Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Whatever happened to real comics?

I am something of an amateur cartoonist. I had a small comic strip I ran in the local paper when I was in college. (Looking back on it now, it was pretty bad.) I have ran a few single frame "Archer Comics" on this blog, particularly when I was in seminary. I have also been creatively consulted a few times by Darby Conley of Get Fuzzy and Scott Hilburn of The Argyle Sweater

As such, I have been reading through the original Dick Tracy comics, thanks to the hard bound reprintings from IDW publishing. By original, I mean the first 10 years of the comic strip back in the 1930's when Chester Gould created the Dick Tracy idea. The comic still runs today in a shadowy reflection of what it once was, but Gould retired from the strip in 1977.

As to the modern Dick Tracy strip, Dick Locher was the artist the last ten years or so, but he retired in January of this year, and has been replaced by Joe Stanton and Mike Curtis, whose current Dick Tracy make-over started last week. Certainly the artwork has changed with Stanton and Curtis, who were collaborators on comic books like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Scooby Doo within the last 20 years. They have certainly brought a more comic book feel to the strip, which I have some mixed feelings about because I don't care for modern comic book styles, and it is still too early to tell whether their plot lines will be interesting. Locher was pretty good at story lines earlier on (I largely started keeping up with Dick Tracy under Locher's control of the strip), but it was certainly time for a change. The quality had certainly deteriorated, particularly with character dialogue and artwork, in the last 2 years. The strip had become very formulaic.

I have been discovering the classic Dick Tracy with the original creator/artist Chester Gould, who began the series in 1931. I have been astounded at how gritty and graphic some of the artwork and story lines are, given the time period. The first serial involved a murder and actually showed a dead body face down on the floor. Granted, it is pretty tame by modern Graphic Novel standards. But even then, it is still compelling some 80 years later. I can't hardly put the book compilation down.


I think some of the things that made the early Gould years of Dick Tracy so compelling was for three reasons. Firstly, he followed a "ripped from the headlines" mentality in the villains he created. He largely based some of his best villains on the classic, almost iconic, 1930's gangsters like Al Capone and James Dillinger. Secondly, the 1930's were just stylistically cool periods. Depressions and Dust Bowls aside, 1930's Roadsters, Fedoras, and Tommy Guns were just classic looking. A classic look makes for a classic artistic depiction. With real life material like that, how can you go wrong?

Classic "Grotesque Style" Dick Tracy villains by Chester Gould
Thirdly, Gould created a style of comic that was largely unheard of, at least on the comic page rags of the time. What he created, or perhaps more precisely mastered, was known as the "grotesque style." This type of cartooning was beginning to be seen to some extent in pulp action comic books of the time but never in a respectable publication like a newspaper page which was specifically "for the kids." Again, what was called "grotesque" at the time is somewhat tame by modern standards of comic books and graphic novels that have no problem depicting blood, guts, violence, and sex.  Ironically, though, his "grotesque style" would be edgy in the modern Dick Tracy strips (and most other strips)  from the last 10 years, which have largely been toned down in the last 20 years.

The comic pages in newspapers now have largely become very stream-lined, feel good fluff or else heavy handed polemical editorials in cartoon strip form. I do read the comics avidly, but they are largely unfulfilling if you yearn for anything more than a yawn (Garfield), a feel good smirk (Family Circus, Pickles, Beetle Bailey) or perhaps an occasional chuckle (Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, or Argyle Sweater). There are some exceptions, of course, like Doonesbury (which is really an editorial cartoon in comic form) and perhaps Non Sequitur (which has its moments but can be too preachy in and editorial cartoonish way). There are also a lot of other newer strips out there for which I can not identify a discernible purpose, as they are neither happy, funny, editorial, nor satirical (Shoe? Lucky Cow? Scary Gary?)

For the most part, however, comics are not good artwork in themselves anymore. This is true of cartoons in TV/internet media as well. Cartoonists have gotten lazy with computerized programs doing at least part, if not most, of the cartooning work these days. Also, the fact that the newspaper media is floundering has a major impact on comics. To save space (and money), newspapers don't want cartoons that do not fit the standard three frame or one bigger frame (a la Far Side) strip. Newspapers don't want to have to produce more than one page of non-Sunday comics (and bump off the feel good standards like Garfield and For Better or Worse.) 

Newspaper legal departments don't want to deal directly with individual cartoonists and would rather buy a package of readily recognizable (if bland) cartoons from a national cartoon corporate empires like King Features, Creative Syndicate, or United Media. To get into the cartoon business, you pretty much have to sell your soul to one of these syndicates (and lose basically all creative control). This is why the creator of Calvin and Hobbes retired well before his time because he was fed up with being pressured from the Syndicate to merchandise and standardize.

Luckily, some of the classic runs of classic comics are being put out for consumption. Maybe one day, the comics can return to being edgy, adventurous, and good artwork. I won't hold my breath on that, but it could happen.

A cartoonist can dream...

1 comment:

The Archer of the Forest said...

IRONIC UPDATE:

The new Dick Tracy artists today announced that the strip will no longer be in black and white, but in color every day. The color palette in today's strip has really bright colors. Yuck.