Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Best Comic Strip Of All Time

Shockingly, one critic picks "For Better Or Worse," which has barely caught my eye over the years and never seemed more than not-awful. (Which is more than most comic strips accomplish.) I actually love comic strips: they're truly a bottom of the barrel, no respect art form. (Try going into a comic book store and see how even they treat comic strips with disdain. You'll find a few collections in a musty corner but everyone will look at you with pity or laughter for caring.) I can't speak to some of the legendary strips because I haven't been able to sample them properly. "Gasoline Alley" (which made waves by having its characters age in real time) is just starting to come out. "Pogo," "Lil Abner," "Terry and the Pirates" and "Dick Tracy" are either not available at all or only in flimsy cheapo paperback editions that don't properly present them from start to finish. Of the ones I can speak to, here are my favorites:

1. Doonesbury -- not only the best comic strip of all time, I believe it's one of the most remarkable works of art in any medium. Nothing --I mean nothing -- has captured the last forty years of our history in quite the same breadth and manner as "Doonesbury." It has a cast of characters that would make Dickens proud, political satire that would make Twain smile, a continuing storyline a la the best primetime soaps, a social history akin to Balzac, pointed pop culture commentary worthy of any critic. And it's funny. Very funny. It's a remarkably unique accomplishment. If you want to know what life was like in the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and now, what better place to start? Surprisingly, even most comic strip fans either disdain "Doonesbury" or simply don't pay it much attention. I have no idea why.

2. Krazy Kat -- a spare haiku of a strip, with a cat in love with a mouse, a dog in love with a cat and a mouse that loves to bean the cat with a brick. That's about it, but the love of wordplay and the endless permutations this setup inspires is just delightful. Throw in the marvelous sense of space in the strips and you have an oddball classic that needs to be read aloud and sunk into before you can appreciate its particular take on the world. Like Monty Python, once you're on its wavelength, you'll surrender completely.

3. Peanuts -- like the TV shows "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family," this definitely loses points for repeating itself, sinking into sentimentality and going on and on long after Charles Schulz had run out of things to say. But in its heyday, it was a wonderfully dour, insightful and witty look at our foibles. Fell apart once Snoopy began to think and talk, of course.

4. The Far Side -- truly one of the most original voices we'll ever see. Gary Larson's endless (and bad) imitators are proof of how striking his accomplishment was and how difficult for anyone else to replicate or even take inspiration from.

5. Calvin & Hobbes -- gentle, whimsical, funny, sweet and God bless him for calling it a day after about a decade. Walking away when you're done artistically is just about the hardest thing to do in any entertainment genre -- few people try and most fail. Usually, at best a show is cut off in the midst of greatness by falling ratings, etc. Bill Watterson did it all on his own and that's what keeps this series so special. Too bad the boxed set is cheaply done, but what are you gonna do?


Anonymous said...

Great topic! I read the comics every week, and every week I complain about how AWFUL 90% of them are.

My personal favorites:
1. Calvin & Hobbes
2. The Far Side
3. Dilbert
4. Peanuts
5. The Lockhorns
6. Garfield

Anonymous said...

Cool post- I read about 50 strips every day (yeah, I'm addicted). I think the reason so many people like "For Better Or For Worse" is that it feels like real life. The artist has aged the family in real time- you can pick up used copies of books from the 70s where the oldest child (who is married with 2 kids now) and middle (who is in her mid 20s) were little kids- and of course, the youngest wasn't even born yet.

FWIW, my 5 "must-reads" are Doonesbury, Pearls Before Swine, Over The Hedge, B.C. (which, trivia buffs, is heavily based on
Broome County, NY- where creator Johnny Hart grew up- he often satirizes events and people from this area), Blondie, and Opus (which, of course, is a Sunday-only strip).

Michael in New York said...

Dilbert is definitely note-worthy. But unlike Far Side, it's humor seems a little more narrow and of course there is no emotional heft to it. I've also been surprised at how The Lockhorns can still come up with some hilarious bits, given the fact that it's just about afeuding married couple. (I was always amazed a story about a cheating husband coming home drunk was quietly sitting there in the comic section.) Bloom County is a very good strip -- I'd have to rank it above Opus and Berke Breathed had the good taste to call it a day (or at least put it on hiatus and then change the name).I'm sure you're right Kevin about FBOFW's appeal -- but Gasoline Alley got there first. (The current incarnation should be ignored of course.) I'll have to look at Pearls Beofre Swine. But I forgot my favorite current strip: I love to read Family Circus to marvel anew at the insipidness of it.

Ed Sikov said...

Opus rocks.

Antonio said...

The early Garfield were to me the best comic strips ever. I also loved bloom county, the far side,peanuts, calvin and Hobbs.
My favorite current strips are:
Pears Before Swine, Baldo, Heart Of The City,Foxtrot,Mutts and get fuzzy.

Great topic, by the way.