October 20, 2016


2017 Calendars: Page-a-Day—Dilbert; Pearls Before Swine; Baby Blues; The Argyle Sweater; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     There are many serious reasons to bemoan the precipitous decline of newspapers: far less investigative reporting, far fewer in-depth stories in general, a much smaller coterie of reporters looking into government and private-sector malfeasance, a general loss of writing quality and of stories that go beyond superficial headline-grabbing information, and more. There is also one distinctly non-serious reason to lament the state of the newspaper industry: what is going to happen to comic strips?

     This is actually not a small question. The comic-art form long predates the modern newspaper, with editorial cartoons dating back hundreds of years and producing some genuinely wonderful art as well as pithy commentary – Thomas Nast’s and Sir John Tenniel’s pointed works come immediately to mind. But comics as entertainment, as opposed to comic panels as commentary, are intimately connected with the rise of modern newspapers, beginning with Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid and continuing through the marvels of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Walt Kelly (Pogo), and many others, right down to modern masters of the form such as Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and G.B. Trudeau (Doonesbury). What happens to comics when there are fewer and fewer newspapers available to run them, and those newspapers have less and less space for anything beyond basic news and the fast-declining ads that pay most of the bills? “Comics just migrate online” is a poor answer, since in the vast majority of cases, strips are designed from the start as art on paper and lose a great deal in translation to an electronic medium. “Comics just evolve to be created as electronic offerings” is correct for a few strips already and is likely an accurate remark as far as the future of others is concerned, but it begs the question of how cartoonists get paid for their work and how their static panels compete with a moving-video-saturated Internet – and even get discovered by new readers at all.

     This is not a doomsday scenario for comics or the cartoonists who create them: there will certainly be adaptation, compromise, change and evolution of various kinds and to various extents, even if the future looks no clearer for newspaper-based comic strips than for newspapers themselves. In the present, though, there is a way for fans of the best newspaper-based comics to stay in touch with them every day of the year without needing to subscribe to a newspaper and without needing to read the comics in a less-congenial electronic format. To the rescue come 365-day calendars, especially those from Andrews McMeel, publisher of calendars based not only on comics syndicated by its own parent firm, Andrews McMeel Universal, but also of ones using strips from other syndicates. There just isn’t anywhere better to go for a daily date with your favorite cartoons than an Andrews McMeel calendar.

     Need examples? Consider three of the best-known multi-panel strips being produced today: Scott Adams’ Dilbert, Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine, and Baby Blues by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Each of them is available for 2017 in a stand-up, tear-off-a-page-at-a-time calendar version suitable for desktop, kitchen counter, bedroom nightstand, or – if you like all three strips equally – all three locations. Each calendar provides a daily offering (OK, not quite: some have a single strip covering both weekend days) of exactly the sort of humor that turns people into devoted fans of these cartoonists. In the ever-futile workplace environment of Dilbert, for example, one strip has laziness champion Wally asking to work at home because surveys of telecommuters show that they put in more hours – at which point the Pointy-Haired Boss asks, “What if those people are lying weasels?” and Wally has to admit he had not counted on “this level of awareness.” Elsewhere, Dilbert explains to the boss that he does not resist change – only terrible ideas – and when the boss tells him, “Whatever you’re doing, cut it out,” Dilbert asks, “Should I stop being rational in general or only in this one way?” Then there is the graphic designer who subcontracts his work to strangers online in return for 5% of his salary – and does nothing himself. And the robot who fills in for the boss and learns to use the boss’s technique of random rewards. And ever-optimistic Ratbert, who wants to go to Google after he dies for the “free food, bus service, and massages,” and would cope with being around smart people all the time by wearing earplugs. And the bullet-headed CEO, who wants consultant Dogbert to coauthor a book “to make readers believe success comes from hard work and wise decisions,” so “instead of hating me for being lucky, they will hate themselves for being lazy and dumb.” Dogbert himself eventually becomes CEO, is later offered $100 million to quit, and is insulted because “I spend that much on soft cheese.” You get the idea – and you will get it again and again all year with the Dilbert calendar.

     Dilbert is absurdist and dark, but Pearls Before Swine is even darker. In this world, Rat puts together an emergency preparedness kit consisting entirely of hot dogs and beer; he notices that bad things happen on Tuesdays, so he eliminates them from all weeks and replaces them with extra Fridays; he absorbs a motivational speaker’s advice about setting realistic life goals by deciding to “get drunk and watch ‘Trailer Park Boys’”; and in another life-lesson strip, he writes one of his stories of Angry Bob, a character who always dies in some bizarre new way – in this case, after determining to “live a new life” and “seize the day” by going bungee jumping, inadvertently leaping before the instructor finishes securing the bungee cord. Oops. Among other recurring characters are the exceptionally dim crocodiles, led by Larry, who at one point encounters the top-hat-wearing Comic Strip Censor after Larry goes to Colorado, where marijuana is legal, and comes back with a “croc pot.” That is one of Pastis’ milder and less-fraught puns. A more-typical one involves single-appearance characters named Sam and Ella who invent a stopping device that can out-brake all others, but cannot make any sales because they call their establishment, which includes a café, “The Sam and Ella Out-Brake Store.” And of course there are frequent appearances by naïve and always well-meaning Pig, who at one point tells Goat, the strip’s resident intellectual, that even though he wants genetically modified food to be labeled, he voted against having that happen because he is “far too stupid for democracy.” Elsewhere, Goat tells Pig how appealing Pig’s “optimistic idealism” is when Pig says he is going to open a letter he wrote to himself when he was little – but it turns out that the letter asks, “Have you failed at everything yet?”

     It sometimes feels as if failure is omnipresent in the Baby Blues world, too, but that is only because all parents find it impossible to keep up with a child or two. Or, in the case of Darryl and Wanda MacPherson, three. The 2017 chronicle of this family’s life will be especially appreciated by anyone who has children or, for that matter, ever was a child – that’s how generation-spanning it is. Darryl and Wanda are never quite able to keep up with Zoe, Hammie and Wren, but always somehow manage to come back for another dose of coping attempts – they are just like real parents, only funnier. Hammie, for instance, refuses to reuse the valentines he failed to give out in class the previous year, because they are all hearts and teddy bears and “people have come to expect more gore from me.” And when Wanda explains to Hammie that Zoe gets better grades because she tries harder in school, Hammie responds that his big sister is “not smarter, she’s just dorkier.” As for Zoe herself, she tells her brother not to “take this the wrong way, but you’re the most disgusting person in the history of the planet.” Zoe also tries so hard to kick a soccer goal that she herself flies into the net, leading her dad to say, encouragingly, “Way to lull them into a false sense of security, Zoe!” The point of Baby Blues is that just when things seem on the verge of settling down, they don’t – again, just as in real family life. One three-panel strip for 2017 shows this perfectly: Darryl and Wanda are sitting on the couch, commenting on how quiet things are because Zoe and Hammie are watching baby Wren while getting ready for bed. Wanda says “that sounds so normal,” Darryl replies that “maybe life is finally settling down around here,” and then comes the final panel – in which the three kids, drawn hilariously tied and stuck together with an everyday bathroom item, somehow make it into the living room to announce, “There’s been a flossing incident.” The incidents continue all year here and can help make all of 2017 that much brighter.

     The one disadvantage to calendars featuring multi-panel strips is that the panels are small – generally no smaller than in newspapers, true, but that is quite small enough. Anyone interested in something larger may want to consider calendars featuring single-panel cartoons, one of the funniest of which is Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater. There are plenty of panels out there featuring non-recurring characters and wry takes on the world around us, but Hilburn’s work is even more offbeat than most others. Imagine, for example, hot dogs in business attire, carrying briefcases and walking toward a building in the morning, saying hello to each other: “Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank. Mornin’ Frank.” And so on. Can’t imagine that? No need – Hilburn has done it for you. Then there is the pregnant woman telling a man wearing scrubs that she has an appointment for a sonogram – not realizing that she has mistakenly come to the “OB-GYM,” where doctors are working out. And the quick police report showing a group of penguins, with the caption, “While assaults and violent crimes were down, once again, identity theft in the South Pole was up.” And the scene in a church for walruses, showing all the parishioners sporting double chest bandages, as the pastor says, “After last week’s incident, I’ve decided we will no longer bow our heads to pray.” And the snake cocktail party, at which a non-venomous pretender is trying to impress the lady snakes by using his tail to shake a human baby’s rattle. And then there is the scene featuring Dumbo the flying elephant caught on flypaper. You have to see it to believe it – in fact, you have to see all these panels, because it is the way the words and pictures go together that makes The Argyle Sweater such a good year-long companion.

     And for those of a nostalgic bent, concerned not only about the deterioration of the newspaper industry but also about the loss of some of the great comic strips of the past, the 2017 Andrews McMeel calendar collection offers a real treat: Peanuts. Schulz died in 2000 after drawing the strip for half a century, but his concepts and characters are as fresh, funny and frequently offbeat as ever. They are cultural icons now, not just stars of the comic-strip world. And revisiting them every day for a year is a distinct pleasure. There is a strip in which Lucy makes a frightening face after Linus says he is wearing “a disarming smile,” then comments that such a smile “doesn’t stand a chance against my total-warfare frown.” There is a series in which Sally takes a crayon home from school, breaks it, and says her teacher will be furious – so she asks big brother Charlie Brown to “get me off the hook,” and when he replies that it is her problem and she should solve it, she yells, “I hate your generation!” Another series has Snoopy pretending to be a piranha – until Lucy warns that “any piranha tries to chomp me, I’ll pound him!!” Elsewhere, Snoopy has trouble figuring out Woodstock, saying the irregularly fluttering little bird is “either a lousy flyer or his blood sugar’s down.” And Charlie Brown agonizes over whether to respond to a chain letter by making copies of it by hand and mailing them to others, finally decides “to defy bad luck” and break the chain, and is immediately seen in the middle of a sudden downpour of rain. On the philosophical side, a Schulz specialty given special poignancy because the philosophers are little kids, Linus asks Sally, “Wouldn’t you like to have your life to live over if you knew what you know now?” There follows a completely silent panel of the two standing side by side – after which Sally asks, “What do I know now?” Well, one thing Peanuts fans know now, and will know every day of the coming year, is that this truly is a comic strip for the ages, one giving as much enjoyment throughout the new year as it gave when Schulz was creating it anew and afresh – indeed, one that seems just as new and fresh now as it did in the past. Whatever the eventual fate of newspapers and the comics designed for them, it seems incontrovertible that Peanuts will be around in some form well into the future – as will other strips worthy of appearing on calendars like these to brighten people’s days throughout the year.

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