Finding America in the funny pages

Dilbert, by Scott Adams

I remember sitting in our family living room as my father turned and folded pages, snapping and creasing the newsprint as he made his way through every section. Meanwhile, my mother would work across and down, completing the crossword puzzle with a pen. Growing up with a newspaper seemed like an ordinary thing to do.

My relationship with the paper was cemented in fifth grade by the daily requirement to write a “current events” report based on a newspaper article. I also prepared to present it to class should I be unlucky enough to be chosen by my teacher, Miss Little. Miss Little, incidentally, could have been the subject of her own article; standing well over six feet tall, she loomed over we puny fifth-graders, a colossal and imposing presence in high heels.

I’ve continued to read the daily paper, though I can’t say the San Francisco Chronicle is much of a read. Many of its stories are pulled from the news feeds of syndicates like Associated Press, and actual reporting by Chronicle staff seems to be limited mostly to stories about Twitter.

On the plus side, however, The Chronicle does have funnies. I speed my way through the ever thinner news and business sections, but I always linger on the funnies; it’s in the funnies one finds the truth of American Experience. Most of the news printed in the paper is day-old fodder jammed into pages of advertising like stuffing in a turkey, but the funnies most always feel fresh, even older strips like “Blondie.” Newer strips like “Dilbert” (found in the Business Section!) tap into the angst and irony of corporate life, the crushing of individual initiative and the folly of “worker management.” “Doonesbury” manages to remain remarkably current and provocative, despite its many years in syndication, and “Mutts” uses a classic 30s-drawing-style to bring life to people and pets.

Recently, a number of strips have stepped out of their traditional “story-telling” form and have made the “nature” of funnies their topic. Characters go “off-role” and begin to talk about their “lives” in the funnies, utilizing a recursive “self-awareness” as if they are simply “actors” playing a part. While this provides ground for some non-typical story-lines, it’s also a facile device used by cartoonists when they’ve run out of material; when done in a ham-handed way, it constitutes a “cheap shot.” “Pearls Before Swine” uses this tactic repeatedly, and regularly features the strips’ characters complaining to the cartoonist about the story lines; boring!

Overall, the funnies provide insight into the collective psychology of America, and it’s a predictably mixed bag. “Garfield” uses a snarky cat to demean others with Don Rickles like sarcasm that feels mean, betraying an American impulse to focus on ridiculing difference. “Blondie” promotes an old-fashioned 1950’s model of marriage, albeit one where the woman is in control though Dagwood thinks otherwise. No gay marriage themes in “Blondie.” “Dennis the Menace” continues to promote tired but reassuring stereotypes of children and seniors; I wonder if Mr. Wilson worries about Medicare? And what’s to say about “Lio?” His obsession with death is quintessentially All-American.

Ultimately, the funnies provide a better reflection of American culture than the rest of the daily paper combined; more honest, less pompous, ironic, often sweet, obsessive, aggressive, clueless and hopeful. I say change the name to The Comical, and move the funnies to the front page.

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