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Drawing outside the lines
March 15, 2012 - Bill Ackerbauer
"Comics should amuse and not abuse," according to one friend of mine who doesn't care for Doonesbury, the comic sidelined this week by many newspapers because of its controversial subject.
This remark touches on one of the major reasons Doonesbury takes so much flak. It's a given that the strip's left-leaning slant tends to offend about half the readers (perhaps two-thirds in our area, assuming donkeys and elephants have similar reading habits). But even some of Doonesbury's supporters, who identify with the comic's politics, nonetheless find the comic disquieting because it challenges long-held notions about the very purpose of the genre. A generation ago, the funny pages were strictly for laughs, and nobody thought it a form of "valuable literature" except perhaps some fringe-hipster R. Crumb fans (who were right, by the way — the man's a genius).
See, for example, the vintage strips I have posted in the "blog photos" box at right, along with today's Doonesbury. One of them is a March 1967 example of Ernie Bushmiller's comic Nancy, which was a staple of the L-H comics page for many years. The other is a March 1967 installment of Blondie, which then was still being inked by its founder, Chic Young. We still publish Blondie, which since 1973 has been written and drawn by his son Dean Young and a series of collaborators. (Embarassing side note: While researching this, I realized our comics page has long credited "Dean Young & Stan Drake," but it turns out Mr. Drake died back in 1997. Apparently nobody alerted The Leader-Herald about the change of personnel; the younger Drake's current partner in art is John Marshall.)
But back to the question at hand: What is a cartoon supposed to do? Old-timers such as Blondie, Haggar the Horrible and Frank & Ernest remain among the The Leader-Herald's most popular comic strips, which isn't surprising, considering our average reader is older and more culturally conservative (i.e., resistant to change) than the "average" American newspaper reader, who is of course in turn older than the average American. But our comics page also sports the more modern perspectives of strips such as Bizarro, Mother Goose & Grimm, Speed Bump, Non Sequitir and Dilbert. All of these are popular, mainstream offerings, though each will occasionally offer a glint of the edge that separates satire from mere amusement. And satire is a powerful vehicle for social commentary, as comic-critics from Jonathan Swift to John Stewart have shown.
As the sun sets on the age of the traditional broadsheet newspaper and new media formats abound, illustrators have other forums for their work, whether stick-figure slapstick or art with higher aspirations. Today we have excellent graphic novels (basically long, thoughtful, stylish comics) being borrowed at libraries and taught in schools (see "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, parts of which appear in some widely used college-composition anthologies.) I reject the notion that this trend constitutes a dumbing-down of writers and readers. It is progress — a synthesis of word-based and image-based art forms into a hybrid form that is no less thought-provoking, challenging and, potentially, enlightening.
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(CLICK TO ENLARGE) Here's a "Nancy" comic from March 1967. The humor is less-than edgy, even by late-60s standards, but I don't mind the cartoon's thesis: If I had a nickel for every person who's told me he or she "could be" or "could have been" a writer, I'd be richer than the average writer.