Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ten Comic Strips Worth Reading

Just when you think I'm going to zig, I zag. . .

The American comic strip was in rather a sorry state just five years ago. Calvin and Hobbes had ended, as had The Far Side. Bloom County was but a distant memory. And Peanuts had wrapped up with Charles Schulz dying.

About the best things the comics page had going for it were Zits and Fox Trot, both of which were starting to show their age (and, to be honest, Zits is not "about" being a teenager -- it's about being the parent of a teenager).

Enter the Internet.

The Internet made it easier for all of us to follow our favorite strips. It gave those who couldn't break into the syndicated game a place to display their stuff. It offered up places that offered oft-hilarious commentary on the daily comic strip. The world that Bill Watterson worried about shortly before the end of Calvin and Hobbes -- a world where no one could study the history of the great comics -- has largely been thwarted by the Internet, which proved that there WAS an audience out there for book collections of the complete runs of Peanuts and Dennis the Menace. Indeed, classic strips like Pogo and Lil' Abner are running out there right now if you want to find them.

But, let's be fair, most of the comics out there are crap, grandfathered in by generations of people who read them out of habit. When's the last time you laughed out loud at Beetle Bailey or clipped out The Family Circus to hang it on your refrigerator (especially with just how smug those kids have gotten lately)? Of course you haven't done either of these things.

But there are strips out there that are still quality. I'm going to highlight some of them. Many of them are very popular. Some are hardly known. One is just under three weeks old.

But all of them are syndicated. If you have suggestions for web comics I should be checking out, please send them to me for a future column.

1.) Get Fuzzy (read it here). Get Fuzzy is maybe the loopiest strip on the comics page in a long while. What I love about it is how distinct all of the characters' voices are and how long author Darby Conley will let storylines go on (sometimes picking them up months later). I also love that the strip isn't afraid to do things that are patently not funny, such as having Rob's cousin come home from Iraq minus one leg. It's a bold, well-written strip. And it rarely (if ever) conforms to the simple gag setup so many other strips follow.

2.) Pearls Before Swine (read it here). This is probably the antithesis of Get Fuzzy. It has very few long, ongoing storylines (and, quite frankly, the few it does have are not its strong suit). But it does simple, twisted gags better than any strip since maybe The Far Side. It twists comics conventions inside and out until they bend and break. And has a lovely time doing so. Check out this one to see what I mean.

3.) Frazz (read it here). I'll admit that I don't like this one QUITE as much as some out there. It occasionally seems a little too sweet by half for my tastes, and I wonder how the janitor hasn't been accused of any sort of malfeasance with the kids (the perils of our modern age, I guess). Plus, the fact that he's a rock star is sort of silly. But this strip has a big heart, and it's got nicely written gags. It's a nice respite from some of the freneticism of the other strips out there.

4.) Spot the Frog (read it here). I don't know what it is about this one. Its gags are not particularly inventive. Its characters are pretty stock "types." But there's something about its sweetness of spirit that gets to me. I don't think it can last forever (sweetness is a hard thing to do day after day without becoming cloying), but it's a nice relaxing read right now.

5.) The Boondocks (read it here). The mark of good satire, an editorial page editor boss of mine once said, is that it expresses a singular enough view to piss everyone off once in a while. Of the political strips out there, only The Boondocks regularly incites anger in most everyone I know. Aaron McGruder is not happy with the direction of things in the U.S., and he's not afraid to say why. It doesn't hurt that he's scabrously funny. This is what Doonesbury hasn't been for decades, what Prickly City aspires to be and what Mallard Fillmore never was.

6.) Big Top (read it here). I'm not sure what to make of this one. I think I enjoy it though. It's a relatively young strip, so it's still getting things together, but it's got a lot of potential, I think. And the circus is a boffo setting for a comic strip.

7.) Candorville (read it here). More left-leaning satire, though a bit more gentle-spirited than The Boondocks. This isn't as consistent as that strip either, but it has a large, sprawling cast and an interesting setting. Again, it's a marked improvement on that tired old warhorse Doonesbury. More newspapers should drop that one and pick up this if they want left-leaning humor but don't want the angry calls The Boondocks would get them. (I honestly don't know of a single good right-leaning conservative strip. Sorry.)

8.) Agnes (read it here). This is an odd, verbose little strip that has never gotten the attention it deserves. It's older than many of the choices on this list, and it really deserves your eyeballs every once in a while. Little girl strips have never been done so well.

9.) Perry Bible Fellowship (read it here). This one makes it into some alt weeklys, so I guess it counts. It's easily the weirdest strip out there right now, and it's bound to offend some of my more gentle readers (what with the creators obsession with rabbit sex and the occasional lowbrow gag). But when one of these strips hits, there's nothing like it.

10.) Cow and Boy (read it here). This is the strip I was talking about with the "under three weeks" thing. I love this one out of the gate, and that hasn't happened in a while. It seems like another Calvin and Hobbes ripoff, but there's more at work here. Cow is a much more nurturing presence than Hobbes ever was, and Boy seems to be a little more down-to-earth than Calvin. I also love the wild setting. This feels like something that could be huge, and here you can get in on the ground floor. Check out the strip I posted above. I LOVE that Cow uses the word "fortuitous." It feels completely perfect. And check out the one from last Sunday about reincarnation too.

Of course, there are many worthy older strips too. I still like For Better or For Worse despite everything. And there are plenty of worthy younger strips I don't keep up with. I know many love Bo Nanas and Red and Rover. And 9 Chickweed Lane. And Dog and Doug. And. . .

You get the picture.

1 comment:

Moses said...

I just went through all those Cow and Boy strips. That is indeed some great stuff.