When you get your daily newspaper, are you one of those people who turns first to the comic strips? Or are you like me, saving the comics until the end and savoring them like chocolate cheesecake after a satisfying meal?
I confess that I don’t read all the strips in the Fun & Games section of this newspaper. I have my favorites, and I zero in on them. But I greatly admire every clever cartoonist – a writer who can draw.
The last several months, I have noticed obvious differences among strips. Some cartoonists frequently incorporate coronavirus references into their submissions, while others stay with their basic story lines. For example, Tom Thaves shows Frank & Ernest wearing masks when they’re out in public. And those amiable characters make topical references to sports stadiums such as, “In baseball, ‘shutout’ now has two meanings.”
In “Blondie,” one of the longest-running strips, Dean Young has the Bumsteads, a middle-class suburban family, mostly continue with their daily mishaps – no masks in sight. And the “Pickles” writer Brian Crane portrays 70-year-olds Earl and Opal inside their house continuing to enjoy an imperfect retirement.
Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine,” was traveling in March when Colombia announced it was shutting its borders. He barely booked a flight home to California. Once he returned, he did a week of strips where he pretended he had been stranded in South America without art supplies. He drew with pencil on a yellow legal pad to make his work look even weirder than usual.
While Pastis normally works nine months ahead of schedule, he has been swapping in new topical material for strips he completed last year. You can see his characters pig and goat and rat, characters representing aspects of Pastis's own personality and worldview, trying to cope daily with the effects of the coronavirus.
“Other than maybe 9/11,” Pastis told the New York Times on April 27, “I can’t think of another time when every single person was thinking of the same thing, and if you’re not reflecting that in your strip, what are you doing?”
Each cartoonist has a distinct point of view. And each has the primary responsibility to create cartoons that amuse, educate and entertain, helping newspapers that carry their work gain readership. That’s a hearty menu. And there are risks involved in drawing a strip, because the creator can’t please all of the readers all of the time.
For example, “Dick Tracy,” drawn for years by Woodstock’s Chester Gould, was widely criticized for being too right-wing in character and excessively supportive of the police. Critics thought Gould ignored the rights of the accused. The strip continues in newspapers today.
“Beetle Bailey,” written by World War II veteran Mort Walker, was banned by the Stars and Stripes – the Pacific edition of the U.S. military newspaper – in 1954. The paper believed Beetle mocked the authority of officers and encouraged laziness in the ranks. Today, the strip appears in 1,800 newspapers.
The comics that we read define so clearly who we are. They make us grin, chortle, laugh out loud or, sometimes, scratch our heads. They accomplish that by being relevant, but not too controversial, funny, but not crass or irreverent.
So, the next time you sit down with your mocha to enjoy some moments with the funnies or Fun & Games, lift your cup to toast all those cartoonists who have figured out how to balance on a tightrope.
Then, pray that they keep finding their muse and walking the line that has been drawn for them.
• Jan Bosman of Woodstock taught English and business for 32 years. She also is a published essayist and poet, and is a member of the Atrocious Poets of McHenry County.