I first learned to read using the funny pages. That’s what my parents called the comics section of our local newspaper. This was back in the early 1970s, and the newspaper was the Tucson Citizen, a newspaper that sadly ceased publication in 2009. Many of the comics I read back then are still around, such as Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, and Family Circus. In most cases though, the original author is long gone and the comic is being written by that person’s children, or some replacement that the comic syndicate assigned. A few are just rerunning old comics, often passing them off as new by slightly rewriting the dialog. The number of new newspaper comics has dwindled, just as the number of newspapers have dwindled.
When I read comics now, I do it online. For a long time, I was able to do that through the Houston Chronicle, which had a fantastic online comics section that let me create a list of the comics I wanted to read and bookmark it, so that I had my own personalized funnies. Sadly, they “improved” their pages, at one point, doing away with the great interface, as well as restricting reading to paying subscribers. At that point, reading the comics got much harder. It seemed like the syndicates only wanted us to read in the newspapers, and that was something I had no plans of getting back to.
Eventually the syndicates caught on, and started putting the comics online through their own site. There are two main sites, Comics Kingdom, which is run by the King Syndicate, and GoComics, which is mostly comics from the old Universal Press syndicate. I really only use Comics Kingdom, although I will check out one or two GoComics strips on occasion. it isn’t that there aren’t good comics, there, I just dislike their interface, so I don’t bother. They make it hard to just look at today’s comic, so I don’t look at it on a daily basis. I think their goal is to have you subscribe, but there just isn’t enough there for me to pay the fees. I did subscribe to Comics Kingdom at one point, but their subscription was glitchy, so I stopped.
To give credit where credit is due, I might not still be reading comics without Josh Fruhlinger, who created the blog The Comics Curmudgeon. Josh takes a little time out of every day to comment on comics. For the most part, he is making fun of them, but in a fairly gentle way, at least compared to the people who leave comments at GoComics. They can be savage. In most cases, the mocking is deserved. There are a lot of legacy comic strips out there, such as Hagar the Horrible, Crock, and The LockHorns, that should have ended long ago. They are there purely for nostalgia, telling the same jokes they told when I was reading them in the 1970s. There are others, such as Funky Winkerbean, that are also creakingly old, but have shifted tone over the years, choosing melodrama over humor, or painfully trying to mix both,
Some may think it is bad form to mock such a benign thing as the comics, but over the years I have found myself going out of the way to follow the comics he discusses. This has resulted in a shift in what I read. As a kid, I rarely read the continuity strips. The only one that ever held my attention was Brenda Starr, and I stopped following that one long before it ended its run. Because of Josh though, I began reading Mary Worth, Rex Morgan M.D., Judge Parker, Mark Trail, and the late, lamented Apartment 3G. The storylines in most of these comics are, by necessity, slow moving and a little old-fashioned. The people who still read newspapers (the prime audience) aren’t young, and most aren’t looking for anything more than comfort food when they turn to the comics, that said, quality still shines and there are the traditional comics I think are doing a good job staying interesting in this era.
Sally Forth is my favorite traditional comic. It is the ongoing minor misadventures of the Forth family. Sally and Ted are fortysomething careerists, while their daughter Hillary is a middle school student with a diverse group of friends. This strip started in the nineteen eighties as a bland joke-a-day strip about a career woman. The strip, now under writer Francesco Marciuliano and artist Jim Keefe, has expanded the world and made the Forth family a little weirder and much more tuned in to pop culture. It has also begun to take on longer story arcs and more drama, such as the death of Ted Forth’s father, and the impact of Sally losing her job. It rarely dwells on sadness for long though. This year, for example, there was a weird, wonderful stretch where their house became haunted by an evil doll who was both genuinely unsettling but somehow still nerdy and self-referential.
Mary Worth thrives by embracing what it is. It is the story of a sixty to seventy-something woman who lives in a California beach town and meddles benignly in the lives of the other residents and anyone else who happens to fall into her orbit. For me, the best stories always revolve around Wilbur, a schlubby middle-aged man with a college-age daughter Dawn (who always dates badly). Wilbur thinks he’s a good guy, and even Mary seems to think he’s a good guy, but he’s really the Schlemiel. He thinks bad things are happening to him, but they are actually happening because of him, and he will never understand why. He still laments his old girlfriend breaking up with him, something that is actually not true, because he broke up with her to date a con-woman who took him for thousands of dollars. She just moved on while he was off being an idiot and wasn’t there when he was ready to tell her how wrong he was. Recently he’s found a new girlfriend, who he is just barely hanging on to because he is so terrible.
Rex Morgan M.D.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that Rex is a low-key anti-hero. He’s not a bad guy. Lots of people in town owe him their lives, and he comes through when he’s needed. The key though, is that most problems in the rex Morgan M.D. world are incredibly low stakes. Even medical “emergencies” tend to be easily resolved, and everyone is fine. Nowhere was this more apparent than when two of the ancillary characters were “almost” robbed by a robber who literally fell over attempting the robbers, turned out to be an old high school friend, and eventually got a new kidney and shaped up and became a better person. At no point in the story was there any real tension about whether everything would work out. Instead, the fun comes from watching Rex be eternally, mildly annoyed, and committing a thousand microaggressions. it is like he knows he’s trapped in a story he can never escape from.