My job is tricky to explain in casual conversation. When asked, I usually say something along the lines of, "I work with comics," before muttering something witty about Marmaduke. There's more to my job, of course, but I've learned that illuminating my role in bringing a puzzle-hungry nation their daily Sudoku infusion is a conversational dead-end with anyone whom I'd like to continue speaking.
My hilarious quips about Marmaduke do double duty to disarm the listener with my insight and to vaguely establish that I don't mean comic books, I mean syndicated strips. I take a silly amount of pride in my association with them. More often than not, this is met with, "Comics? Cool, I love ______!!" (fill in Calvin and Hobbes, Pooch Cafe, The Far Side, Dilbert, Frazz, etc), which is always nice to hear, though the only credit I can take for a given strip's success is not betraying the trust instilled in me by adding mustaches to all the characters as a funny prank. But peoples' word choice is always the same: "love" instead of "like," even if they're not still active readers. The effort that goes into getting a strip in front of an audience is an exercise in passion, which is a gritty sort of love-- for the fun of drawing, the precision of language, the grind of working out all the myriad details along the way so that someone in a kitchen somewhere can chuckle softly to himself before moving on with his day. Obviously, silly characters doing funny things is going to be inherently appealing, but there's more to them that makes them stick firmly and fondly in the mind of readers.
Ponderously articulated or not, something about the medium connects with lots of people on a really deep level, and the feeling stays put, resistant to eroding over the years into one of those youthful pastimes that, in hindsight, goes from character-defining to a deeply regrettable stage in learning how to have good taste. Maybe it's because there's no risk in enjoying a given comic, no cultural cache to be gained by affiliating oneself with, say, F Minus instead of Betty. They're all great if you're a fan. Comics are around for you to enjoy, and require as much or as little attention as you care to give them. Take a break for as long as you want-- they'll still be there for you whenever you return, and they'll still be great.
Seeing as it's Valentine's Day, and I clearly spend a lot of much time thinking about how people relate to comics, I thought it might be worth exploring the way the comics relate to each other. Sound like a stretch? Wait until you see the nonsense I have planned for St. Patrick's Day.
Manifestation: The most conventional type of relationship on our spectrum, but only because most people didn't realize how broad the boundaries of love could be until the advent of the Color Internet opened our eyes to the elasticity of amour. Deep into their marriage, with no kids in the house to distract them, Jimmy Johnson's Arlo & Janis have built a lasting love on a foundation of attraction, respect, and mutual bemusement with those dang smartphones.
Notable for: The gentle, profound sense of purpose that comes with finding someone with whom to share your life; spooning.
Preferable to: Escaping through the bayou handcuffed to a fellow member of your chain-gang, blood feuds and foreign game shows where you have to sing karaoke while being lowered into a vat of frogs and snakes.
Manifestation: Unshakable, innate and as evolutionarily beneficial to our species' continued propagation as thumbs, tool use and the absence of velociraptors. In Robb Armstrong's Jump Start, that broad, unconditional bond stretches across generations, social strata and the vicissitudes of occasions where use of the word "vicissitudes" is appropriate. Also, one of the grade school-aged kids is a doctor, somehow!
Notable for: A sense of belonging, security and comfort; people who will store all your old action figures when you move into your own place.
Preferable to: Being a wooden boy brought to life by a fairy; Dickensian orphanhood.
Boy & Dog:
Manifestation: In Red & Rover by Brian Basset, Red (boy) and Rover (dog) spend all day playing, cuddling, and nurturing each other through a big, soft world that seems to exist on the dateline between a post-WWII midwestern idyll and our modern world. The simplicity of a place where all the toy shops sell model planes and the televisions are gigantic and sit on the floor allow Red and Rover to constantly share the same purity of excited affection usually only witnessed briefly in your dog's frenzy when you first get home from work.
Notable for: Being so good and cute, oh yes it is, oh yeah, such a good strip, such a good-- you wanna go outside, strip? C'mon, comic strip, let's go to the park! [pat pat pat]
Preferable to: Boy and Cat. There'd be no strip if Rover was a cat, unless every plot revolved around Red walking around the house calling for Rover to come out, while Rover hunched under a bed, listlessly cleaning himself and occasionally yawning.
Boy & Squid:
Manifestation: In Mark Tatulli's Lio --whose tone is sort of like The Wonder Years mixed with the episode of The Twilight Zone where the telekinetic kid keeps sending people to a cornfield with his mind-- there is occasionally a giant squid. I'm not sure if the squid has much of a backstory, but he seems to hold Lio in whatever the squid equivalent of "buddy" is. They have adventures that span a spirited mix of science, spite, shenanigans and sweetness, and the squid is gentle enough with Lio not to squish him when they hug. Yet.
Notable for: The fact that there's a giant squid just hanging around in the yard, and no one raises a stink. We've come a long way, America.
Preferable to: Squid and Boy. In most instances, a squid would find it pretty tricky to even get a kid's attention, since it would have to swim dangerously close to shore to be visible from land. Even then, it would have to gauge its timing perfectly to ensure that anyone was present when it appeared, that the shore-based prospective friend wasn't a predator, would be intuitive enough to understand the squid's appeals for companionship, and had an apparatus on hand to keep the squid's skin supple in the open air. Assuming the squid could find friendship before the seagulls spotted him, he would have to be emotionally prepared to never again return to the ocean, since there's a lot more potential for excitement in the variety of environments offered on land. Expecting the human to prefer seeking adventure while the two of them paddled around on the ocean's surface would put a lot of strain on the relationship, and the only excitement they'd be likely to find would be sunburns and jellyfish. Plus, the mindset of ocean life is a lot more old-fashioned than we forward-thinking mammals, and they would likely shun the both of them by retreating scornfully into coral. So sad.
Boy & Stuffed Tiger:
Manifestation: There is no artistic medium more suited to depicting the daily exploits of a child's imagination than comics, and no example of comics as an art form than Calvin and Hobbes-- but you know that already. Calvin's a kid, Hobbes is his stuffed buddy, and you should probably stop reading this right now and go read today's strip, instead. Hobbes is a great listener, coconspirator and foil, but he's also a crucial voice of reason to rein in Calvin's rampaging id. It's a bit like Fight Club, except, it's about a kid and a stuffed tiger being wonderful, instead of grown men hitting each other and crying about Ikea. Other than that, it's exactly like Fight Club.
Notable for: Being a perfect object that will stand the test of time, as well as any and all hyperbole I keep shoveling onto it.
Preferable to: I dunno, Life of Pi?
Cat & Lasagna:
Manifestation: Garfield's enlarged heart is limited to tough love for nearly all the players in his life, as exemplified by how often he breaks into his customary half-lidded smirk, which is a pretty efficient way to synthesize the inscrutable smugness through which most real cats relate to the world. Garfield's broad, guileless grins are reserved for those specific things which benefit him directly: Jon or Odie being injured due as a result of his actions or due to his conscious inaction at a crucial moment, napping-related miscellany and food either intended for him or unguarded enough for him to steal. Lasagna's rich, textured layers are the ideal indulgence for his appetites, and as he's pondered whilst gazing longingly into his own reflection 'pon many an emptied plate over the years, a delight with more secrets than he has lives. Which is to say, at least ten, but probably more. Maybe twelve!
Notable for: Personally, I've always derived a great deal of enjoyment imagining the sound of a kitty furtively snacking on a dish of lasagna in an otherwise quiet room. They have such teensy mouths!
Preferable to: Mondays. AM I RIGHT?!
Dog & Bone:
Manifestation: Pretty much any cartoon that has ever featured a dog as a cameo or reoccurring character. Chiefly, Marmaduke, who is never specific about his intent after finding a bone, be it gifted to him or pilfered from a plate, but is very, very serious about obtaining as many bones as he can, as frequently as possible, even if he has to chew through some healthy flesh to get to them.
Notable for: The observation that dogs liking bones is a relatable occurrence from many peoples' experience with real dogs.
Preferable to: Dogs eating steaks all the time. Besides it being unhealthy for the dog in the long-term, they'd probably start acting like they thought they were better than us because of their high-class diet. If we are to retain any semblance of social order in these troubled times, we must restrict dog-steaks to "treat" status. The last group to permit their canines to dictate their own diets were the Romans, and one of the only things that remains of their legacy are totems of Romulus and Remus, which stand as a chilling portrait of beastly subversion of Man's supremacy. If we are to remain on the right side of the leash, we must not waver.
Boy & No One:
Manifestation: The brutal, crushing saga of Charlie Brown's annual Valentine's Day heartbreak at the hollow, laughing mouth of his mailbox. Spending time alone when you're a kid isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it provides a space for introspection and nurturing personal interests, but the isolation forced upon ol' Chuck thanks to the world's utter derision for him can't be healthy. It's a credit to the mastery of the medium exhibited by Charles Schulz that we think of Peanuts as warm and largely innocent-- it certainly can be, but reading year after year of Valentine's Day strips in a single sitting makes it clear that a huge portion of the run was devoted to different ways to humiliate, belittle and reject Charlie Brown. It's stated repeatedly that the reason he never gets Valentines isn't because he forgot to file proper change-of-address forms or Woodstock used them for nesting material, it's because literally no one likes him. To his credit, he takes this in stride and remains steadfast in his hope, but his posture slumps a little more every year when propped up against the mailbox's post. Poor kid. Why won't his parents put down their trumpets and hug him?
Notable for: The fact that this emotional hellscape never, ever relents, except for a few weeks in the 70s where Charlie developed a rash, had to wear a bag over his head, and was mistakenly popular at camp because no one could see his face.
Preferable to: Uh, I guess being uniformly and cruelly ignored is slightly better than the opposite, where you're a household name for starting a plague. It's also better than being chased into a cave by a mob of villagers. At least the neglect is largely benign and consistently frosty enough that it stops being much of a surprise after a few years. If I may say so, I think you're a good man, Charlie Brown.
After a sobering look at my word count, I think we can probably conclude our survey for this year. If anyone needs me, I'll be at my desk, putting makeup on my stuffed Garfield doll so we don't look out of place when we go out for our Valentine's dinner this evening. Please don't judge me.