June 12, 2008


This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Home Sweat Home: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

X-Treme Parenting: A “Baby Blues” Treasury. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Take Our Cat, Please! A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

Get past the acknowledged masterpieces of the comic-strip medium – Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Walt Kelly’s Pogo and a few others – and it can be hard to pin down just what “classic” means and which strips fit the definition. Certainly Peanuts qualifies, and Charles Schulz’s strip continues to run years after its creator’s death, often labeled Classic Peanuts. But what about such strips as Blondie and Prince Valiant, whose creators have long since passed on and whose current versions – drawn by different artists – have only a marginal relationship to the characteristics that made the original strips so famous? And what about strips whose authors are very much alive and still producing high-quality work – at what point does it make sense to designate those strips “classics”?

While trying to figure all this out, you can have a lot of fun reading recent collections of three strips that really are the classics of today, and one that has the potential to become one. Dilbert is as classic as they come, with its three-panel (rather than four-panel) weekday format, its focus on dialogue rather than action, its unending relevance to the real world (from which Scott Adams takes a number of his stories), and its wonderful use of utter absurdity in ways that make altogether too much sense. The latest Dilbert collection, which is in full color, includes a series in which Dogbert straps on tall pants and an old-fashioned hairpiece so he can run for president – promising to take money from people who don’t vote for him and give it to ones who do; a “coffee-swilling beaver” hired by the Pointy-Haired Boss to show people how to work faster; Ratbert’s demonstration of how to empty the brain by repeating the names of vapid celebrities; sensors to “alert management any time the pleasure areas of your brain have more blood flow,” so managers can stop people from being happy and refocus them on work; and much, much more – all of it thoroughly absurd and at the same time absolutely true. If that’s not classic, what is?

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse ties even more strongly into the real world, and in fact rarely seems like a comic strip at all – it is more of an illustrated ongoing family story with equal numbers of amusing and heart-tugging episodes. The latest Johnston collection contains a number of life-changing events: a fire that ousts Michael, Deanna and their kids from their home and forces them to move back into the Patterson house – leading to predictable crowding and bad tempers, but also to new opportunities (as in real life); Grandpa Jim’s slow, incomplete recovery from a stroke; teenage April’s mild experiments with sex; and Elizabeth’s rediscovery of her old love, Anthony, now divorced and with a child, after she herself has been dumped by her boyfriend. A straightforward description of For Better or For Worse makes it sound like more of a soap opera than it is: what makes this strip classic is Johnston’s enviable balancing of tears and laughter, not any wallowing in the former.

To wallow in the latter – in laughter, that is – you can turn to another, very different family strip, Baby Blues, whose two most recent small-format collections have now been reissued in oversize “Treasury” format with color Sunday pages. Rick Kirkman’s art and Jerry Scott’s writing create an inimitable, always-endearing portrait of parents with young kids. It’s the well-differentiated personalities that make this strip so much fun. Hammie, middle child and only boy, loves spinning around until he gets dizzy, while bossy older sister Zoe remarks, “Not everyone looks at nausea as recreation.” Baby Wren has started crawling and getting into things, and in one hilarious Sunday strip is the only one who can lock dad Darryl’s new cell phone, leading Darryl to complain about being “at the bottom of the technology food chain.” In fact, a lot of the Sunday strips are especially wonderful, from the one in which the family members curl up, one at a time, and fall asleep next to each other on the floor; to the one recounting Darryl’s “odyssey” of grocery shopping with the kids with a mock-Homeric illustration (and Homer Simpson dressed as Homer the bard, to boot); to the great single-panel one in which mom Wanda teaches “really effective birth control” to three young women simply by trying to juggle the needs of all three of her kids at the same time while saying, “Being a parent is actually a lot harder than it looks.” A special treat here is the full-color presentation of a Baby Blues sequence that is a classic in every sense: a Christmas story in which Zoe and Hammie wish for – and get – every gift in the world, and find out that that doesn’t make them happy.

There is nothing at this level in Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, but Conley’s strip continues to improve and become more pointed and funnier, so even if it has not attained “modern classic” status, it at least has a shot at getting there. The newest Get Fuzzy collection is the best yet – Conley is definitely getting better over time – with dumb-but-lovable pooch Satchel getting more of the strip’s focus…an excellent decision, since he provides such a wonderful contrast to Bucky Katt’s constant bluster, foul mouth and delusions of grandeur. Bucky still victimizes Satchel, but now Conley makes sure there are limits beyond which Satchel will not be pushed, as when the pooch brings the cat a phone book that Bucky wants, Bucky complains that he wanted the two-volume book, and Satchel rips the single-volume one in half. The weakness of the strip continues to be Rob Wilco, the human with whom cat and dog live, because he is a loser but not a lovable one: stick-thin arms and legs, very hairy body, no social life, preoccupation with rugby and the Red Sox, and very few redeeming characteristics. When he tries to convince a depressed Satchel that “the world is not a totally evil place,” his reassurances fall mostly flat; and when he injures his back and needs help from his animals and his brother, Roger, it is hard to care much. But readers will care about the dog-and-cat show, more in this book than before, and it is the Bucky-Satchel byplay that gives Get Fuzzy the potential to become the kind of top-notch strip that Conley so clearly would like it to be.

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