Monday, August 18, 2008

A Brief History of Comics Snarking

Comics led me to blogging and I still blog about comics on occasion, but I try to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals and the field seems to be exploding. As a public service I have prepared a historical guide to the various venues.


Anything on the internet can be tracked back to Usenet groups. Usenet are the original threaded discussion forums. And like most things that predate the web itself, it is random and unmoderated. Topics are selected by posters and off-topic digressions can be as frequent as not. Still active, the quality of the experience depends on the quality of the newsgroup viewer you use. I find the threaded responses and continuous quoted text annoying and repetitive.

Funny Papers
This Baltimore City Paper column was written by alt-weekly legend Tom Scocca (currently writing for the New York Observer from China) and BCP talentless fixture Joe McLeod. This online feature ran from March 2001 until February of 2004. The format was a weekly summary of the comics in the Baltimore Sun. Each strip got a one paragraph (sometimes more, sometimes less) commentary tending towards the mean and vicious. There were some good running gags. It would run a Beetle versus Otto count in an attempt to discern who the real star of the strip was. It also graded each week’s run of For Better or For Worse with a Siskel/Ebertish “For better.” or “For worse.” Abandoned when Scocca moved on to the Big Apple, the lasting legacy of this proto-blog is that Scocca prefers to sit on the seemingly untrademarkable “We Read The Comics So You Don’t Have To” just to spite competitors.

Comics Curmudgeon
The Golden Age of Comic Snarking began on July 11, 2004 to little notice when Josh Fruhlinger (coincidentally also of Baltimore) started his blog which has become the centerpiece of all comics commentary. I’m of course a little biased since I have been a long time commenter there. I have no memory of when I started commenting, but I made Comment Of The Week back in May of 2005 before records were kept with this snark about LuAnn’s dating prospects in Apartment 3G:
It’s not like Luann is going roadside anytime soon. Hot chaste blonde in New York City. I’m sure Mr Just Out Of Teaching College and Living Around The Corner From Avenue Q is dying to hook up with this mess of backstory.
Over the years, the blog has focused more and more on the soap opera strips that provide so much inadvertent humor as opposed to the 'funny' strips that often aren't. Josh is now the go-to guy when a reporter needs an 'expert' to comment about some development in the comics world. More importantly, his fiercely devoted commenters have become an emergent phenomenon with their own subculture and customs which is always the mark of success for a Web 2.0 type of site.

Big Al’s Comic Blog
Lots of other blogs have come and gone trying to break into the daily strip niche. Big Al’s was one of the better contenders starting in November of 2004 and running for nearly two years before tossing in the towel.

Comics I Don’t Understand
Started as a side feature of Bill Bickel’s true crime website, CIDW has a simple premise: Readers are asked to explain the obscure joke trapped in specific strips. The original format had monthly postings with the best of the submitted answers published the following month. One particularly great feature was the Arlo Page where the jokes sometimes stretched the family-friendly nature of the comics page. Bickel claims the name does not refer to frequently boundary pushing Smuttiest Strip In Print® Arlo and Janis, but methinks he doth protest too much.

CIDW was relaunched as traditional stand-alone daily blog in January 2008. (Update: See the comments for a better timeline straight from the horses mouth. In the reworking, all the older material seems to have vanished which is a shame because it destroys a lot of the historical context of the blog.

Comic Riffs
As the dead tree old media companies flail their way to obsolescence, they try to learn the Web 2.0 tricks and have started professional blogs on every imaginable topic. The Washington Post recently rolled out with little fanfare a blog devoted to analyzing the daily comic strips. Where did they ever come up with that concept? Written by Michael Cavna, the blog started on July 13 this year. In addition to a daily commentary about selected strips, he also interviews cartoonists and does BlatantCommentWhoring stunts such as caption contests and reader surveys.

As an employee of the Washington Post, he restricts himself to strips published in that paper. And as a guy with a boss to answer to, he has already had a few run-ins with syndicates not happy with his occasionally less than flattering comments. It’ll be interesting to see how the tone of this blog develops.

In the waning days of the daily newspapers, as comics get shrunk and dropped almost daily, it’s fascinating to watch ordinary readers rally around this often ignored art form. And as the paid professionals move in on the turf plowed by web pioneers like Josh, we need to see if the sense of community and irreverent attitude of the blogosphere can be captured by corporate poachers.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: How many blogs about comic strips can the internet support?


2fs said...

How many blogs about comic strips can the internet support?

One...two...three...(krnnch): three.

Anonymous said...

You have, of course, left out all of the many single comic blogs. Some comics are even capable of supporting multiple dedicated blogs. FOOB comes to mind, with both pro and anti blogs. Not every comic can support a blog, some for lack of readership, some for sheer mind-numbing vacuity, some because they are self-snarking.

yellojkt said...

I think Josh did a partial list of single comic blogs recently. And the Foobiverse!'s Journal is in some ways as big or bigger than Comics Curmudgeon.

Cedar said...

This one's pretty thoughtful, and has gotten me interested in a few strips I hadn't read before.

In addition to the foobiverse's journal, I also adore April's Real Blog

And while it's not a comics blog, per se, it is a blog by a cartoonist, and it's one of my favorites

CIDU Bill said...

Just for the sake of accuracy... CIDU began in 1994, and my first crime site didn't show up until 1997. The only connection between the two was that I'd include links on CIDU to the more offbeat crime articles.

May 31 of 2007, I switched CIDU over to a WordPress template and began increasing the updates from sometimes-weekly-sometimes-monthly to daily.

-Bill Bickel

Anonymous said...

I think it's largely a matter of focus.

Josh and Bill have each found their own niche and are becoming experts in their own right. Bill's got the Obscure Comic department, and (as you mention) Josh is starting to zero in on the serialized strips more than the joke-a-day jobbies. So if someone else finds a specific thing to discuss, they can probably go far.

On the other hand, too much focus leads to fatigue. I'm thinking of Garfield Without Garfield, which can only go so far before the joke gets old.

I don't really think that WaPo's comics blog is really all that good, but that's just my two cents.

CIDU Bill said...

Just another note: The Arlo Page still exists and I still stand by my claim that it's named after Arlo Guthrie. Or something.