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Why laughing matters
June 19, 2009 - Bill Ackerbauer
As the guy who puts together The Leader's daily comics page, I have developed strong opinions about the strips we publish. It's been a year since we ditched the bridge column and added Bizarro and Speed Bump to our funny page, which was a good move because there's nothing funny about the Howell Movement (other than the fact that it sounds like something that happens after you eat prunes). Lately, I've been thinking it might be time for another update to the comics.
My favorites — Dilbert, Bizarro, Speed Bump and Doonesbury — rarely go for cheap laughs and frequently show evidence of significant cerebral activity (creative, satirical, intellectual activity) flickering behind the humor.
I'm indifferent about Frank & Ernest, Hagar the Horrible and Wizard of Id — they occasionally make me chuckle, but more often than not I find the punchlines trite. Mutts and Rose is Rose are not my cup of tea — too cutesy and sentimental for my taste – but I think they fill an important niche on the page, bringing original ideas and a welcome sense of warmth.
Everybody has a soft spot for Peanuts, but Charles Schulz has been dead for nine years, and I think it's time we let Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang rest in peace with their creator.
The strips that we run which I like the least are Garfield, the Born Loser, Blondie and Beetle Bailey. The last, created by near-nonagenarian Mort Walker, seems terribly outdated. The Beetle Bailey strip in Thursday's paper (see image above at right) really rubbed me the wrong way. It seems inappropriate to joke about "seeing the world" and "blowing stuff up" considering our flesh-and-blood soldiers are fighting two bloody wars, and our leaders are (hopefully) trying to prevent two new ones. The Beetle Bailey image of soldiers as clumsy slackers better at peeling potatoes than fighting is outdated, perhaps even offensive. Beetle's clownish military life provides a distraction from the reality of war without offering any serious commentary on it.
Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury has a much more sensitive and substantive take on the military and war. Whereas Beetle Bailey is a worn-out stereotype, Trudeau's character Toggle — a young, disabled Iraq veteran — is realistic enough that his exploits give me something to think about. When Toggle makes me laugh, the laughter comes from some place deep down where mirth and misery cohabitate.
In "On Writing Well," William Zinsser said "one Doonsbury comic is worth a thousand words of moralizing." On the same page, Zinsser makes an important observation: "The heightening of some crazy truth — to the level where it will be seen as crazy — is the essence of what serious humorists are trying to do."
Perhaps laughter truly is the best medicine only when it is cathartic — when it goes beyond merely distracting from the painful realities of life and engages them, providing an outlet for the release of tension, pain and fear.
Should the comics page try to provide anything more than light entertainment? Do readers deserve a refreshing trifle after slogging through the heavy, depressing news and politics at the front of the paper? What do you think?
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