Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Comic Strip Temporal Dynamics

or Why Gene Weingarten Is An Asshat

In what seems to a prescient rebuttal (since strips are written weeks in advance and the Hilary Forth for President post only happened last week) to Gene Weingarten’s continued wrong-headed theories of temporal dynamics, today’s Sally Forth directly states that all comic strip continuity dates backwards from the present. Otherwise the accumulated anachronisms would become unbearably limiting and characters created in the 80s or earlier would be unable to make jokes about anything contemporary like cell phones or internet surfing.

Gene Weingarten styles himself as some sort of comics expert but he continually spouts completely ridiculous assessments of comics. His opinions are colored by his pals in the industry. Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine frequently contributes to Gene’s online chats, but nobody is a bigger asshole buddy of Gene than Jef Mallett, creator of borderline-disturbing independently-wealthy elementary school janitor Frazz. While the comic is all aboveboard, no real school employee would be allowed to be as cozy as this Calvin-haired custodian is with prepubescent kids.

Now Gene Weingarten and current Sally Forth writer (and longtime indulger of my solitary obsession with the Forths) Francesco ‘Ces’ Marciuliano have butted heads in the past. In a 2002 chat about comics, Gene Weingarten had this to say:
I knew the guy who started Sally Forth 15 years ago. He was a lawyer who could not draw. His early cartoons were just TERRIBLE. And because they were terrible, they were sort of charming. Then he hired a slightly better (but not good) cartoonist, and things went downhill rapidly. Sally Forth is one of those comics that is listless because it is no longer drawn by its creator.
The Washington Post online comics site credits the strip as "Sally Forth
by Steve Alaniz & Francesco Marciuliano; drawn by Craig MacIntosh" despite the fact that Steve Alaniz hasn't had anything to do with the strip for years. That Ces writes but does not draw the strip has also befuddled Gene for a long time. Here is a direct exchange between the two from 2003:
Francesco Marciuliano: Can you keep the comic strips where the author didn't so much give up the ghost but simply writing duties and royalties, like my job at "Sally Forth"? I need the money, people! Where else am I supposed to get that kind of cash?! Cockfighting? The chicken will beat the living crap out of me.

Gene Weingarten: Howdy, Francesco. I was a friend of the first guy who started Sally Forth. Whatsizname. The lawyer. Funny man. Couldn't draw. He was right to get out of the drawing biz You draw better. I know that's not saying much, but I think you draw well.
"Whatsizname" is Greg Howard. Not that tough to remember for someone you claim to know. This led Ces to make the following life-changing realization:
*No matter how many emails you send him, no matter how often you post on his Tuesday discussion board, no matter how frequently you point him in the direction of your syndicate's Web site, Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten will never get that you only write "Sally Forth," you do not also draw it.

But Gene began to come around. In 2005, Sally Forth was named as his Comic Of The Week, drawing this reaction from Ces:
Shocked! Shocked I am to find that The Washington Post's resident (or at least self-appointed) humor expert Gene Weingarten chose the above "Sally Forth" as his "Comic Pick of the Week"! This almost makes up for the three years in which he more or less equated the strip with an unsuccessful bowel movement.
See, in Gene’s world everything revolves around him. One of his tired bits is his hatred of the name Madison, so when someone else makes a joke about the ubiquitous moniker, the only possible explanation is that it was inspired by him.

Madison, Wis.: Was yesterday's Sally Forth a shout-out to you?

Gene Weingarten: Could be!
The thought that the name Madison is equally annoying to other comics escapes him. This is a little self-absorbed from a guy about to steal Dave Barry's booger schtick because his jokes about underpants are played out.

All this is just to lay the groundwork on the thesis that Gene is an Pulitzer Prize-owning asshat that wouldn’t know a good comic if it hit him in the face. Nonetheless, he is an influential pompous prick and perhaps dozens of panty-flinging groupies hang on his every word. That doesn’t make him right about comic strip timelines. Most comic strip characters don’t age for very good reasons. Nobody wants to read jokes about Linus’s prostate exam instead of the Great Pumpkin.

Many strips get around this by being as non-topical as possible. Nancy and Sluggo would look very weird dressed emo or goth. Red and Rover deliberately stays very fluid in its setting so that it can make both topical and nostalgic gags.

When comic strip characters age, they tend to do so VERY slowly like in Baby Blues or Marvin. The exceptions that prove the rule are For Better Or For Worse and we daily see what a trainwreck that has become and Gasoline Alley where half the most beloved characters should have taken a dirt nap a decade or two ago. Others like Opus and Funky Winkerbean jerk forward in time at awkward intervals that destroy the pace and rhythm of the strip.

Hi and Lois has been in print for three centuries now and the clothes and lingo have all kept up with the times, more or less. Thank God. The strip is unfunny enough without having to be stuck in some sort of 1950s timewarp because Gene Weingarten says you are limited to the the era it started in.

Weingarten is constantly hinting that he and his son are working on a syndicated strip that, of course, would be the funniest gift to the comics page ever. Let’s see what he does in a decade or two when the characters need to keep up with the times. Until then perhaps he should back off on the people in the trenches putting out amusing strips on a daily basis rather than pontificating with his weird theories that would suck the life out of the funnies page so it fits his warped misconceptions.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Should comic strip characters age and should the settings stay contemporary or reflect the era they started in?

Update (1:35 p.m): In his chat today, Weingarten took credit for the Sally Forth gag at the top of the page despite the two week plus lead time for newspaper comics.
Gene Weingarten: I meant to add this to the comic picks. It's terrific. I am pretty sure I was the inspiration for this. Last week, in the Gene Pool, I noted Hilary's real age. Marciuliano mentioned this in his blog. I think he got that strip in in a hurry.
The prosecution rests.

Another Update (2:20 p.m.): Ces explains the time warp much funnier than I can.

Yet Another Update (7/31/08): In an update to his chat, Weingarten admits that he didn't inspire the strip:
I was wrong in guessing that Francesco Marcuiliano's sudden, startling mention of Hilary Forth's true age (36) was in playful response to my having done just that six days before The Gene Pool. I contacted Francesco to check: It turns out this was an amazing coincidence.
He doesn't say what exactly prompted him to contact Ces, but I would like to believe that my blog post gnawed at him and he decided to set the record straight while ignoring my very existence. It's no less presumptuous a theory than his that a July 23 post of his would cause someone to scramble out a comic strip by July 29 in rebuttal.


Anonymous said...

Definitely contemporary.

Gene Weingarten is an asshat in so many ways in addition to his opinions on comics! Vain, obnoxious and arrogant also come to mind. It's hard to be other than who you are in different situations, lol.

Unknown said...

Whether to keep the characters static in their time of origin or to stay contemporary, whether to have them age or be ageless, is a matter to be decided based on the abilities of the artist/writer and the stories he/she/they have in them to tell. No outside person should imagine he has the power or right to dictate what the artist does. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for critique, however. You are free to refrain from reading the strip, and to tell the artist why you are not interested in his further work. You are free to tell the artist which elements of his work are effective and which are not. The reason that there are editors is that creators of a work don't always recognize their own strengths. It's up to the artist whether to listen to you.

I've always kinda liked Sally Forth. I like anachronism and breaking the fourth wall, but Sally Forth has been going to that well a little often in the past year -- it takes away from one's appreciation of the characters as people. I think Pastis does it too darned much. I think Bud Grace handles it pretty well in Piranha Club. I like the way that Trudeau handles it in Doonesbury, as actors on a set who periodically relate directly to the audience but generally avoid breaking character within a story.

I think that Weingarten is not particularly vain, obnoxious, or arrogant, contrary to Violet's contention. It is a schtick, a persona, a pretense for the purpose of humor, like Colbert's blowhard conservative. The fact that you don't think much of the schtick actually makes it funnier. The folks who honestly don't even get that it's a pretense (like Violet) make it funnier still, because of his pretense that it isn't a pretense. What makes his chats increasingly tedious is the neediness of the chatters, who want Daddy's approval for how funny or clever they are; or, they believe that they are clever in tweaking him as some big, bad avatar of the MSM. His pontification on the definitive character of humor is funny because it pretends to be definitive; he provides plenty of clues and openings to show that he realizes that his position is weak and he only is pretending otherwise.

Ed & Jeanne said...

Gene who? I only know of Gene Simmons and Gene Siskel (and he's dead). Guess he's not quite as big and important as he thinks...

yellojkt said...

Very true. It is a creative decision and outsiders shouldn't nitpick the process. I also used to think Weingarten's attitude was all an act and people like Dave Barry and Joel Achenbach love him, but I'm thinking there is an grain of truth in Violet's assessment.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Yello'!

2fs said...

I'm not familiar w/Weingarten's asshatery (that's the quality of being an asshat...not the state of hating asses), but you mention many good reasons comic strip characters generally do not age.

The exceptions are strips that present (or try to present) its characters in a more or less realistic way (not necessarily visually). "Doonesbury" is the best example here: its characters have aged more-or-less in real time, because the strip was always more about the interactions of people's various ideologies and behaviors than it was about, say, a cute li'l kid and his pet orangutan. FOOB once strove for a similar sort of character-based, real-time evolution...and it succeeded for a while, but somewhere Lynn Johnston lost her sense of humor, her sense of observation, and (it seems) her sense, period, leading to the horrifying series of blunders backed with lame-o puns that is today's FBoFB. (Clarification: "FOOB" is the way Comics Curmudgeon readers typically refer to the strip, derived from a made-up teen insult used by the strip's tween/teen character April. Most of YJ's readers probably know that, but for those who don't...)

Unknown said...

I wouldn't have known about FOOB.

I think Weingarten is satirizing a tendency in himself that he recognizes and thinks deserves to be mocked (to steal a line from Scott Adams).

There was a time when FBoFW was brilliant. It isn't so much, anymore, but the memory lingers. Not quite a drama strip, not quite a joke strip. A family-friendly Seinfeld, with hugs and lessons. Lynn Johnston deserves eternal respect for the way that she handled Lawrence coming out as the first positive depiction of a gay to appear on the comics pages. She has addressed sexual harassment, death, divorce, and a kid's sense of guilt for mistreatment of another kid with well-disguised problems. She's dithered around for the past year or so, and maybe it's just time to go. I wouldn't be surprised if she retires the strip after Liz's wedding and Grandpa's inevitable end.

yellojkt said...

Readers that need to know more about foobs can read my dozen or so posts about them or just start at the definitive History of the Foobiverse.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Pretty cool that Francesco linked back to you here. I had no idea you two were so tight.

yellojkt said...

I'm the Mel to his Flight of the Conchords.

Cedar said...

I think fborfw did a decent job with aging the characters in real time, but right about the time Liz left for college, it started to get more problematic. The characters all started to have complex lives outside each other, and the plots got more complicated. A single afternoon of strip-time took up a month of regular time, making the aging process seem to stop and start awkwardly.

I thought initialy last year that LJ was moving all her characters within spitting distance of each other to help solve these problems, but I don't think it's helped at all. The characters rarely interact, and still have their own boring storylines happening apart from each other.

Jumper said...

Perhaps you should allow the commenters to use the obscenity directed towards Gene. Being the first to drop the F-bomb is a coveted treat.

Anyway, you've almost caught on to Jumper's First Law of Newspaper Comics Irony: news writers are incapable of visual thinking. Only the house cartoonist and the photographers out of the entire news staff have any clue whatever.

yellojkt said...

I want to thank the person that finally brought this post to the attention of Gene. I stand-by everything I said.

I blog frequently about comic strips and am currently running the National Kinkiest Komics Karacter Kontest if you would like to read more of my musings.