness, like F Minus, Brevity, Off The Mark, Rubes, Bizarro and Argyle Sweater. As long as any of those guys are batting .300 with good jokes, there’ll be something worth a laugh each day. Keep ‘em all.

I also make a point of reading specific comics in your paper for different reasons. For example, I’m fascinated by Funky Winkerbean. What started out decades ago as a silly comic centered around dorky high schoolers with jokes based largely on puns and high school marching band clichés has devolved into a maudlin soap opera complete with limbs lost in drunken car accidents, cancer deaths, frustrating career disappointments, parents with alzheimers, and the main character’s constant battles with alcoholism and his abject failure as a father. I’m hoping that Tom Batiuk continues to get more and more depressing and the strip will finally reach its inevitableRequiem For A Dream-type pinnacle in terms of the ways he’s been torturing his characters. In any case, I read that strip every single day, and every day I keep shaking my head. Whatever you do, keep running it. It’s not easy to be amazed, after all.

I also like following the soap-opera like plotlines of Luann, although this strip’s steps into more “serious” themes are at least tempered by its better developed and mostly likable characters. Greg Evans also has a good ear for dialogue and can be smile-inducing. But who knows? Maybe as he continually ages his characters like Batiuk, he’ll go nuts too. Well, here’s hoping.

Then there are the politically-edged Doonesbury wanna-bes, like Rudy Park, Baldo and Mallard Fillmore. All these guys usually allow their polemic to trump telling a joke, although Baldo and Mallard are at least drawn pretty well.  Get Fuzzy sometimes crosses the line into this territory, although it’s usually content to try to maintain tone and avoid punch lines. But there’s only so much I can take of a ‘toon breaking the 4th wall to speechify on issues of the day. Much the way Norman Lear’s “in your face issues” nearly ruined the American sitcom for twenty years until silliness was rediscovered, Trudeau with Doonesbury opened the floodgates for the “message comic.” His strip hasn’t been worthwhile since Nixon was in the White House, and the only blatant imitator to come along with anything worth looking at was probably Berke Breathed and Bloom County, before continually growing PC drove that one into the ground as well. But it all reminds me of how what used to be taken for granted on TV for mindless laughs turned into a Maude-gets-an-abortion or Edith-Bunker-gets-raped episode and how the same preachy virus spread to the comics pages.

Wait – it occurs to me that by my logic, reading Baldo is like watching Bea Arthur get an abortion every day.

This totally changes my mind – by all means, keep running these strips too.

What’s left? To be honest, a lot of stuff I don’t really care one way or the other about. While Tina’s Groove might be heir apparent toCathy, it’s drawn better (granted, stick figures drawn by sleepwalkers would be drawn better than Cathy) and the main character doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been chained to your seat like Alex in Clockwork Orange and forced to watch Lifetime all day. Both of the comics about old folks, Pickles and One Big Happy can sometimes be cute, and they’re slightly less predictable than Garfield, although let’s face it – even the Mayans could have predicted the gag in any given Garfield strip.

Oh, and please –  continue to run Ziggy – I’ve been following that one for damn near forty years, and I wouldn’t want to miss the strip when he finally commits suicide.

It only took one man to write all of Charles Dickens’ books. It only took one man to write all of Shakespeare’s plays. But it takes THREE men to write Beetle Bailey. Unemployment is high enough – you need to keep running this one.

Beetle, Marmaduke, Hagar the Horrible… the comfort food of the comics pages. Anything that’s been around long enough so that the son takes over from the original artist dad ought to be kept since otherwise you’d be putting an entire family out in the street. Which brings me to The Family Circus – I don’t really read this one as a comic, but instead as a way of creating my own additional puzzle for the features section – all you do is look at each day’s Family Circus and then rewrite your own caption for it, changing the strip from a G-rated aren’t-those-darned-kids-cute strip to something else- maybe Charles Addams, maybe David Lynch’s nightmares, maybe even Russ Meyer.  The challenge level varies from day to day, and I’d hate for you to drop this strip and deprive me of this intellectual exercise.

Which brings me to the puzzles.

First off, I think the top reason I still subscribe to the Daily News is to get the NY Times crossword, so whatever you do, please keep running the syndy version of that. I beg you, dear GOD, do NOT replace it with some dumbed-down puzzle barely a step in difficulty above the one in TV Guide or The National Enquirer.  When I see dwindling SAT scores and the very existence of stuff like “Dish Nation” or “Judge Judy” or this past election cycle and once more weep that our nation grows ever more irredeemably stupid with each passing day, I delight in the illusion brought about by the NYT crossword that there’s still hope. And keep the sudoku as well, thanks!

Does anyone syndicate acrostics? Like a lot of other things, those were impossible when I was a kid but I can do them now.  (I’d rathernot describe those other things here, but I’m pretty sure they are not syndicated by King Features or whomever.) Anyhoo, a reasonably literate acrostic might make a nice feature for the Sunday puzzle page. Especially when football gets boring, like today… which brings me full circle. Thanks for reading, and once again… by all means, keep that NYT crossword.

It’ll be interesting to see what they actually wind up doing – and I meant it when I said I’d probably let my subscription run out if they dropped the NYT crossword. They have a decent sports section & cover some local issues decently, but nearly everything in the paper (even the coupons nowadays) can be found online.

Whether or not I’m insulted by not getting any sort of answer to my elegant snark…. well, that remains to be seen. You’d think anyone with taste would have read my email, immediately checked out this blog, ordered my novel & declared me wonderful enough to offer a regular column to.

Excuse me, knock at the door… well, look at that! Kate Upton just dropped by to have sex with me, and she brought a suitcase filled with several million dollars. I think I’d better sign off.

I hope she doesn’t scare the cat or she’s outta here.

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