By Darryl Ayo
The last great American newspaper comic strip is Cul de Sac. No wait, it was Mutts, definitely. No, the political relevance of The Boondocks. Wait, actually Doonesbury is still going strong. So is Zippy for that matter. I’m so confused! Ack!
I will turn 30 years old on November 25th. In my lifetime, newspaper comics have been declared dead as Dillinger year after year. “The last great newspaper strip” is a backhanded title that has been bestowed on comics as far back as Calvin and Hobbes and continues to be applied to currently-ongoing comic strip Cul de Sac. The evidence is overwhelmingly concrete: newspaper comics continue to entertain Americans even right now in the year 2011. I will even dare to guess that the format may continue into 2012.
Upon my last visit to the Barnes & Noble bookstore across the street from my office of employment, I visited the “humor” section where one will find joke books, pop culture entertainments and dozens of volumes of newspaper strip collections. I made a few mental notes: Pearls Before Swine is very popular, having many volumes. For Better or For Worse is deemed significant enough to have a hard cover annotated collection. The Boondocks has an annotated collection but that is in softcover. Cul de Sac is racked with the covers face-out, encouraging me to believe that it is a strong seller. Cul de Sac does not run in New York City newspapers (unless I have overlooked one), which makes its popularity in the paperback edition (here in NY) either baffling or fitting, depending on my mood.
When comic enthusiasts look into the past and lament the lack of “great” comic strips today, they are looking at a past filtered by flattened perspective. Everything looks closer together when examining history. We think about Thimble Theatre, Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Pogo, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy and Little Nemo in Slumberland, ignoring just how many years and miles separated these works. They are flattened by a history largely derived from the classic reference book The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. This book is a historical overview, but for those of us who didn’t live through the times, the proximity of these comics in pages spurs the belief that they also shared a cultural proximity which, in fact, they often did not.
In short: there have always been terrific comic strips in the newspapers and there have always been lousy comics in the newspapers. Years later when future historians disregard the current lousy comic strips, our children will read a Smithsonian book that includes Richard Thompson’s work just a few page turns away from Walt Kelly’s. They too, will feel that they missed out on a golden age, not realistically thinking about just how far 1950 is from 2002.