Sunday, December 13, 2015

See Ya in the Funny Pages: My 10 Favourite Comic Strips

As you may or may not know, I took a Summer (and then some) long sabbatical from this here blog. Ever since coming back, I have been rather lackadaisical in my blogging output. So, to fill in the gaps, until I return more regularly in the new year, I have decided to re-post some of my older top ten lists. This is the first of these re-posts.

Everyone who knows me, knows full well of my love for comic books. But what of comic strips? Yeah, I like those too. Hell, I remember reading the likes of Charlie Brown and Hagar the Horrible long before Spider-Man or Batman made their debuts into my world. There have been more than a mere slew of comic strips lo these past 120 years or so since their invention with the Yellow Kid (shown to the right), but I somehow managed to whittle this myriad of funny page panels down to my ten favourites. I would like to toss out the names of a few that, alas, did not make the list, but are still quite fun comic strips. These are, in no particular order, Beetle Bailey, Red-Eye, Broom Hilda, Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Mutts, Bringing Up Father, Andy Capp, Lil' Abner, Pearls Before Swine, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Blondie, Flash Gordon, Alley Oop, Terry and the Pirates, and Funky Winkerbean. I could have tried to look all sophisticated and political, and included Doonesbury, but hey, they just did not make the final cut, so I guess I'm not all that sophisticated after all. There are also several fun web comics out there. Granted, they are well hidden inside the 99.9999% of crappy web comics, but they are in there. Two that come to mind are R. Stevens' Diesel Sweeties and Kate Beaton's Hark, A Vagrant. Then there are also the web based meta comics, This Charming Charlie, wherein Lauren LoPrete takes Peanuts panels and introduces Smiths lyrics into them, and Garfield Minus Garfield, which is exactly what it sounds like. Notice there is no mention (except this one) of Mary Worth or Mark Trail. Yeah, that's on purpose. There is also Charles Addams' iconic New Yorker cartoons of The Addams Family, which allllllmost made the list. One final shout out to the WWII era Batman strips. I have a giant hardback complete collection of these on my shelf at home, and they are a nostalgic blast. But anyhoo, let's get on with the countdown. Oh, and to all the creators of the forthcoming strips, I hope you don't mind my using images of your comic strips for my little countdown here. No disrespect or exploitation meant. I just admire your work, and wanted to share it in this top ten list. But enough of that.

And awaaaaaaay we go...

Special Mention: La-La & Lu-Lu

Ya know, since this pop culture heavy black and white strip is written and drawn by yours truly, it would probably be wrong to include it on the list proper. But then again, I couldn't give up the chance to promote my strip, so here it is as a special mention. Created in July of 2013, this strip, a sort of blend of such influences as Matt Groening's Life in Hell and David Lynch's The Angriest Dog in the World, is a pun-fueled, Mary Worth-hating, satirical take on all things pop culture-y. The images of the 4-panel strip may be the same each time, but the words are where it's at, baby! So far, I have only created forty some strips over the past two and a half years, but ya never know, perhaps more are coming soon. To catch 'em all, head on over to My Official La-La & Lu-Lu Tumblr. Page, and peruse to your freakin' heart's deeelight.

10. The Angriest Dog in the World

The dog who is so angry, he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis. A big influence, at least visual repetitiveness, on my own comic (as was mentioned above) this strange little comic strip is from the strange little man who also gave the world such strange little films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Dr.. Actually I quite love David Lynch, and I quite love the strange little man's films, and obviously (it is on this list, after all) I quite love his comic strip as well. Conceived in 1973, when Lynch was apparently quite angry, the strip would eventually run in the L.A. Reader, from 1983 to 1992. Great, stupid, existential stuff, indeed.

9. Spider-Man

There have been several superhero comic strips. I gave a shout out to the Batman ones in my introduction, and Superman had a daily strip for a while, but it's Spidey that was the best. Began in 1977, the strip was originally written by Stan Lee himself, with art by John Romita, Sr., eventually being taken over by Stan's brother, Larry Lieber. Over the years, the strip has given many great out-of-comics-continuity moments, including one where after a year or so of Peter Parker suddenly being an unmarried college student, he wakes up one day, a la Dallas' famous Bobby's alive shower scene, to find it was all a dream, and Mary Jane is still his hot ginger wife. In fact, it is only in this daily strip, that one can still find a happily married Peter Parker. 

8. Peanuts

It's hard to make a list like this and not include this great Charles Schulz classic. I mean, you have Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy van Pelt, Peppermint Patty, Pig-Pen, and Snoopy and Woodstock. What's not to love!? Begun in 1950, Peanuts was a highly influential strip that helped make the four panel gag strip the next big thing in comics. I've always considered myself a Linus kinda guy - sensitive and artsy, but also kind of nerdy, so I do have some sort of affinity with Peanuts. From the obsessive desire of Charlie Brown for that oh so elusive red-haired little girl to Lucy's equally obsessive desire to thwart Charlie Brown on the football field, to Marcie's even more obsessive desire for Peppermint Patty, Peanuts was a grand old time of obsessive comedy. And we got a World War I flying ace as well.

7. Pogo

We have met the enemy and he is us. Created in 1941, by former Walt Disney cartoonist Walt Kelly, Pogo the Possum made his first appearance in the Dell comic book Animal Comics #1. Eventually Pogo, along with his cigar chewing swamp pal Albert Alligator, moved into the newspaper comic strip world in 1948, and would stay there until 1975, two years after Kelly's death (Kelly's widow, Selby, would draw the comic for it's final two years). One of three predominately political satires on this list, and with his Faulkner-esque dialect language, Pogo was a a huge influence on everyone from Bill Watterson to Jim Henson to Robert Crumb to Jeff Smith, who pretty much admits to his Bone character being mainly influenced by Pogo. Even Alan Moore wrote a Pogo homage while doing The Saga of the Swamp Thing run for DC Comics.

6. The Far Side

Easily the most nonsensical, ridiculous, and wackiest strip on this list. Consisting mostly of one panel gags, often quite absurd and/or surreal in nature, these anthropomorphic gag panels were the brainchild of Gary Larson, first appearing in 1980. Involving many jokes about strange social behaviour and puns on classic parables, often involving talking chickens and snakes  and cows and fat, stupid children. Larson eventually stopped doing the cartoon in 1995, claiming he wanted more time to take up the trombone. The Far Side is probably one of the most successful comic strips of modern times, being reprinted in tons of collected editions, and a perennial favourite in the calendar biz. Too bad the guy had to quit doing the strip. Wonder how good he is at the trombone these days?

5. Zippy the Pinhead

One of the gaggle of underground comix creators of the late 1960's and early 1970's, cartoonist Bill Griffith created Zippy in 1971, and would turn him into a daily strip in 1976. I first came across the surreal pinhead back in 1988 when I was first working at a place called Encore Books. Eclectic and often absurd beyond belief, Griffith's famed pinhead is the kind of character that is either gotten or isn't, with no inbetween. Last year, I did a La-La & Lu-Lu strip (see the special mention above) that was an homage to the Zipster. I sent the strip to Bill Griffith, and he actually said he liked it. That was more than enough for this lapsed cartoonist, and I immediately added an "endorsed by Griffy" banner on the strip. What more could a boy ask for?

4. Bloom County

Created by Berkeley Breathed, this socio-politically slanted strip ran from 1980 to 1989. A real child of the eighties, satirizing everything about the Reagan era America, Milo, Opus, Cutter John, Steve, Bill the Cat (who, incidentally, ran against Reagan in 1984), and the rest of the Bloom County family, were much preferred by this guy, to that droll, snooty Doonesbury crowd over on the editorial page. Breathed even won a Pulitzer in 1987. Yeah, I know, Trudeau won a Pulitzer in '75 (and was even nominated for an Oscar once), but I still prefer the denizens of Bloom County to Trudeau's bunch of rabble rousers. Breathed had some great, and often controversial storylines throughout the decade. I remember picking up the first few collected editions back in high school, just as my own leftist leanings began to sprout up.Breathed would eventually get back into things with his sequel strips, Outland and Opus, but it was Bloom County that started it all.

3. Nancy

In 1922, Larry Whittington created a daily comic strip called Fritzi Ritz. It was a bout a ditzy, man-hungry flapper. In 1925, 20 year old Ernie Bushmiller took over duties on the strip. In 1933, Bushmiller added the character of Nancy, Fritzi's precocious niece, and she took off like gang busters. So much so, that in 1938, the strip was renamed Nacy, and poor Aunt Fritzi was turned into a sensible bore, and relegated to a supporting character/ Fritzi did still exist as the star of her own Sunday comic until 1968, mostly drawn by various ghost artists, but in the pages of the daily strip, it was Nancy and her BFF Sluggo, who ran the show. Over the years, Nancy has been not only a bastion for funny gags, but also often a home for surprisingly absurdest comedy and fourth wall breaking meta humour. Mark Newgarden and Paul Karask wrote in their essay, "How to Read Nancy," that Bushmiller's gags "have the abstract feel of math, and Nancy was, in fact, a mini algebra equation, masquerading as a comic strip." That's pretty cool. And why not check out the American Heritage Dictionary's entry for comic strip. Guess what strip they choose to show as an example? Yup.

2. Krazy Kat

The oldest strip on this list, first appearing in 1913, Krazy Kat is also one of the most influential comic strips ever made. Created by George Herriman, Krazy Kat was a nonsensical, absurdest comic, that was done in a myriad of different styles over the years, often in strange and unusual manners. For a while it even ran vertically down the side of the newspaper. Backgrounds would change from panel to panel, there would be panoramic shots, and one never knew what was coming next. The strip was so popular (ee. cummings was a fan even!) that there was a series of animated film shorts, and even a TV show years later. In 1944 Krazy Kat ended, and the world of comic strips was a lesser place because of it. After decades of so-called standard panel construction in the comic strip world, Bill Watterson (probably Krazy Kat's number one fan) would bring back Herriman's Krazy panel deconstruction with his Calvin and Hobbes, but more on those wacky kids in a bit. Oh, wait...

1. Calvin and Hobbes

Seriously, who could make a list like this, and not have Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes at the top of said list? No one in their right mind, that's who! As I said above, Watterson was highly influenced by George Herriman's Krazy Kat, and would do quite amazing things with his panel construction and storytelling. Watterson's strip, which began in 1985, was a groundbreaking work. His esoteric take on the comic strip form, and his ability to deconstruct the genre, make his strip the most creative, most intriguing, and the best damn comic strip ever. At the height of his fame, he was powerful enough to take on the comic strip syndicators, and demand that his strips be printed without any editing, which until then, was a common practice among the newspaper syndicates. He actually changed the way things were done, and gained more rights for him and his fellow cartoonists. Watterson would call it quits in 1995, after just a mere decade of Calvin and Hobbes. Last year, Watterson guest starred on the strip, Pearls Before Swine (which just missed out on making this list) and may very well get back into the daily strip game very soon. We can only hope.

That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.

Monday, December 7, 2015

TV Review: A Very Murray Christmas

The very moment I heard Netflix was making a Bill Murray Christmas Special, and that it would be directed by Sofia Coppola, and guest star the likes of everyone from George Clooney and Chris Rock to Maya Rudolph and Miley Freakin' Cyrus? Yeah, I was definitely on board. I even went and immediately penciled it in (in pen!) on my Best of the Year list. And even though my expectations were through the roof, when it finally premiered this past Saturday, the damn thing managed to pass far above even those impossible expectations. That's right kiddies, A Very Murray Christmas is a very great thing indeed. And yes, "a thing" is the best and most accurate descriptive one can give to this oddly mesmerizing holiday peculiarity. A great and wonderful...thing.

Somehow managing to be simultaneously disjointed and perfectly in sync with itself, Coppola has weaved together the most perfectly absurdest trash-to-treasure junkpile of a Christmas special imaginable. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The setting is the Carlyle Hotel in New York, where Bill Murray and Pal Paul Shaffer may or may not be living at the moment. Murray is set to do a live Christmas Eve special, but due to a blizzard raging outside, all of his big name guests have canceled. But thanks to a pair of producers, played by Amy Poehler and Julie White, Murray is forced by contractual obligations to go on with the show anyway, even without his star guest list. Eventually, Murray makes his way to the hotel bar, and this is where the action mostly takes place. This is after one of the highlights of the special, for which there are many, where Murray shanghai's Chris Rock, and forces him to sing a quite hilarious duet of Do You Hear What I Hear?. But it is the hotel bar, and Murray with all his friends, some playing themselves, others playing characters, and still others playing something else completely, where the fun kicks in.

From here on in, the special plays at riffing as an exclusive Christmas party for Coppola and Murray and their gang of misfits and rejects - a party we were not invited to, but still managed to sneak in and check out. We get Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman (wonder how he got the gig, my lovely wife quipped when he showed up) as a quarreling wouldbe bride and groom whose wedding was canceled due to the aforementioned blizzard. They actually do a lovely little version of Todd Rundgren's I Saw the Light, which is the lone non-holiday song in the show, but one which works well for their characters. Jones, of course, being the daughter of the legendary Quincy Jones, has a sweet yet strong voice, and Schwartzman, cousin of the director and Rushmore co-star of Murray's (that's how he got the gig), though not trained, has a surprisingly melodic voice of his own. Yeah, his talent got him here too, but it's still good to know people. But this is only scratching the surface of this strange strange brew. But what else would, could, and/or should one expect from the minds of Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola? Exactly!

We also get David Johansen, former New York Doll and co-star with Murray in Scrooged, as a raspy-voiced bartender, singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis as a tender-voiced waitress, and the French alt-band Phoenix, as the hotel's kitchen crew. Then there is Maya Rudolph. We always knew the girl had chops, but when she belts out Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), she steals the show. Seriously, she not only belts out this already emotional Christmas tune, she knocks it into the stratosphere. Maya goes all Aretha on the song. Just purely amazing. Another highlight of this portion is the entire barroom gang coming drunkenly together to do an appropriately soused cover of Fairytale of New York. This number leads into the obligatory dream sequence, and the inclusion of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus, the latter of whom proves she can actually get past the attention-grabbing antics of her current career arc, and sing the hell out of Silent Night. And then there is Clooney.

I won't get into what Clooney pulls off in his brief appearance with his buddy Bill, as I do not want to spoil the stew, as it were, but let me just say you will not be disappointed. Anyhoo, that's about all I have to say about this most bizarre and most joyous of holiday specials. Now it is your turn to log into Netflix and watch this piece of weirdly magical yuletide fare. Seriously, right now. Go and watch the damn thing! I'll be here when you get done. But for now, that's it gang. See ya 'round the web.