Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Usual Comical Strip Trick

I have a web piece up about seminal Archie/Betty/Veronica moments (as seminal as you can get when you have a relationship that never changes), tying in with the famous news about the Archie "proposal."

And while I understand what Michael Barrier means when he says that "When I read Li'l Abner in bulk, the harsh mechanical qualities of Al Capp's strip force themselves on me," I find Li'l Abner holds up better than it's given credit for (better, in my opinion, than Pogo), and the current the current hullabaloo over Archie's proposal is an example of why Li'l Abner remains relevant: they're using all the tricks that Al Capp parodied in the "Fearless Fosdick gets married" storyline, and we're still falling for them.

Also, while I don't want to turn this into a Peanuts discussion blog, I don't agree with the idea that Peanuts "softened" in the '60s; on the contrary, it was a much "softer" strip through most of the '50s, more focused on day-to-day gags about the things kids say to each other. It was in the late '50s and early '60s that Schulz started to move into longer storylines, more direct addressing of contemporary events and issues. Not that there was anything wrong with the strip in the '50s, but the comedy became much sharper and more biting around 1959, staying that way through the mid-'70s.

And while the increased emphasis on Snoopy might have had some negative results, it also helped the strip expand into subjects it couldn't tackle before: because Snoopy was the only character in the strip who was not a child (and in his fantasy life he always imagined himself as an adult, not a child), it allowed the strip to take on things like the space race, college life (Joe Cool) and, of course, war.


I will say, though, that the Snoopy emphasis of the early '70s is an example of how something can be more of a problem when you read strips one at a time, rather than in bulk. When I read the 1971-2 strips in the new "Complete Peanuts" volume, the huge number of Snoopy and Woodstock strips doesn't bother me, since most of them are funny. But when the Peanuts website was running 1971 and 1972 strips one a day a few years ago, the Snoopy/Woodstock stuff irritated me because it seemed there were too few days that went by without those two. In a book, you can just turn the page to find a strip with the other characters. So that's an argument against my idea that strips come off better in day-to-day reading.


Bill Peschel said...

Some strips seem to improve by reading them in the treasuries, specifically Foxtrot and Baby Blues (although as a father, I find BB uncomfortably hilarious in the newspaper).

For a long while, I hated Foxtrot, especially the way the characters were drawn, with their potato-like ears and enormous head-to-body ratio (although I didn't mind Peanuts). The strip seemed to improve, but it was only in the treasuries that I could appreciate Amend's spin on the same series of gags.

It's a shame he's gone to the Sunday-only format.

J Lee said...

As good as the early Bill Melendez "Peanuts" specials are, their success in the mid-1960s was really the jumping off point for the strip, and not because of anything that Melendez did, but more because their success and the explosion of "Peanuts" related merchandising in their wake seemed to make Schulz focus more on the extended bits with Snoopy as some sort of character, since it was easier to work in fantasy bits from that angle, and those bits were easier to translate to animation.

(In a way, the evolution of "Peanuts" in the mid-to-late 60s preceded by eight years the direction taken by Garry Marshall with "Happy Days" -- i.e. the more the secondary character became the focus, the less based in any sort of reality the stories became. It made Schulz a lot of money, as it did Marshall, to go with the flow, but in both cases, looking at the results after the dust has cleared and the mania over that character has subsided, and you can see what came before stands the test of time better.)

Jaime J. Weinman said...

While I'm not uncritical of Schulz, I doubt the cartoons were his motivation for the increased emphasis on Snoopy, since most of his Snoopy stories in the strip were very heavy on Snoopy's thought-balloon "dialogue" and therefore very difficult to transfer to their animated format. The easiest strips to translate to animation were the ones with the kids talking.

I suspect the success of the Red Baron storylines, which started the same year as the animated specials, 1965, were a bigger factor in convincing him that the audience wanted to see more and more Snoopy in crazier and crazier situations, because that was the most insane story he ever did, and it became the biggest pop-culture phenomenon he'd had up to that point.

Also, Schulz's kids were starting to get older around this time, which I suspect shifted his focus away from childhood. You don't have to pull a David Michaelis and psychoanalize him to think that the introduction of Joe Cool and the college jokes, for example, had something to do with him having kids in college.

Chris L. said...

I think one of the ironies of Peanuts is that the era when it was at its peak of popularity (1964-67) was one of its weaker stretches. The strip was beginning to get repetitious, and I think Schulz latched on to Snoopy partly because it relieved him of having to do another "Charlie Brown tries something and fails miserably" story. In 1968 it seems like he picked up his second wind and started experimenting with the characters a little more.

I'm kind of an apologist for the latter years of Peanuts ('85-99), but I think people have a negative view of them because by then the book collections were harder to find and people mostly judged that period by reading the daily installments. That work definitely holds up much better in collected form.

Chris Riesbeck said...

For me, Pogo holds up very well. I have most of the collections, plus half a dozen albums of clipped Sundays from the 60's, and I return to them every 6 months or so. It may depend on what you originally liked about Pogo. For me, it wasn't the politics, but the characters, the slapstick, and escalating plots.