The comics get no respect

2006-12-06T23:00:00Z The comics get no respectJOSHUA FRUHLINGER - SPECIAL TO The LOS ANGELES TIMES Daily Herald

It was either a genuine sign of the end times or proof that hipsters can get into anything, but this summer and fall Aldomania sparked a national "Mary Worth" craze.

In case the above sentence makes no sense to you, "Mary Worth" is a 68-year-old soap-opera comic strip about a nosey, passive-aggressive widow who is now (and always has been) about 68 years old. And Aldomania was a fan eruption over Aldo Kelrast, a Captain Kangaroo look-alike who was stalking the strip's titular heroine in a plot that was at once surprisingly suspenseful and deliciously bizarre.

The Palm Beach Post published 2,100 words on the phenomenon. Fans snapped up Aldomania T-shirts that proclaimed, "I refuse to believe you prefer to be alone" -- one of the stalker's dafter pronouncements. The morning after a dejected Aldo drove off an ill-placed cliff, bottle of cheap hooch in hand (no, really), there were three tribute videos posted to YouTube.com by 9 a.m.

These are not even the heights of the passion "Mary Worth" inspires, nor is "Mary Worth" the only comic that gets this kind of attention. Not long ago, I thought I was pretty much alone in my deep affection for Margo Magee, a sexy, manic and amoral publicist living in the oddly chaste bizarro-Manhattan of "Apartment 3-G," another long-running soap strip.

But that was before I started ComicsCurmudgeon.com, where I analyze, deconstruct and mock comic strips. This site, which I thought would merely entertain my close and indulgent friends, receives about 13,000 visitors and 200 reader comments every day. I say this not as some sort of sad boast about my "mad blogging skillz" but to point out just how much gleeful energy there is in the comics community.

I'm certainly not alone in examining the funnies online. I can only aspire to the monomania of comics fanatics who focus their critical energy on single strips, from the well known ("Garfield") to the obscure ("The Dinette Set"). I must salute "The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch," a site devoted to tracking a tiny but crucial piece of comics ephemera -- how often strips stretch out a lame setup by putting a wordless reaction shot in the panel before the punch line. And folks, give it up for the live-action "Mary Worth," a mesmerizing late-'90s film (viewable at zerotv.com and YouTube.com) in which gifted actors perform a month's worth of "Mary Worth" strips, replete with the awkward stage gestures and improbable emphases in dialogue that are hallmarks of that venerable strip.

The only place you won't find this kind of enthusiasm is in the newspaper comics pages themselves. Rather than nurturing a section of the paper that has a built-in and long-lived fan base, papers across the country continue to dishearten fans by cramming fewer strips into ever-shrinking spaces. Many comics aficionados have begun to sour on the whole newsprint experience.

My own hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, inculcated my weird love for the soap-opera strips. But I have abandoned The Sun's comics page for the Web site of the Houston Chronicle in faraway Texas. The Chron boasts a staggering 103 strips online (although 66 appear in the print edition). The Web site is a haven for comics fans and a justified source of pride for the paper. "If we like a strip, we keep it, and I hope we continue doing that," says Mike Read, the Chronicle's Web operations and development editor.

The Houston paper is a rarity. Most American papers have been steadily cutting back their comics sections. It would be nice to blame the decline of comics pages on stodgy editors who are temperamentally unable to deal with the power of Aldomania and the like, but there's a bigger problem here. Print circulation at American newspapers is in freefall, and editorial space continues to shrink. The shriveling of the comics is another symptom of a disease metastasizing throughout the newspaper business.

Maybe one reason readers are fleeing print is that papers don't give them enough reason to believe print is anything special. Few comics fans would dispute that the funnies look best on paper, or that reading the comics in newsprint over breakfast is a pleasing ritual. Going back to the childhood of the modern newspaper business -- in the graphically rich Hearst and Pulitzer papers of the early 20th century -- one of the attractions was the Sunday-morning treat of page after vibrant page of full-color comics. But when was the last time an interesting-looking comics page caught your eye, let alone invited you to a full-spectrum visual feastfi

As comics sections are pared down, readers are often asked to take part in a painful ritual: voting to banish their least favorite strips into the outer darkness. Because anything interesting invariably annoys somebody, the survivors tend to be bland time-servers that nobody hates -- or really truly likes. For me, the end of my relationship with newsprint comics came in 2004, when The Sun cleared out 15 strips, including most of the soapers, and offered only five new ones in exchange, reducing the overall number by more than 25 percent.

Reader outcry (some of which I admit I solicited on my site) brought back a token pair of strips, but in a characteristic move, "Doonesbury" and "The Boondocks" were banished to the editorial pages to make room for the returnees. Huey Freeman's diatribes about UPN co-existed uneasily with Heritage Foundation scholars' diatribes about activist judges before "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder apparently gave up on the newspaper medium entirely.

He's not the only one. Comics artists are figuring out that they can make money even if they bypass the syndicates and newspapers (and the accompanying restrictions on image size and four-letter words) and publish directly on the Web. A generation that already gets most of its news from the Internet has one less reason to pick up a newspaper.

Before the print news medium gives up on new readers, maybe it's time to double down on the comics, to make the funny papers a selling point again: Give the comics an extra page. Move the funnies out of the entertainment-section ghetto and into the A section or Sports. Better yet, run the daily strips in a stand-alone insert -- not just Sundays. Get the advertising staff to start selling against the comics section (why should TV be getting all the ads for sugary cereals and action figuresfi). Do something, do anything, to make the funny pages interesting.

There's no guarantee that this would help the situation for newspapers. (The Houston Chronicle, like almost all papers, is still losing circulation, although at a lower rate than major comics killers.) But at least the reader would get something more exciting than the average comics page. Or for that matter, the average "Mary Worth."

Fruhlinger is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Baltimore; he writes his own blog, The Comics Curmudgeon, and contributes to the political blog Wonkette.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A8.

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