Like many people, I canceled the doorstep delivery of the newspaper long ago, about two years after I noticed that those green bundles were being thrown away unread. I tried the online version for a while, but it was too hard to navigate. We still bought the Sunday paper at the grocery store, but even that was becoming inconvenient.
And so, I recently ordered Sunday delivery of the physical newspaper and was given a free copy of the electronic version, both daily and Sunday. I soon discovered with pleasure the digital pdf edition, which scrolled just like normal online stuff. And it came to pass, after several decades of abstinence, I started reading the comics again.
They haven’t changed much. And they still aren’t very funny. They are whimsical. They contain little aphorisms about life that we all know. They are about family life, office politics, the innocence of childhood, pet personalities, friendship and the foibles of technology.
Almost nothing you will see in today’s comic section is much different than what you would find if you visited the archives of fifty or even one hundred years ago. So why do millions of people still read them?
My theory: They tell interesting stories. Why else would anybody read Rex Morgan, MD or Mary Worth?
Even though most comic strips are not serialized, they have continuing themes. We love to see Snoopy still sitting on the roof of his dog house, together with his bird companion, Woodstock, engrossed in an imaginary adventure. Garfield is still smarter than his owner, or at least he thinks so. Beetle Bailey is still finding creative ways to loaf and is still getting caught by Sarge—just like when you were 10.
Most cartoon characters are ageless. Dennis the Menace and Margaret are still little kids. They were my age when I started reading about them 60-some years ago. Now, I am in the age group of Mr. Wilson, but they are all still the same age. Archie and his friends, hopelessly out of date, are still in high school, performing the same stupid pranks (“Three Chairs for the Principal!”) And poor Mr. Flootsnoot is still being fooled. But some few isolated characters have actually grown old. I saw a few strips from Gasoline Alley recently and realized that Slim, who was about my age in the ’50s and ’60s, is now my current age and a whole new generation has grown up in the meantime. Gasoline Alley, which has more characters than a Nineteenth Century Russian novel, is a mystery to me now.
Despite appearances of modernity, Doonesbury is actually an old-timer. It came on the scene in the turbulent sixties. Mike and Zonker were in college then. They grew up over the years, but only in physical appearance. Their attitudes spawned in the ’60s remain evergreen. Today, President Trump gets about the same treatment in the panels of Doonesbury as President Nixon did 50 years ago. While other comic strips stay out of politics, bashing the current occupant of the White House has always been Doonesbury’s bread and butter.
Dilbert is, in most respects, the newest in concept. It is set in a techie office and actually requires you to know a little in order to get the joke. On July 8, the half-bald boss (with hair that looks like a pair of horns) is reporting to his superior officer, the red cat. It seems that their “immersive” virtual reality employee has quit. This employee, by the way, can only be seen while wearing virtual reality goggles. “He is suing the company for discriminating against digitally rendered people,” says the horned boss. “Is it too late to kill him?” asked the red cat, who has proven to be ruthless over the years. “I tried,” says the equally ruthless boss, “but he cloned himself to cloud storage.”
And that is as close to funny as you are ever likely to get in the funny papers.