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Ben Picks Ten: Cartoon strips. June 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has always loved good cartoons. Silence Dogood (who contributed her picks to this list) and I prefer witty, funny, well-drawn strips, but will forgive primitive drawing (think Dilbert) if the humor is right.

Great cartoons offer life lessons through laughter, taking on topics that we all deal with but most of us aren’t willing to talk about, such as age, overweight, and failure in a society that demands eternal youth, thinness, and success. And, as we’ll see, the cartoon characters who are coping with these issues often triumph, not by going on “The Biggest Loser” or seeing a plastic surgeon but by using their wits to puncture their denigrators’ pretensions.

Without more ado, our all-time cartoon faves:

Calvin and Hobbes. This one had it all: Brilliant drawing and true wit. From the strip’s name through its conceit of the little boy with the stuffed tiger toy who comes to life when no one’s looking to the sick snowman cartoons, it was lovable but never PC. Thank you, Bill Watterson. We miss you so.

The Far Side. As an armchair archaeologist, anthropologist, paleontologist, and real-life naturalist, how could our friend Ben resist this science nerd’s delight? Gary Larson’s witty cartoons almost always hit the nail on the head, and in a single panel, which is a very difficult feat. Think of the one with the two bears in the hunter’s sights, with one bear pointing to the other one, and you’ve got it. We miss this one, too.

Dilbert. Bless Scott Adams for creating the ultimate worker bees’ (as one of my own bosses famously dismissed the employees who actually created the products that made millions in bonuses for him) revenge. We may love the clueless Pointy-Haired Boss and the wily Dogbert more than the nerdy Dilbert, but Dilbert’s comments are always spot-on, and based on the real-life experiences of our fellow drones trying to remain sane in cubicles across the country while dealing with bosses with 1/4 their IQ. Dilbert speaks to our corporate culture like nothing else, and does it so well that there’s never even been an attempt at competition. Thanks, Scott!

Maxine. Who doesn’t love Maxine, the wisecracking, foulmouthed old lady who doesn’t suffer fools at all and tells it exactly like it is? Cranky and hysterical, she’ll give the finger to old age and to anyone who tries to dismiss elders in a youth-based culture that encourages Baby Boomers to try to look like their grandchildren. Go Maxine go! When we grow up, we want to be just like you. And if you thought Maxine was just a figure on a Hallmark card, she actually has her own strip. Sadly, our local paper doesn’t carry it, but you can view it on her website.

Get Fuzzy. We love this strip, and are so jealous that OFB’s father gets it every day in Nashville when we only get it on Sundays here. We feel that it’s the real inheritor of “Calvin and Hobbes,” wonderfully drawn and full of rich and sometimes sick humor as the snaggle-toothed conservative cat tries to undermine his deshevelled, liberal owner, fight off an army of ferrets, put something over on the good-hearted but usually clueless dog, and launch endless get-rich-quick schemes. Screamingly funny. Most of the time. Bless you, Darby Conley.

For Better or Worse. We applaud Lynn Johnston’s well-drawn strip for actually aging her characters rather than freezing them in time. And we enjoy the true-to-life situations she drew with such sympathy and humor. No high drama, no exaggeration. Lynn realized that real life was actually funny enough. We’re sorry she’s no longer cartooning, but are grateful that our paper has chosen to re-run the strip from the beginning.

Zits. Ugh, what a title! Silence actually tries not to look at it when reading the strip. But the strip itself is great, portraying contemporary teen life and the disconnect (as well as the deep bond) between parents and their teenaged kids. Hugely funny and very well drawn. Choosing to portray the parents as a frumpy, droopy-breasted woman and her balding, obese husband took a lot of courage, in our opinion. Kudos!

Shoe. The adventures and misadventures of a cigar-chomping crow and his minion, a frumpy owl, at a newspaper were bound to appeal to me and Silence, editors and writers as we are. But the humor really takes a backseat to the drawing, which is marvelous. Too bad we don’t get it in our local paper! But Jeff MacNelly’s work is delightful; we miss it.

Pickles. This strip got picked up by our paper rather late in the game, so we have no idea why it was called “Pickles.” But it’s wonderfully drawn and focuses on an older couple with deep but gentle humor. It’s the dark horse in the cartoon race, but we enjoy it very much.

Dennis the Menace. Dennis did for parents of young kids what “Zits” has now done for parents of teenaged kids. Dennis was always up to something, and his parents had their hands full trying to cope, yet Hank Ketcham kept it funny. We wish it was still carried by our paper, and can only hope that Dennis and his essential badness is still going on somewhere.

And the bonus:

Cathy. We have huge respect for Cathy Guisewite for depicting her cartoon lead Cathy’s endless struggles to lose weight. This was not the sole focus of the strip, which, like so many others, has been dropped from our paper so we have no clue whether it’s still being written or has been “retired.” Romance, work, and dealing with aging parents, plus the ludicrous nature of contemporary fashion and other concerns of a twentysomething woman featured as often in the strip. But making Cathy a character who’s always on the verge of being plus-sized took a lot of courage, and showing that she was still able to find love and succeed at work has doubtless encouraged many young women who struggle with this issue.

We’d like to give honorable mention to two other strips, “Luann” and “Henry.” Like “Zits,” “Luann” deals with teens and their parents, and does it well. She didn’t creep into our top ten because she’s not as well drawn and not as real as “Zits,” but she’s always a fun read. We like her a lot. Thank you, Greg Evans!

“Henry” strikes us—possibly erroneously—as a strip that dates back to the Great Depression, the era that gave the world “Nancy,” “Blondie,” “Orphan Annie,” “Popeye,” and “Pogo.” Henry was a bald kid who never spoke, an extremely eccentric concept in pre-chemotherapy days. But the strip carried a gentle humor that reminds us of “Pickles.” Nothing riotous, nothing screamingly funny, just a simple pleasure to read. “Henry” had legs, too—it was in our papers growing up, historic as it seemed even then. We don’t know what ever happened to it; perhaps it finally went gently into that good night. But we enjoyed it.

Our friend Ben must end this post with a nod to my all-time favorite cartoonist, George Booth. Booth was a magazine cartoonist who drew single-panel cartoons for The New Yorker, not someone who syndicated in newspapers and appeared daily. But his deranged-looking characters and their equally deranged-looking pets are surely the funniest cartoons ever created, and the ones that, in the end, most truly capture the human experience. Thank you, Mr. Booth, for enriching my life.