When people sometimes call The New York Times an “elitist” publication—a common accusation I don’t necessarily agree with—I wonder if it has, just a little bit, to do with the fact that it doesn’t feature comics. Personally I’ve always felt that, despite the weekly NYT Magazine, Book Review, and its host of other admirable offerings, the Times was somehow incomplete because of that omission. On the other side of the political spectrum, The Washington Times eliminated its Sunday comics in 2009, and its daily comics section is in near-constant jeopardy. Comics have been part of American culture for a long time, but are the times (or the Times) changing? At the risk of being risqué, let’s line ‘em up and strip down comic strips.
I have a long history with comic strips—I enjoyed reading my sister’s paperback Peanuts collections at a young age, despite struggling to understand words like “sarcasm” “gauche” and “blighter,” while wondering what kind of animal a Sopwith Camel was, and what the heck it had to do with the Red Baron or World War I.
Later, I delivered two different local papers, which I compared and judged largely on the basis of their comics pages. I also discovered bound reprints of old comic strips, gifts from a relative employed at a bookstore, who illegally “rescued” coverless books that had been reported as destroyed to the publisher. If this seems to counter the generally placid, law-abiding nature of my genes, it might reassure you to know that I genuinely hesitated before revealing that sordid bit of family history.
Today, I take my comics pretty seriously. I once wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper voicing support for certain strips and condemning others. I regularly wrap birthday gifts, especially for kids, in Sunday newspaper comics sections. This practice sometimes draws praise as thrifty, quirky and environmentally friendly, but my primary motivation is simply to expose kids to comics, especially those who’ve never seen a newspaper comics page before.
So I’m not what you’d call a casual reader—I read every strip, even the ones I don’t particularly like. I was pleasantly surprised recently when I saw that a longtime staple of the comics page, Nancy, had been given a makeover by her new creator, Olivia Jaimes. Nancy has had many creators since 1938, when Ernie Bushmiller launched the strip; the most recent, Guy Gilchrist, trafficked in cheesy spiritual platitudes and country music references, to my dismay—though Nancy had never been a favorite of mine, it now bordered on downright awful. But Jaimes has revitalized Nancy by bringing her into the modern day—smartphones, social media, and all—with some piercingly funny observations.
Though no one could ever truly replace Charles Schulz, it would be interesting to see the Peanuts gang get a similar update: Charlie Brown (or Snoopy) navigating social media; Lucy accused of being a bully; Linus running smack into the wall separating church and state. Cartoon TV specials might include “You’re Addicted to Screens, Charlie Brown,” “A Charlie Brown Inclusive Winter Holiday Celebration,” and perhaps—featuring grown-up versions of the characters—“I Don’t Like Who You Voted For, Charlie Brown.”
Technology, though extremely disruptive to the traditional newspaper business model, hasn’t been entirely bad for comic strips. Through webcomics, the internet allows creators to find their audience more easily; there are tons of online comics that are very well done but court a niche audience, which in the past had been a recipe for poverty and obscurity. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and xkcd are two of my favorites, and lean toward sciencey humor, but there are webcomics to suit every taste, often collected in print versions as a concession to traditionalists who still enjoy the feel of paper, or masochists who enjoy the feel of paper cuts.
Newspapers aren’t needed to view regular syndicated comic strips anymore, either: gocomics.com, among other sites, allows you to create your own comics page, populated with your favorites from any era.
My current tastes lean toward wordier strips like Get Fuzzy and Monty, but away from preachy pontifications like Mutts and Mallard Fillmore, or strips that exhausted their potential a long time ago, like Marmaduke. Garfield is a bit long in the tooth, but Garfield Minus Garfield, a surreal webcomic homage in which the cat is erased from complete strips “in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle,” is right up my alley.
My all-time favorite comic strip? Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and the aforementioned Peanuts are undeniable classics that deserve consideration, but Krazy Kat by George Herriman is in a class by itself. Set mostly in a spartan, surreal desert landscape, the basic plot is easy to explain: Officer Pupp, a dog policeman, loves Krazy. Krazy, however, only has eyes for Ignatz, a mouse. Meanwhile, Ignatz constantly throws bricks at Krazy, which Krazy interprets as a sign of love, and which usually lands Ignatz in jail, courtesy of Officer Pupp. It’s a triangle that inspired over 30 years of strips whose art, and artful wordplay, are without peer.
The Hamilton Post doesn’t contain any comics, a condition that would have disqualified it from reading by the 10-year-old me. But it’s a situation I’ve remedied this month, as you can see. Don’t let my meager attempt at cartooning put you off—find a couple of comic strips (at least) that you enjoy, whether online or in print, and give yourself the gift of the funnies.