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Teentoons
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.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee