“Cathy” is dunzo. The clumsily drawn comic strip that celebrated semi-hapless, semi-feisty single-womanhood (and, more recently, married-womanhood) is, after 34 years of chocolate jokes and man troubles, being retired. Creator Cathy Guisewite is citing creative exhaustion, and I for one think she’s completely correct.
But enough about her. What struck me, as I read about this, was that I can’t imagine caring about the comics page anymore. As recently as the eighties, newspaper comics were still somewhat vital, for adults as well as children. A few strips were genuinely narrative, like those of Berkeley Breathed; others were wildly inventive, like “The Far Side.” Take a look back at “Calvin & Hobbes,” in the comprehensive collection published a few years back, and you will be struck by how good it is. Plus, of course, “Doonesbury,” which continues to operate in its own well-tuned universe.
We in the media tend to forget that the comics page is still a going concern, because our two chief newspapers are The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, neither of which runs comic strips. So it’s a mild shock to take a look at one of the papers that’s still in the game. The remaining strips, setting aside “Doonesbury,” are beyond insipid. The jokes are hoary old things. And, most of all, the panels have been cut down and down and down, to barely above postage-stamp size. Even if a cartoonist wants to say something smart, he has room for only about twenty words. Thus the form today favors broad-stroke visuals, with few lines and less text, and so you get “Rhymes With Orange,” a thin Gary Larson knockoff without the genuine pleasurable oddness that characterized “The Far Side.” Oh, and there is “Mallard Fillmore,” which dispenses Glenn Beckery via a talking duck. (As Groucho and Chico would say, why a duck?)
No kid will find any of this funny, or fun, and that’s not good. Comic strips had one vital function that’s easily forgotten: drawing kids to the daily newspaper habit. “Peanuts,” which loomed large in my childhood, was enough to get me to open our mediocre local paper just about every day. (Mediocre for back then, anyhow; by today’s standards, it was stone-cold serious.) Anything good and smart that would’ve once gone onto that page is now being poured into graphic novels, websites, and, to a lesser extent, the slowly fading world of the alt-weeklies. I can’t exactly blame bad comic strips for the decline of the daily press, but I’ll say this: Somehow I can’t imagine Mike Bloomberg taking to the radio to read us the comics, the way Fiorello LaGuardia legendarily did during a newspaper strike. I wish it weren’t so, but that world is completely dead and buried. Ack indeed.