The Breakfast Table

The Death of the Comic Strip

Dear Steve:

I’m kind of surprised that we never got down to discussing the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “Sensation” show. Have you seen it? I haven’t; just read the usual reportage. As usual, I hate both sides of the debate–the conservative, Bible-thumping morons who hate anything other than their own racist and homophobic rhetoric as well as the liberal simpletons who favor the NEA.

Back when I was a struggling cartoonist trying to get my career off the ground, I applied for a $10,000 NEA grant to allow me to cut my day job back to 20 hours a week; I wanted to focus on marketing and improving my cartoons so that I could turn it into a full-time job. Guess what the NEA people told me. They liked my stuff, but: Cartoons are not an art form. Tell it to Bill Watterson, or for that matter to Charles Schulz. My response to them: Piss Christ is? My objection to the Brooklyn Museum’s show is that it’s provocation without substance; it isn’t so much offensive as it is dull and predictable. But the bottom line is, post-Dada art is subjective, and there’s no way any group of government experts can render a fair judgment as to what’s good art and what isn’t. Either give money to everyone who calls themselves an artist–hey, it’s a better use of tax money than B-2 bombers–or don’t give it to anyone at all.

OK, down to cartooning. I now officially pronounce the art of the comic strip dead. Perhaps there’s something running in some paper somewhere that I don’t get to read that’s really great, but I haven’t seen it. So as far as I know, all comic strips seriously suck. (I would make an exception for Peanuts, which has become popular in the comics world to trash; if that strip came out today as is, it would be too weird and melancholy for daily papers; it might run in a few of the more daring weeklies.)

Most of the interesting stuff is going on in the alternative weeklies; Ruben Bolling’s “Tom the Dancing Bug” is hands-down my favorite strip in America. I’m jealous of the ideas that guy comes up with–always topical, hilarious, sardonic, smart. I always check out my friendly competitor Tom Tomorrow’s This Modern World. And although I don’t get to see it as much anymore–the New York Press is very uneven about running it–Carol Lay’s “Story Minute” is one of America’s unsung gems–sad and ironic.

Editorial cartooning, I assume you’ll agree, has declined into stupid gags about the news; my test for a good editorial cartoon is that you should be able to tell the artist’s political affiliation and/or stance on an issue at a glance. If you can’t be absolutely certain, it’s not an editorial cartoon–it’s a gag cartoon, in that they make me want to gag (well, Roz Chast is OK). The brighter lights in the field, in my opinion, are the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Joel Pett, the Philadelphia Daily News’ Signe Wilkinson, and Jack Ohman of the Oregonian, among others. Everyone always talks about the genius of Pat Oliphant, and he is an amazing draftsman, but he doesn’t give a shit about anything, which makes his work soulless. The New York Post’s Sean Delonas’ work drives me nuts; the fact that such an inept artist and politically-dead commentator is working full-time is an insult to those of us who have been looking for full-time cartooning work for years and been rejected for inane reasons–he is the worst of a lousy lot.

The most depressing aspect of the profession for me is that the youngest new hires at the big dailies–Generation Y guys under 25–are indistinguishable from their parents and grandparents; they draw like Jeff MacNelly, but without MacNelly’s wit or intelligence. It seems that all editors want these days is cheap jokes without venom.

I shouldn’t leave out comic books; I like Peter Bagge (“Hate”), but I think Ivan Brunetti, who does a filthy, rancid, brutal comic book called “Schizo” is brilliant. He’s so totally self-loathing I keep worrying that he’ll kill himself before he does the next one, which would be sad since he’s such a genius. This stuff is not, however, for the faint of heart. Perhaps the most overrated creator in comics today is Chris Ware; his art is so-so, his compositional skills are amazing, but he has absolutely nothing to say. It’s a cosmic joke that someone so talented is so utterly clueless about the real world. I’ve read book after book by this guy in an effort to understand why he’s so highly regarded by comics critics, but I don’t get it–maybe it’s his fondness for retro ‘20s graphics. People always relate to the familiar and iconic and reject what’s truly new. (Journalistic conflict: Ware wrote a letter to the Voice tearing me a new bunghole over my Art Spiegelman piece. But I always thought his work sucked; his letter merely reminded me of his existence.)

All superhero comic books are stupid, have always been stupid, and should be banned by law–and all of their readers over 8 should be deported to post-coup Pakistan for service in the coming war against India.

So who do you hate in cartooning? Love?

And yes, Steve, I do want to hear your Phil Harris theory of politics.

Very truly yours,