Wednesday, February 23, 2011

They don't give Pulitzers to comic strips anymore

The last time a comic strip won a Pulitzer Prize for cartooning was 1987.

To be clear, an editorial cartoonist still takes home a Pulitzer every year, but what I'm talking about is the author and/or artist of an actual comic strip, something that resembles multi-panel, episodic story-telling. To date, I'm fairly certain only two such strips have been honored with the award, Doonesbury broke the ground that was later tended by Bloom County.

When I hear people talking about the trials and tribulations of the modern newspapers and how Craigslist and Facebook and Twitter are beating them to death at their own game, I want to pull out the Sunday comic page of my local daily.

Every Sunday readers are greeted with the same three comic strips: Peanuts, Garfield and Dilbert. Let's take them one by one.

Peanuts. I appreciate the need for nostalgia, I appreciate what Charles Schulz did for comic strips as a whole, and I absolutely appreciate it as a gateway comic strip for young readers. However, not one of those things excuse front page, top-of-fold placement. It's time to go inside with this one.

Garfield. Want to know the funniest thing about Garfield? Extracting the cat from the comic strip. Aside from that, this is another great gateway strip for kids, but that doesn't warrant front page placement.

Dilbert. Props to Scott Adams for capturing a mid-1990s office worker zeitgeist, but he's been hitting the same note on the piano for fifteen years too long and the only punchline that's still funny is unwritten plea: “Stick with me, tomorrow this will be funny again. Promise.”

For me, the the comics pages were the hook that got me into newspapers and I started out with and dearly loved that lasagna-larded cat. My very first career aspiration was to be a cartoon strip artist and writer, but if Garfield was the pinnacle of what I had to shoot for I would have let it go long before I did.

As I grew, Berke Breathed and, later, Gary Trudeau found ways to include me in adult conversations that were way above my pay grade, but regardless of if I understood every nuance they found ways to make me laugh.

I look at the funny pages today and I see stuff for kids and I see stuff for adults. There's no one filling that middle zone for pre-teen and teen kids to take them aside, kneel down to meet them on their level and put the news of the day in context they can understand. A comic strip that feels dangerous, as if the simple act of reading it is rebellious.

Part of the blame for this falls to the newspapers themselves, they hemorrhage readers by the thousands every year because they haven't found way to connect with this audience, and they don't invest in developing it.

The last comic strip I saw pushing the same buttons as Breathed and Trudeau used to push was Aaron McGruder's Boondocks, and newspaper editors banished it to the editorial pages for talking too frankly about race.

I bring this up because, one of my heroes died yesterday after complications from surgery. His name was Dwayne McDuffie.
Comic strips were my gateway to newspapers as much as they were my gateway to comic books.

You may not know much about super heroes, but if you know a kid who has ever watched the cartoons Static Shock, Justice League or Ben 10, you know McDuffie's work.

At a time when authentic African American perspectives were sorely lacking in comics, McDuffie offered them up without apology. I exchanged e-mails with him about a dozen or so years ago. He wasn't as busy as he'd been recently, but he always seemed to make time to talk with his fans about the deeper levels of his work, and there were many.

One of the questions I asked in our e-mail exchange was why his “black Superman,” Icon, veered so hard to the right in his personal politics.

He told me something to the effect that for a black man to make it in the modern world, he had to adopt or inhabit a more conservative persona. It doesn't matter whether you agree with statement, what matters is McDuffie got me to ask the question.

He did it by writing powerful comics.

I hope someday soon that another talent arises to push the envelope in the ways that Trudeau, Breathed, McGruder and McDuffie did, but I hope even more newspapers will be around to herald their arrival.

1 comment:

  1. In the same way writers of prose and intended high literature looked to Hemmingway, Dostoyevsky, and Stein, and still do, many of us looked to Breathed, Watterson, and Larson. Not to discount other influential artist-writers. Within my framework I have a special spot for the strips that brought words and pictures together in a special way.
    I recognized McDuffie's name when I read of his passing yesterday. It is a loss. I have faith, not blindly, in the notion that nature cannot have a vacuum. There will be another as long as we keep reading the works of old and spiriting on towards our own expressive end. Keeping discontent and the passion to create as close friends. Bringing ire and craft together. The alchemy of great works!