Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Comic-Strip Tease


With all due respect to Terry Teachout, I think he's sort of missing the point about comic strips:

The problem I had with "Peanuts" is the same problem I have with virtually all serial art: it isn't meant to be consumed in bulk. A daily comic strip whose installments are free-standing rather than connected by strands of plot is an endless series of moments. To read it once a day is a fleeting pleasure. To read dozens of installments in a single sitting is to realize just how ephemeral that pleasure was.

It's true that comic strips were not meant to be seen more than one at a time (though some artists, like Walt Kelly, did turn longer comic-strip stories into comic books), and it's true that seeing a bunch of comic strips all at once dilutes their impact.

But that doesn't mean that the pleasures derived from a comic strip are inherently superficial or ephemeral. It just means that they don't translate into the "wrong" format (book form, online bulk viewing). The same way that a great play doesn't seem so great when you read it instead of seeing it.

The impact of any good serial is cumulative. If you read one a day, you get a chuckle or a rueful nod out of it, but as you keep reading it, the running themes and recurring ideas. It's like a ritual, and all the great comic strips from Krazy Kat on have been very ritualistic. As you read the instalments, one at a time, it adds up in your mind to something more than a bunch of drawings doing something silly.

That's the difference between a comic-strip artist and an "aphorist." Aphorisms and proverbs are meant to stand on their own. (They are also never as clever as their creators think they are, precisely because they stand on their own and there's nothing to build on them.) Comic strips are not, no matter how pithy and cute the daily strip might be. In the great comic strips like Peanuts, Pogo, Li'l Abner, Krazy Kat, the daily entries aren't just a point in the story, they're a little piece of a world and a worldview. The characters become familiar to you almost by osmosis; you know a tremendous amount about them, and the running jokes of the strip (football, kite-eating tree, Sadie Hawkins day, political figures caricatured as animals, jumping between Calvin's dream world and the real world), without being introduced to them through the traditional rules of well-made storytelling. You can't really do that anywhere besides a comic strip. In everything else, even weekly series television, things needs to be established up-front instead of just seeping into our brains over a period of years. The closest comparison is the work of a writer like Teachout's beloved H.L. Mencken; one column or another is not as important in itself as the personality and worldview that is conveyed when you take all his work together.

But all this doesn't happen if you've only read one, and if you read a bunch at a time, the repetition becomes tiresome. With a strip like Li'l Abner, reading the strips in book form can be very unsatisfying because Al Capp constantly has characters summarize the story for the benefit of new readers. But if you're reading one of those a day, the repetition isn't a problem. And any problem that a strip encounters in an uncongenial format is not really the strip's problem. It's a bit like being disappointed when a theatre production doesn't work when broadcast on television. Of course it didn't work in that format. Theatre is theatre, and daily strips are daily strips.


Thad said...

Maybe I'm just turning into pure evil, but I just don't find Peanuts entertaining on ANY level anymore.

rumela lony said...

I love this comic. Unfortunately the comic strip doesn't give the same funny kick when someone actually explains it to you. I mean you'll enjoy it only if you understand it all by yourself. Anyway, I appreciate the explanation. thank you for shearing your post.

buzz said...

I was working at TMS during the time when they tried to turn LITTLE NEMO into a feature (yes,m they made a 90 minute animated film with that title, not, it wasn't a real Little Nemo story).

The problem is that the comic strip was very deliberately designed to be interrupted just as it got interesting, the way real dreams are interrupted. LITTLE NEMO was never meant to carry a sustained narrative; it was designed for weekly doses.

Some strips can pull it off, others can't, and some occasionally vacillate between the two.