Monday, August 13, 2018

Rating the Comics

For many years, I have taken two local print (yes, print!) newspapers daily, the New York Times and the local paper (now in the 4th different city). In addition to the local news and sports and culture, they all offered something the Times famously does not – comics! I read them daily; if one of us is out of town, we save them up. So, I thought I’d rate the comics in my local paper, the Arizona Daily Star.

First of all, it is an OK-but-not-a-great lineup. Overall, it is worse than the Kansas City Star or the San Antonio Express-News or the Chicago Tribune. For goodness sake, it doesn’t even have Doonesbury, even on the editorial page, where it lives in some papers. I guess that it is possible that better comics are more expensive, I guess. During a recent trip to Ithaca, I remembered that, in the 1960s, the Cornell Daily Sun carried only two comics, Peanuts and Pogo. If you are going to be parsimonious, that is the way to go.

I’m going to start with the worst comics; that is easier, because I use the simple criterion of “is it funny”. There are, of course, comic “genres”, and when easily identifiable I’ll note not only how good or bad a comic is but where it fits in its own genre (considering that I will, like most people, find some genres generally less appealing). To its credit, the Arizona Daily Star does not have any of the strips that I call “soap opera” (classically also known as the “Mary Worth” type), which, in addition to an ongoing story try to draw more “lifelike” charactersalthough it does have “Mark Trail” and “Prince Valiant” on Sunday. OK, here we go:

The “Nancy” Award for “Worst comic” clearly goes to “Mutts”, a strip that has, like the award’s namesake, never been funny. “Mutts” is in the “Cutesy Animals” genre and is easily worst-in-class of even that D-league (you can read that also as D-). The Star has another animal comic in the at-least-trying-to-be-funny class, “Marmaduke” (also in the “One Panel” class), which is sometimes funny, albeit predictable. The Star does not include perennial national favorite “Garfield”, not great to me anyway.

The runner-up “worst” is clearly “Rose is Rose”, perennially unfunny and worst in the enormous class of “Comics about Families”, which the Star (as all papers) have plenty of. These include, in more or less ascending order, the generally undistinguished “Adam”, “Grand Avenue”, the enormously popular “Family Circus”, and “Baby Blues”, probably the best of the bunch. There are other strips that at least sometimes feature families but are in other classes like “Teen” and “Quirky/Witty”. The best of the bunch in the Star is only on Sunday, “Fox Trot”. In this class, I miss the Canadian strip “For Better or For Worse”, even the reruns of the entire series in the KC Star.

Another genre that has multiple representatives in the Star’s comics section is “Old People”, and two of them, “Lola” and “Crankshaft” are also runners-up for overall worst, but better than “Rose is Rose”. “Crankshaft” actually is occasionally good – funny and or incisive – but these are rare strips. “Lola” is in the sub-genre of “out-there old ladies”, and is another worst in class, being mostly mean and almost never funny, even worse than “Diamond Lil” (in the KC, not AZ, Star), and nowhere as good as Nicole Hollander’s “Sylvia”.  The Star contains “Pickles” as the best of this bunch, never really funny, and not matching the best of “Crankshaft”, but funnier on average than the latter.

Straddling the line of “Family” and “Soap Opera” but not drawn as too-lifelike, is the “Teen” (but growing older, very slowly) awful strip “Luann”, another absolutely worst-in-class, which would be at the bottom if not for the competition from “Mutts” and “Rose is Rose”. Its only interest is in finding out how many Scandinavian names it can come up with, especially for boys (Axel, Gunther, Lars and others all appear; I assume its creator must be from Minnesota).

OK, so what is good in the AZ Star comics section? We have eliminated the bulk and are left with only a few contenders. “Zits” is probably the best in the “Teen” genre but in a whole other subclass from “Luann”, and is usually pretty good. “Dilbert” is a long-time player, and is in contention for best strip, probably a bit ahead of “Pearls Before Swine”, which I put in the “Quirky/Witty” category rather than animal; PBS loses points for its frequent lazy pun-focused strips. The Star has two others in this category, “Bizarro”, an often good (but never as good as either late-lamented “The Far Side” or its closest successor, which appears in the Star on Sunday only, “Argyle Sweater”), and “Non Sequitur”. After some thought, I have decided that “Non Sequitur” (which could also, but only sometimes, be considered a Family strip) is my choice for Best Comic, edging out “Dilbert” and “PBS”. Sadly, the Star doesn’t have “Rhymes with Orange”, which is probably better.

OK, maybe you disagree with some of my ratings or choices. But they’re mine. And if you like the ones I rated lowest, good for you. I guess.

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