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Category: Cartoons

When the comic strip Zits debuted nearly twenty years ago, we got our first real look at the modern male teenager as cartoon protagonist. There had been other teens, of course, notably Archie and his friends, but teenagers in comics had generally followed the Alexander Bumstead model: a pale copy of the main character, with no discernible personality, and never worthy of delivering a punch line.

Duncan, the hero of Zits, comes much closer to embodying the reality of the teenage years than any of his predecessors. We all recognize the now-familiar joke themes of the strip: messiness, noisiness, awkwardness, appetite, fast growth, laziness, procrastination, cluelessness, and an uncanny mastery of all things digital. The chance for humor seems so obvious that you wonder why there had been no prior comic strips that tilled the same fertile subject matter.

Luann is the only other daily strip whose main character is a teenager (unless you count Spiderman, which I don’t). Unlike Cookie Bumstead (Alexander’s sister and yet another teenage non-entity), Luann gets most of the punch lines in her strip and has been given a distinct personality all her own. The strip doesn’t depend on visual laughs like Zits, and it isn’t drawn in the amusing, kinetic style that Zits' co-creator (and Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist) Jim Borgman uses, but Luann had a promising start and a good lead character. It has turned out, however, to be a bit of a disappointment for me.

There was a time when Luann looked like it was ready to do for teenage girls what Zits does for teenage boys. Luann, like most comic strip characters, does not age much. In the thirty years since her debut, however, she has grown out of her awkward, insecure persona and become a young lady who is finding her way in the world.

That may be a situation ripe with comic possibilities, but it’s not doing anything for me. I miss the younger, tormented Luann, the one filled with doubts and terrors. Those traits made me wince; I couldn’t help but feel empathy for her. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for humor; just ask Charlie Brown.

Maybe Greg and Karen Evans, the strip’s creators, got tired of that subject matter and wanted to grow their character out of her tortured adolescent phase. Perhaps they thought it was too disturbing for a daily strip to dwell on the unpleasantness of teen angst. I don’t know, but I see it as an opportunity missed. I do know that it’s tricky turning pathos into jokes. You run the risk of seeming flip or even cruel. Or worse, you wade too deeply into it and close the door on humor altogether. Maybe they gave up on that earlier Luann because it was just too hard for them to extract fun from her psychic pain.

Zits doesn’t delve into such matters. It is happy to stick with its tried and true repertoire of sight gags and slightly disgusting teenage boy subjects. That’s fine. I still like the strip, even though it’s lost some of its power to surprise. I’m tempted to say that girl humor is harder, but I’m a man, so what do I know? Signe Wilkinson, who also won a Pulitzer for her political cartoons, produces the daily strip Family Tree. It features a teenager named Twig, and she’s a typical modern teen, but I haven’t seen Signe leave the safe zone with her to tackle those tricky emotional issues.

So I’m waiting. Somewhere out there is a young woman who likes to cartoon and has the light touch of a Charles Schultz in her storytelling. She would need to walk the delicate line between jokes that are not too dark for the funny pages, and subjects that will explore the troubled internal world of a teenage girl. That is a strip that could, like Peanuts, advance our understanding of our own humanity. Yes, cartoons can do that.
Cartoons by the Foot
Perhaps I am not the best person to sound the alarm over the abuse of cartoon characters. I have done some pretty nasty things to my creations over the years, including instances of degradation, maiming, and death.

But that was all for art’s sake. The pain that they suffered served a higher truth, or at least got a cheap laugh. Their lives had meaning. It is not so with the poor animated creatures who have been enlisted to sell drugs on TV. I won’t judge the characters themselves; they probably needed the gig. Their advertising masters, though, should have a special niche reserved for them in cartoon Hell.

The most flagrant example, in my view, are the ads for Jublia, a treatment for toenail fungus. A cartoon foot is the hero of their ads. Its big toe has a face, and around its neck is a white collar and a purple bow tie. It sports a jaunty, purple porkpie hat labeled “Jublia,” a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and an expression of sardonic combativeness. Two purple fists float menacingly in front of it. Some of the toes, including the big toe face, seem to be afflicted with toenail fungus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up your characters in goofy, humiliating costumes. That’s part of the deal when you sign up to be a cartoon character. And sometimes, as a part of being in this tough business, you may be called upon to shill for Big Pharma just to keep ink and paper together. Even so, you’re a professional, and if you’re expected to perform, you have a right to demand that your character’s identity makes sense. This Jublia monstrosity, though…it looks like a fool, it’s relentlessly violent, and worst of all for the animated actor, its motivations are unfathomable. Is it supposed to represent my foot, or is it the product itself? If it’s the product, and it spends its time battering the words “Toenail Fungus” (as spelled out in a repulsive fungoid font) into submission, then why does it still have that fungus on its face?

My heart goes out to that poor cartoon. It is not even given the dignity of bringing its own thespianic magic to this sorry project. And what kind of future will it have after this? One can imagine that it might read for the role of the Jolly Green Giant’s foot, but who’s going to hire a foot with fungus on it? No, this creation will be discarded after this job. It will end up, I am sure, in an unmarked grave and with no trace of meaning to show for its short, brutal life.

Its hereafter, I assume, will be spent in cartoon Limbo. I can only hope that its creators will burn forever in cartoon Hell.
Dreadpan Humor
Newspapers are shrinking. That is a reason for concern for all of us. One of the many ramifications of this phenomenon is the sad withering of another cultural institution: the comics page. As a cartoonist, I am filled with existential dread by this development.

On the up side, as a cartoonist, I find existential dread kind of funny.
Dead and Deader
I drew a dead guy in a cartoon recently, in my 4/2/15 Deep Cover, and the experience has stuck with me. I’m not feeling remorse, exactly. His death was necessary to the creation of my cartoon; he had to die so that I could get my point across. What I am experiencing is more like a sense of loss at his passing, as if I had failed him somehow.

I’m not certain what put me in this mood, but I did see some paintings around the same time by a young artist named Sarah Honan. Using photographs from morgues all over the country, she has painted the likenesses of women who had died without a next-of-kin, without a history, and without a name… Jane Does, in other words. They are collected in Blink., her showing of the paintings. The pictures are grim and haunting.

My dead guy was not a real person like those Jane Does, but like them, he neither had a story nor anyone to remember him. He was composed only of a few sketchy lines, and he was mostly obscured by other elements in the drawing. I’ll bet that most people who saw the cartoon didn’t even notice him lying there. He is dead, though, just like the women. In a way, his fate is even lonelier than theirs. Not only is he dead, he has never lived at all. You don’t get much deader than that.

I do feel some responsibility for the dead guy. I created him, just as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. I have to answer for what he does and what happens to him. I haven’t drawn a lot of dead people over the years (unless you count graveyards). I can’t remember them all, but most were probably bit players like this guy. None of them had a history, either, and no future except as corpses in a cartoon. Even so, I bear a responsibility for them, too.

I am not certain what my duties are to my dead guy. I sentenced him to death and executed him; perhaps I could give him a backstory… a life to go with his death. So here goes: since the cartoon is set in the Middle East, I say that he was a young Muslim caught up in the cycle of violence that seems to sweep endlessly through that region. He was probably killed by other young Muslims.

The women in Sarah Honan’s Blink. all seem to have died violent or ignominious deaths. “I thought of all of the victims of sexual and physical abuse, of women deemed disposable by society, ” she says. “I realised how much they had to say about women all over the world.” Honan wanted to give those women a voice and a legacy.

My dead guy was a willing participant in the violence that killed him, but he is no less a victim than those Jane Does. His imaginary death makes me think of all the real young men deemed disposable by society, as are all casualties of war. In my cartoon, he is a character playing one of those young men.

I feel guilty in having used him so roughly. In doing so, I’ve treated my own character as disposable, and that seems wrong — as if I were taking the real deaths in the Middle East lightly. I should have used more care in drawing him, perhaps, but I can’t go back and change it now. I guess I’ll just have to do better. The next time I draw a dead guy (and there will be more of them — life is cheap in the comics), I promise to give him the artistic respect he is due. That ought to be my responsibility as a cartoonist in any case, and he deserves better as a stand-in for all those real John Does.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon