It is my fervent belief that good art and literature not only reflect the world, but comment upon it in ways that challenge people’s thoughts and preconceptions. In that vein, the convergence of art in literature in the form of comic books and comic strips should—when so focused—be particularly powerful in conveying messages and observations about the world that we live in. Political cartoons are in fact a cornerstone of the development of the modern comic book and comic strip genres; despite their modern associations with capes and tights or humor respectively.
In today’s world where DC and Marvel are fighting over digital market shares and newspapers are seeing an incredible attrition in their circulation revenues the entire medium is going through a rough transition—some might say a growing pain. Does that mean the genre is in jeopardy? No. In some ways many daily strips, particularly, might be liberated in their ability to flatly deal with political viewpoints and storylines. While some might be inclined to argue that this will lead to lack of finesse and subtly in the context of the three-panel strip only time will tell.
With due deference to the growing market of web comics there will always be a particular impact that is associated with a comic strip that was in a newspaper. The internet, being a much larger market where syndication is trumped by viral popularity, might never attain the intimate relationship that families have had with newspaper embedded strips throughout the years. What follows is a list of strips of various sorts that have had an impact on thinking, politics, or commentary that range from subtle, to heavy handed, to absurd. They are just a few of my favorites, but are notable for their power to make their voices known and their messages heard. In no particular order…
Yes, Peanuts. Charles Shultz’s rascally bunch of children is a bone fide piece of Americana that was a welcome voice in American homes for just under 50 years. Shultz’s main character, Charlie Brown, is an almost archetypical everyday-loser. The Peanuts characters have sharp and often sullen observations about the world around them that end with humorous punch-lines in the fourth panel. It is the world of adults through the eyes of children (well-spoken as they may be) in a context that is almost entirely devoid of adults. In their world adults are muted trumpets whose comments can only be inferred through the context of children’s commentary. Even the human experience itself was deftly and sharply commented upon, not by the children but by the keenly aware beagle, Snoopy. In this world Shultz was able to comment on Americana in a way that was often melancholy but ultimately optimistic. After all, no matter how many times Lucy pulled the ball away Charlie Brown always tried to kick it again, and Sally always held that torch for her sweet Baboo, Linus.
The Far Side
Ok, talking cows. I get it. At first glance people tend to underrate Gary Larson’s The Far Side as absurd and without context in everyday life. While this is visually an easy assumption to make, once the captions are read and the illustrations carefully inspected it is rather an incredible rationale attempt to share observations about a world that is absurd and full of contradictions. The depth of the commentary that Larson delivered with just one panel always and unceasingly had the power with the use of ugly people, talking chickens, or cows in trench coats to explore the most minute and seemingly mundane human experiences as not only absurd in their depictions but also reflective of the insanity of organized society on such a fundamental level that only a snake trying to wear a button down shirt could reveal. Due to this exploration of the fundamental assumptions of our society in a literally absurd element the Far Side continues to be a timeless and easily revisited conversation about ourselves; and its simplicity lends itself to daily calendars and t-shirts.
Aaron McGruder’s series based on brothers Huey and Riley’s displacement from inner urban Chicago to suburban Maryland is a benchmark strip on the late 90’s and early 2000’s. While it is stylistically different from its contemporaries in its deep visual adherence to the conventions of graffiti and anime it is also distinctive in its clear African-American voice. The strip comments directly upon politics and Americana from a position of politically armed and intellectually empowered African-American thought. It follows in the same tradition of Peanuts in that these sharp comments are coming from children, but it diverges from Peanuts in a variety of ways including the voice of adults, and its optimism; The Boondocks is inherently cynical and though the adults in the strip do occasionally seem to have a tarnished wisdom they are most often proven buffoons. The strip weighed the trappings of the African-American experience and community ranging from its social-ills to the institutional pit-falls thrust upon it from a context that both loved and lamented many of its characterizing aspects. It was one of the most refreshing—though regrettably short lived—strips of the last 20 years and marked a serious and furious departure from its milder forbearers such as Curtis or Herb and Jamaal. While it has had continued success as an occasional cartoon series aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block the strip is an exemplary work of the three-panel strip. The Boondocks commented upon the whole country in a relatable way from a strong and distinct perspective.
Calvin and Hobbes
Bill Watterson’s world-wide favorite, Calvin and Hobbes, is often considered to be the peak of artistic and intelligent commentary in the genre of the daily comic strip. He focused on the childhood of the intelligent and troublesome Calvin and his imaginary friend/stuffed tiger Hobbes. The strip often relies on the power of Calvin’s imagination—not just in his conversations with the often-level-headed, often-instigating Hobbes—to provide for settings and fantasy worlds where sharp commentaries about the human condition might be held (or famously using snowmen as place holders for people). The main character of Calvin (if one was to argue that Hobbes is an intellectual extension and not a fantasy creature) has the distinction of being too intelligent for his own good which leads to not only his social isolation, poor performance in school, troublesome behaviors, and the weary and worn disposition of his parents but also provides for the context and rationale for his outside perspective on the human condition; despite the fact that his is all-too afflicted with it. The point/counter-point conversations that occur particularly between the titular characters additionally provide for the long running gag of a third (or really second) party to enter a scene where Calvin is debating or fighting physically with himself or a stuffed tiger no larger than a teddy bear. This suspension of the imagination and the distinct way in which Calvin views the world provide for a timeless set of observations on humanity as a whole on the part of Watterson.
G.B. Trudeau’s overtly political, certainly-not-kids-stuff strip Doonesbury is likely the premiere political cartoon of the past 40 years. The title character of Michael Doonesbury has the rare distinction of aging in real time as the strip has progressed from a college student to a senior citizen. The strip has attacked every major political argument and debate in public discourse since its inception, and is a starkly liberal work that never pulls its punches. From my earliest recollections of it as “the strip with the talking cigarette” to its representations of presidents as floating dots or the backs of chairs, to its current tackling of abortion issues, Trudeau’s commentary are about as far from the positive, safe, mild, and optimistic world of Ziggy as one can get. The strip is not above straying from reality and employing symbolism and personification to drive its point home and, in contrast, never strays from corporeal and relevant reality with a thorough and consistent perspective. The strip pushes the envelope, clearly states its message, and never fails to be sharp and intelligent. It is also notable to mention that of all the strips on this list, Doonesbury is the only one still running with new and current material.