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?