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Moraff '14: These comics are not very good

If I know Brown students, and I don't, there's nothing we enjoy more than cracking open a fresh Providence Journal. The Journal has one huge difference from the New York Times — the comics page. Every day, bright-eyed citizens across the state flip to the back of the paper and drink in the funnies, only to realize that they are terribly, unspeakably bad.

Take long-running, Viking-themed comic strip "Hagar the Horrible". Hagar was started in 1973 by Dik Browne, whose name proved to be funnier than anything I've ever seen in the strip. Glancing at today's Journal, we are treated to a priceless vignette in which our Viking hero muses to no one in particular, "Most dogs beg for food ... / But not my Snert (the comical name of Hagar's dog)! I've trained him not to beg! / He just jumps on the table ... and takes what he wants!"

When you've finished shaking with helpless mirth, reflect on the fact that every day, on the one newspaper page completely devoted to art and laughter, we get this. We get a litany of jokes so awful that reading them can be physically excruciating. I'm sure that Vikings, in burning down peasants' homes and stealing their valuables, provided hundreds of solid punchlines. After 38 years, though, I'm not surprised that this fertile comedic ground is pretty much tapped.

This is not an aberration. A very unscientific survey of the 20 strips in the Journal reveals that the average strip age is 36.6 years. That's 14 strips — 70 percent — over the quarter-century mark. Six are a half-century plus. "Blondie" started in the Hoover administration. "Dennis the Menace" is credited to an author who is, worryingly, dead.

This isn't to say that young equals good. The two strips from this millennium, "Red and Rover" (2000) and "The Pajama Diaries" (2006) have managed to suck intensely enough to make up for lost time. Regardless, when 70 percent of strips have lived through the original "A-Team", there's clearly a problem. Specifically, everything is terrible.

It's a massive shame. Anyone who's read "Calvin and Hobbes" or "Get Fuzzy" — the only consistently solid strip in the Journal, by the way — or "Monty" or "Cul de Sac" or the fantastic "The Boondocks" knows that the medium can be uniquely and superbly funny. Given three to four panels, you can build jokes and characters in an elegant, sharp way that doesn't really have an equivalent anywhere else.

It's actually pretty tragic. There's no room for new guys to squeeze in. Thanks to the hulking dinosaurs that dominate the comics page, the medium — as most Americans experience it — is basically dead. The comics section, which could provide so much joy to people across the state, has become a walking horror show that takes comedy out behind the dumpster and beats it to death with stilted wordplay and an unimaginative stylus. In the end, everybody loses.

How could this happen? How could an entire comedic form be so uniformly awful? Inexplicably, there are no comprehensive surveys on the subject. But we can guess. First, syndicates look for dependable staples with marketable characters and are therefore unlikely to take chances on anything too out there. Second, old people read newspapers, and old people give feedback to newspapers, and old people complain when their favorite strip gets canceled, no matter how objectively worthless said strip might be. In the end, market forces are pushing relentlessly toward the dreary, humorless situation we see in the Journal.

We don't have to take this.

Newspapers respond to their readers. Newspapers are in fact desperate for young readers, on account of their industry dying. Here at Brown, the Journal has thousands of potential affluent lifetime customers. That's a significant chunk.

So I'm going to end this with an appeal. Call the Providence Journal. Email them. Let them know that you want better comics, that the comics page is an important piece of the cultural landscape that we should not allow to die. Maybe it won't do anything. Probably it won't do anything. But it's an easy, small way we can make the world a slightly brighter and happier place. Maybe.

 

Daniel Moraff '14 cannot draw. Do not email him.


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