Satchel (left) and Bucky consider the future of the American newspaper comic strip. (©United Media/Darby Conley)

 

 

Ed. Note: Whaddiya know! Our man in the comic-strip trenches was just awarded a Reuben Award by the National Cartoonists Society for best newspaper comic strip (2002).

 

The current state of newspaper comic strips in America is, in a word, pathetic.

Open your Sunday color section and you'll find nothing new. It is a collection of archaic strips rehashing old gags (Beetle Bailey, Wizard of Id, Hagar the Horrible, etc.), toothless domestic sit-coms (Zits, Baby Blues, Sally Forth, For Better or For Worse, etc.), and tepid melodramas (Mary Worth, Judge Parker, Rex Morgan, M.D., etc.). The topical strips do still manage to cause an occasional fuss with their alternative viewpoints, but that's about all they offer, ranging from the sometimes-funny (Doonesbury and Non Sequitur) to the not-really-all-that-funny (Boondocks, Jump Start). Meanwhile, the artistic quality of current strips is shrinking faster than the space allotted to them; distinctive drawing styles or daring narratives rarely ever appear. Individuality, imagination, and sharp writing are qualities from cartooning's past.

The reasons behind this artistic stagnation mostly have to do with the obstacles faced by new talents trying to enter the industry. To get published in major newspapers usually requires a cartoonist to be distributed by a national syndicate–companies that are often preoccupied with reaping profits from old war-horses like Blondie. But even if a cartoonist is lucky enough to be picked up by a syndicate, this is no guarantee of success–newspapers only allot a finite space to comic strips and editors are loathe to swap out popular, predictable, old strips for unfamiliar new ones. This moribund system has all but killed the possibility of fresh, new comics becoming widespread cultural phenomena, as The Far Side, Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes once did. The last "crossover hits" still being published in most newspapers, Garfield and Dilbert, are pushing products that have aged long past their sell-by dates.

While the Internet and alternative weekly newspapers have created some opportunities for new artists to be seen, the traditional daily newspaper is still the place where most people look for comic strips. If the industry is ever going to change, it has to happen on these pages first.

Fortunately, there are a couple of bright spots on this faded newsprint, and they both involve cute little critters that are sassy enough to keep readers interested. Patrick McDonnell's Mutts is a superbly drawn strip that recalls the style of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, though it concentrates more on the whimsical than the existential. Mutts delights with its conversing cat-and-dog duo even if the scenarios they face aren't altogether new.

Darby Conley's Get Fuzzy likewise features a talking cat-and-dog pair locked in eternal struggle, though they are far from cute. The meticulously drawn Bucky is a temperamental Siamese cat who generally does what he likes, whether it's dissing the tuna cat food he inevitably gets served or smashing household items and proclaiming them to be "art." His nemesis is the gentle-hearted dog Satchel, a lump-like oaf who can only offer his somewhat sluggish observations in self-defense. Their master is the hapless human Rob Wilco, who is usually reduced to cleaning up the damage to his apartment. Although perhaps not as consistently funny as Mutts, Get Fuzzy nevertheless has more going on. With its bizarre humor, weird personalities, and un-fuzzy relationships, Get Fuzzy has a level of complexity just not found elsewhere in the comics pages. It may not be as ingratiating as other cute-critter strips, but it's definitely the most unique.

Shockingly, Get Fuzzy has been a solid hit for such an oddball newcomer; it launched in September 1999 with a very healthy 75 newspapers and has expanded that number to 175. Two paperback compilations are out, licensing companies have come calling about stuffed animals, and a production company wants to turn Get Fuzzy into a TV show. Ask the 32-year-old illustrator for the source of the strip's popularity, and he has an immediate answer.

"It's Bucky," Conley says from his apartment in Boston. "All Bucky, all the time. I love cats, but I was surprised at how vocal the Bucky fans are. I really like the dog–I think dogs are funny in how slow-witted they are, but people really want to see the cat being bad."

Yes indeed. Although there have been hundreds of cartoon cat predecessors on the Sunday comics pages–from Krazy Kat to Garfield–Bucky is unique. He may talk just as his brethren did before him, but he's not just another human character masquerading in cat fur; you get the sense that if cats really could talk, this is what they would be saying. "I've always liked the idea of talking animals–like, what the hell are they thinking?" muses Conley. "I've always wondered that. Even if they could talk, a dog probably couldn't understand you, and a cat probably wouldn't care."

And therein lies the alluring essence of Bucky–no matter the incidental hell he puts his roommates through, he doesn't particularly care. He shows no signs of remorse; he is a cat, after all, and for this species it is the experience of the moment that matters, not the aftermath. As one of Rob's friends says after being slashed for daring to pet Bucky, "And yet…I'm strangely drawn to him…" Conley based the character on a friend's cat with remarkably similar idiosyncrasies. "I knew a Siamese cat that hated me no matter what I did," he confesses, "and I loved it and I wanted to pet it all the time, but it hated me for no reason." Such is our twisted love affair with felines, which Conley tackles seven days a week–a feat of detailed illustration work that typically takes him 100 hours each week to produce.

"It's funny how much time goes into even the bad ones," he says. "Even the ones I'm not real happy about when I'm sending them out, it still took a huge day's work to get it done. Sometimes at 3 or 4 in the morning you start wishing you had little Dilbert characters with balloon heads and polka dot eyes."

 

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