Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Weingarten Effect

or Asshat, No More

In order to belie the impression that I am unhealthily obsessed with the career of Gene Weingarten, I try to only blog about him once a year or so. That's been tough lately because he has been ubiquitous in promoting his new comic strip Barney and Clyde (and the allusion to the Beatty-Dunaway codgerflick is intentional). In a Washington Post feature story he tells how the five year gestation of the strip started as a bonding opportunity with his grown son Dan who he feels had been neglected growing up in favor of his daughter and future veterinarian Molly.

The high concept of the strip is "a billionaire befriends a bum". Presumably, hilarity ensues. The Weingartens enlisted the artistic support of David Clark for the actually drawing part of the comic. As part of the media blitz Gene interviewed himself for the Miami Herald which was full of softballs. So the online Washington Post chat he recently held was my opportunity to interview him, albeit stealthily. Since he knows of my blog and my opinions about him, by having twittered about me, mentioning me in his chat, and once suspiciously asking if I had anything to do with his Facebook posts being flagged as being inappropriate (I helpfully suggested that he check with the WaPo webmonkeys if their ill-fated Facebook Direct feature was incorrectly marking him as a spammer), I used a variety of aliases to submit a dozen questions to the chat. He ended up answering seven of them. Here they are with running commentary:
Peanut Gallery: Enough with the stage setting. When does the funny start?

Gene Weingarten: We thought we'd wait a few more months.
The first three weeks of the strip have been a lot of backstory, building to the meeting of the titular odd couple. A nice self-deprecating response to start off the chat.
Kar, MA: What has been the reaction of fellow comic artists, particularly the ones you have abused and ridiculed over the years? Does becoming a published cartoonist make you more sympathetic or less towards the demands of producing a daily strip?

Gene Weingarten: DEFINITELY more sympathetic.

Haven't had any piling on by the cartoonist establishment yet, after a brief, spirited salvo before the strip debuted. I expect some, though. It's not impossible some of the anonymous Commentariat to this story comes from those guys. We'll never know.
When the comic was first announced, the comments on The Daily Cartoonist were fairly rough on both the concept and the execution. Some of the more over the top ridicule may have been tongue-in-cheek, but then again, maybe not. The comments on the above-linked feature article split pretty evenly between fawning and vicious. But with less than fifty comments, by WaPo standards, that counts as complete indifference.
Buggy Whip, PA: With newspapers dying, why are you starting a newspaper comic? Why not do a webcomic where the barriers of entry are so much lower?

Gene Weingarten:
Very good question. Dan and I are very bad businessmen: It was either start a newspaper comic or become commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another nice faux-deprecating comment. Well played, but not a real answer. The more daring choice would be to develop the strip under a pseudonym to see if it would sink or swim without whatever minor cachet the Weingarten name gives it.
yelloj, KT: What rules have you established for the aging rate of your characters? Is that adorable smart-alecked daughter going to stay 13 forever?

Gene Weingarten: Dan and I and David have yet to solidify out strategy here. My vote would probably be to freeze them forever. I'm not sure I want to see Cynthia with breasts.

Gene Weingarten: This reminds me. For years I have had a question that I have never gotten a cartoonist to give me a straight answer to. When they draw something sexy, do they turn themselves on?

Even DAVID CLARK wouldn't give me a straight answer to this. I think there is something dark and disturbing under the surface here.

Gene Weingarten: Oh, and Cynthia is 11, not 13. At 13, she'd probably already have breasts.
This question, which could possibly tip my hand as to who asked it, is a callback to my post two years ago where I call Gene an asshat for his completely illogical theories of Comic Strip Temporal Dynamics. Clearly he has rethought this and backpedaled some.

As for his hypothetical about comics artists in lust with their characters, I have two words: Greg Evans. And let's not even mention the rather fan servicey Brooke McEldowney.

SPP: In two weeks, you have managed to use the Silent Penultimate Panel trope three times. What other comic strip cliches do you intend to repeatedly use in a post-modern ironic manner?

Gene Weingarten: Oh, we are adherents of the SPP. We make no apologies for it.

This poster, possibly a toonist, is referring to the conceit in which the next-to-last panel of a strip is essentially a silent freeze frame. It's a timing thing: a setup has occurred, and this delivers a drawn-out moment of tension -- or a dawning realization -- before the punch.

It's effective. A cliche, but effective. Cliches become cliches because they are effective.
I like that Gene hypothesizes that I may be a cartoonist because I know all the insidery lingo. Nevermind that there was an entire blog dedicated to penultimate panels. And speaking of which, he goes to that well in today's Sunday strip as well.
Tralfamad, Ore.: Gene, When Dave Barry 'retired' (he has a new book out) and you tried to take his place as syndicated columnist of choice, it kind of flopped. How is syndication of Barney and Clyde going vis-a-vis your previous effort?

Gene Weingarten: I like your place name.

No one took Dave's place. Essentially, when he retired his column, 450 newspapers retired their decision to have a humor columnist. I suppose if I had been as funny as Dave, I could have persuaded them not to. But, as I have said often in the past, I don't consider it an insult to be told I am not as funny as Dave Barry.

As far as Barney & Clyde, we'll revisit whether it's a flop in six months.

Didn't think I'd answer this one, did you, Jocko?
This was one of my more caustic questions, so Gene does get points for answering it. Despite having won two Pulitzer Prizes, Weingarten's lasting contribution to newspaper history is 'discovering' and editing Dave Barry while at the Miami Tropic. So there is really no shame in not being able to fill those shoes.
Fo, MA: It's very traditional in the comics industry for sons to take over from their fathers, e.g. anything originally drawn by Mort Walker and/or Dik Browne. Are you two the first case you know of where a father and son have started a strip together?

Gene Weingarten: I believe so. If anyone knows any different, please tell us.
This was just me showing off. From there the chat kind of petered out. Two or three of the questions I asked were answered by similar questions from other readers. You can peruse the whole chat here.

So after three weeks, my verdict is a resounding "meh". Barney and Clyde is hardly the worst strip on the comics page but there is no way it could be. On the other hand, after five years of self-promotion and endless bloviating about the inadequacies of other comics, he has labored mightily and brought forward a mouse.

There are some cute post-modern touches, but there is a decidedly retro feel that reeks of fuddy-duddyness rather than cutting edge. The dense dialog and overtly sloppy hand-lettering is deliberately defying the ever shrinking funny-pages trend. Perhaps evoking nostalgia is the way to go when the age of the average newspaper reader is Dead. Or perhaps the joke is on us and the strip is trying to be as mundane as possible.

There is a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect where people are incapable of recognizing their inadequacies and they have an excessively high opinion of their capabilities, often to tragic effect. I propose the Weingarten Corollary where one is very successful in one field (because nobody with two unprecedented Pulitzers can be called a failure) but blind to the fact that their talents don't always translate to other areas. It could also be called the Michael Jordan Baseball Effect. The slew of actors who have tried to become singers and vice versa are all victims of it.

Barney and Clyde is a result of a lethal brew of hubris and naïveté mixed with dollops of armchair quarterbacking and topped with a patina of father-son bonding. Much of the hostility towards it stems from the fact that Gene clearly has pull in the newspaper world that the average comic strip writer breaking into the business does not have. Two of the four newspapers carrying it have direct Weingarten connections. And what artist is having his circulation cut or his strip turned down so that Gene can indulge in this retirement-time nepotistic bucket listing?

One thing for sure, the strip does seem to be teaching Gene some small measure of humility. But as the Waitresses sang a couple of decades ago, "I don't want to be somebody's learning experience. Some rich kids way of spending his allowance."

I really wish the strip the best, mostly because Dan Weingarten seems genuinely funny. But keeping his dad from using 'Gerald Ford falls down' jokes and recycling all his old humor columns is probably too big a task to attempt. Let's hope the strip develops and shows some character, not just a bunch of characters.

4 comments:

Claude said...

I caught the chat in archive (I'm so rarely at the site when they're running live), and while I caught two of your more obvious plants (and kinda-sorta suspected a third one), I didn't realize that you'd gotten so many through, so kudos to you for that.

The artwork reminds me a little bit of "Mutts," which reminds me of "Krazy Kat". Curiously, though, "B&C" doesn't remind me of "Krazy Kat."

DemetriosX said...

Mutts is supposed to make you think of Krazy Kat. You can tell from a lot of things, but especially the Sunday throwaway panels, that McDonnell knows his comic and art history.

Now, I haven't looked at this strip. I did see it crop up in the list at Comics.com, but I'm trying not to add too many new strips to my daily read. I already need almost an hour. But from the art that yello has posted, I'd say it reminds me more of the bastard lovechild of Frank & Earnest and Bizarro.

Sue T. said...

I just read the last two weeks of the strip at washingtonpost.com, and I have to say -- it's terrible. I didn't come close to cracking a smile, or even thinking to myself, "Wow, that's clever." I like the artwork, but everything else is lame, lame, lame.

DemetriosX said...

So, for some reason (sheer boredom I suppose) I went and read the full run at comics.com. Meh. I do retract what I said about the art. It isn't terrible, though comics.com displays the strips way too large. They look better at WaPo. But there really is nothing there. It isn't funny, the characters aren't interesting or believable. Nothing.