Monday, September 10, 2007

"Better" and "worse" are relative concepts

Ed of The Dizzies nudged me in the direction of this article in USA Today about the comic strip For Better or For Worse and creator Lynn Johnston's plans for its future. (I mentioned my lingering fascination with newspaper comics a while back.)

This news has been a topic of discussion over at The Comics Curmudgeon for months, and I've been staying out of it, because I am a little frightened by how seriously people -- whether devoted fans or avowed critics -- tend to take For Better or For Worse. Growing up, I always found the strip mildly amusing, often snarkable, and just about worth the 15 seconds it took to read it over my cereal in the morning. But I lost track of it in college, until I happened to visit the strip's website, which is how I became aware of Johnstonmania. If the evidence is to be believed, there are people out there who are really, really crazy about this strip. And I mean crazy. As I read the monthly "letters" from the characters (seriously: here's the latest from Elizabeth, and this is from the family pets), and then the responses to those letters from readers, I wondered, Have all these evidently real people lost sight of the fact that the Pattersons are not real people? I've always wondered about the people who write letters to, for example, People magazine, saying things like, "Thanks for writing about Jennifer Aniston! She deserves real happiness, and I hope she finds it!" Are those real letters? Who has that kind of time to waste? But writing to fictional characters seems like an even bigger waste of time and energy. Like, don't you have real-life relatives and friends who might enjoy hearing from you, and in whose lives you might take an interest?

So, fearing I might catch the madness, I try to stay away from FBOFW-related debate. But I did want to react to this article, because it's such a great illustration of the infuriating death-is-not-an-option editorial approach to newspaper comics pages, which keeps them bland and unsatisfing and oh-so-very dispensable. Here's the gist of the plan, as detailed in the article I linked to:
Instead of aging, the characters will spend much of their time recalling earlier adventures. In what Johnston calls a "hybrid" format, she is reintroducing the cartoons that started it all while wrapping up the few dangling plot twists. ...That way, the Toronto-based artist, whose strip appears daily in more than 2,000 newspapers in North America, can cut back on her workload by having less to draw.

"Its [sic] a whole new experiment," says Johnston, 60, who has a central hand tremor that makes drawing twice as time-consuming as in earlier years. When she suggested retiring to her editors at Universal Press Syndicate, "they felt the strip would do well if it started again, if it ran in reruns again like Peanuts. And I thought, 'Well, I'm still on the planet. I would still like to keep my hand in it, and I would prefer to keep working on it if there was a way to do that.' "
So, Johnston has reached retirement age and is finding it difficult to keep up with the workload. Very understandable. But only in the world of comic-strip syndicates would the options be: (a) Run the strip entirely in reruns, or (b) Run the strip in repackaged reruns, so that it's kind of still alive. Option (c): Retire the strip entirely -- which seems like the most dignified and sensible of routes -- is, apparently, out of the question.

The folks over at The Comics Curmudgeon talk about "zombie strips," like Blondie and Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey and, oh, pretty much everything you've heard of. The creators are, in many cases, long dead, and the strips themselves have ceased showing signs of life, but they stagger on. You probably didn't even know that Johnny Hart, creator of B.C., died this year. If you did hear the news, perhaps you thought, "Thank God B.C., with its weird 'jokes' about cavemen golfing, its uncomfortable proselytizing and its crankily retrogressive worldview, is over at last." But you would have been a fool to think that a long-running, long-neglected strip would die just because its creator was no longer with us. Where there is money to be made, and where there are photocopiers to be used, there is always a way. The "new" B.C. strips are even more carelessly thrown together than the premortem ones, as Josh has pointed out. But we're stuck with it. And hey, next to this, zombified FBOFW will probably look pretty good.

Just this morning I got a good laugh out of one of Josh's "Comment of the Week" runners-up, from user SmartPeopleOnIce: “Apparently For Better Or For Worse isn’t just the name of the strip, it’s also some sort of contract rider.” But at the end of the article I referenced above, you can read this:
The cartoonist says she hopes people enjoy the hybrid format, but if not, she'll move on. ..."It's not just the readers that write to you, it's the editors who say, 'You know, this can be replaced.' If I'm not doing something that's competitive and worthy, then I don't deserve that piece of real estate."
Is this true? Do editors of comics pages ever threaten to replace comics when they start to stink? Because I admire Johnston's sense of obligation to create something "competitive and worthy," but based on the evidence -- like the fact that someone still gets paid to produce Marmaduke -- I don't think she has anything to worry about.

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

Andy Capp, The Lockhorns, Love Is--the list of the strips whose continued existence defies any logical explanation is nearly endless. It's a bizarre phenomenon, one that surely isn't supported by reader feedback, right? I mean, do people _really_ respond to polls that yes, they like it when Andy Capp's punches him in his big drunken nose?