[Note: Every Friday on First Thoughts we host heated, half-serious, half-cocked arguments about some aspect of pop culture. Today’s theme, which was suggested by reader Don McClane, is the best newspaper comic strips. Have a suggestion for a topic? Send them to me at email@example.com]
The lowly comic strip is one of the most critically neglected of pop art forms. The reason for this becomes apparent to anyone who has read the “funny pages” over the past four decades: Most comic strips are utterly worthless.
Although there are hundreds to choose from, there are few worthy candidates for a list of “best” comic strips from the past forty years. The dailiness of producing a strip makes it an extremely demanding medium; consistency of output rather than quality and creativity are traits prized by the newspaper syndicators. That is why many of the best comic strip artists (Bill Watterson, Gary Larson) retire relatively early while the hacks dominate the format for decades.
Once a strip makes it into syndication and last longer than five years a strange, unexplainable force manages to keep it in existence, sometimes even after the original artist has passed out of this life. Even when I was a kid (in the late 1970s) no one I knew read Apartment 3-G, Flash Gordon, and Mary Worth (all three of which are syndicated by King Features) yet they stay on the comics page like zombies that can’t be killed off.
Because of the paucity of great comics, choosing a list of the “best” strips would make too short a list (I can only come up with five). Instead, I’ve decided to go with the more mushy, less committal modifier of “significant.” Each of these eight comic strips are arguably significant in their own unique way:
1. Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson) – A strip in which the primary characters are named after a sixteenth-century theologian and a seventeenth-century political philosopher sounds both dour and pretentious. Yet Watterson managed to turn the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger into pure magic. Calvin and Hobbes is indisputably the best comic strip ever created; no other comic can compare. Indeed, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is the only comic strip collection that qualifies as great modern literature.
2. Dilbert (Scott Adams) – Dilbert does such an superb job of capturing the bizarre zeitgeist of corporate culture that its easy to forget the strip was started twenty years ago (April 16, 1989). Adams is the greatest satirist of business of our era—if not of all time.
3. The Far Side (Gary Larson) – Calvin and Hobbes generally required four panels to achieve greatness; The Far Side managed to do it with one. No other artist has managed to squeeze comic genius out of otherwise trite tropes (cavemen, cows, desert islands) as did Larson, who retired the strip after a brilliant fifteen-year run.
4. Peanuts (Charles M. Schulz) – With 17,897 strips published in all, Peanuts is, as Robert Thompson of Syracuse University claims, “arguably the longest story ever told by one human being.” By the mid-1980s, Schulz story was wearing thin, yet the strip remains, nine years after the artist’s death, one of the most popular and widely syndicated strips.
5. Bloom County (Berkeley Breathed)— It’s difficult for Gen X-ers to explain the impact Bloom County had on us. It was a simpler time (c. 1980) when jokes about a cocaine-snorting cat, Mary Kay cosmetics, and Michael Jackson were still fresh and funny. It’s difficult to say how they would hold up today (what Bloom County fan has the heart to revisit them?) but at the time they provided an accessibly subversive critique of mass culture in a era long before The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
6. Doonesbury (Garry Trudeau) – Yeah, I know: I hate Doonsebury too. But before Trudeau’s famed hiatus (from January 1983 to October 1984) it had its moments. And for better or worse it pushed the editorial cartoon onto the comics page and gave it narrative form.
7. Blondie (Chic Young, Dean Young, and John Marshall) – Don’t think this light-hearted, long-running strip is significant? Consider: It led to the long-run Blondie film series (1938-1950), a popular Blondie radio program (1939-1950), provided the template for television sitcoms (bumbling but lovable, somewhat dim father/husband; the smart, long-suffering wife/mother), and provided a name for a famous sandwich (the Dagwood). What other comic strip inspired film, radio, TV, and delis?
8. B.C. (Johnny Hart) – Hart referred to his strip as a “ministry” intended to mix religious themes with “secular humor.” Although its always been one of the better strips, B.C. is significant for being one of the few religious themed comics to gain a broad audience.
Which comics strips would you consider to be the most significant?
Selection criteria: Only comic strips from the past forty years that are still running were considered. Such comics as Pogo and Katzajammer Kids are no doubt as “significant” as any on this list, but few people have read them. Also, only comics that were syndicated in mainstream newspapers made the cut (which is why you won’t find Matt Groenig’s Life in Hell on this list).