March 14, 2013
(++++) BEYOND THE DAILY COMIC GRIND
Making Ends Meet: “For Better or For Worse” 3rd Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $22.99.
Jasotron: 2012—A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Friends Should Know When They’re Not Wanted: A Sociopath’s Guide to Friendship. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
At some point, even the best comic-strip artists have had enough. Sometimes they quit (Gary Larson, Bill Watterson, Cathy Guisewite). Sometimes they die and their strips are continued by others (too many to list – unfortunately). But sometimes they get really creative. Lynn Johnston both quit and did not quit after bringing For Better or For Worse to what she considered a reasonable ending. She stopped producing new strips, but began running some of her originals – interspersing some with new strips, rewriting others, and generally revisiting places where she had gone before, and then eventually moving into out-and-out reruns, and...well, things did a get a mite confusing out there, but since the strip had been around so long, that was probably inevitable. Reruns would reach people who knew nothing about the strip’s early events from decades in the past – but also were less likely to be reading newspaper comic strips at all, since the newspaper business itself changed so much in both the U.S and Canada (where Johnston lives) in the many years that Johnston was producing the strip. One thing that Johnston has done since the strip’s sort-of-conclusion is to produce some wonderful hardcover “Treasury” books, of which Making Ends Meet is the third. These books bring back many (although not all) of her cartoons that were collected in earlier years. And the strips come with highly insightful explanatory commentary from Johnston, who does not just write a line or two here and there – she really explains how certain strips came to be and why, and tells readers about the underlying thinking that informs the entire world of For Better or For Worse. For example, in connection with a strip in which mom Elly and daughter Elizabeth watch boys playing make-believe war outdoors, Johnston writes, “I have always wondered what it is that makes boys and men want to run around shooting each other, when a really good, moderated argument would resolve almost anything.” Beneath a strip about a typical household accident of spilled varnish, Johnston writes, “We would never identify the good times as being good if we didn’t have crap to compare them with.” And after a strip in which Elizabeth drops a lot of her food on the floor and calls it “leftunders,” Johnston comments that “Charles Schulz [creator of Peanuts] told me that this punch line was one of his favourites.” And again and again, Johnston explains what was happening in her real life that she modified or reported nearly verbatim in For Better or For Worse. The strip itself is quite marvelous, whether seen for the first time or being viewed again after many years – and Johnston’s commentary is a simply wonderful addition to it, showing how a true artist, comic-strip or otherwise, adapts and adopts real life into a self-created world that is so much like the real one, but funnier and more amenable to being observed in three-to-four-panel sequences.
When Bill Amend had had enough, he too did not quite end his popular strip, FoxTrot. He decided to keep it going as a Sunday-only strip, which is a much harder sell to newspapers but which has worked out in his case because of the huge fan base he built up over the 19 years of doing the strip seven days a week. The strip is no longer seen nearly as much as it used to be, not only because its frequency has been reduced by six-sevenths but also because there just aren’t as many newspapers carrying the Sunday-only version as carried the all-week one. That makes collections such as Jasotron: 2012 all the more welcome. There is no commentary here, and you do have to know the characters and their “back story” before opening the book, since it will otherwise make no sense. But for those who have missed seeing FoxTrot day after day, this book will provide a nice dose (144 pages) of the Sunday strips that Amend has continued to do. The characters have frozen into place – geeky 10-year-old Jason, boy-and-clothes-crazy 14-year-old Paige, ever-eating and ever-self-involved 16-year-old Peter, health-food-addicted mom Andy, and typically feckless dad Roger. But the strip’s stories have not frozen: Amend has always enjoyed picking up on real-world events and pulling them into the strip with an amusing twist. Thus, Jason invents a smartphone that uses both the iOS and Android operating systems (both badly, though), and has a dream (now rather dated) based on the movie Avatar. Paige becomes a fan of the TV show Glee and spends too much time on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Peter discusses blogging and plays World of Warquest (as, of course, does Jason). And Amend also keeps up his habit of occasionally poking fun at other comic strips: at one point, he arranges for a Jason/Peter exchange that parallels the many bad-pun Sunday strips created by Stephan Pastis in Pearls Before Swine, and then specifically has Peter tell Jason to remind him to start hiding Jason’s Pearls Before Swine books. Jasotron: 2012 is no substitute for having FoxTrot back on a seven-day-a-week basis, but since there is no sign that that will ever happen, fans at least have this much of the strip left to enjoy.
And speaking of the Pearls Before Swine creator: he is still very much involved in his seven-day-a-week creation, but he too has found a way to move beyond it – yes, already. Friends Should Know When They’re Not Wanted has nothing of the strip in it except the snarky humor that is Pastis’ trademark. Instead, this book is a parody of all the “love” and “friendship” gift books out there, using the sorts of photos typically seen in those books but coupling them not with inspirational messages but with Pastis’ warped sense of what is funny. For example, a scene of a deserted street in the middle of the night, with a full moon overhead, gets these words: “A friend is someone who can call you at 4 a.m. Which is why you should turn off your phone at night.” A picture of two couples laughing together gets: “True friends last a lifetime. So does chronic back pain.” An all-too-typical picture of a gorgeous rainbow goes with this: “Friendships are like rainbows. They go away.” And a picture of five people smiling and happily mugging for the camera gets: “You can’t put a price on a friend. Which is too bad. I’d like to sell mine.” Presumably the price of Pastis as a friend is down to around two cents and plummeting because of this book, but since this is one of those laugh-all-the-way-to-the-bank creations, it is hard to imagine that Pastis would care. Besides, when Pearls Before Swine finally becomes too much for Pastis to handle, maybe he can create a whole series of these books instead. And he won’t have to draw anything or even go out anywhere with a camera: every single picture in the book comes from istockphoto.com.