With the old cartoonists dying off and the formerly hot young cartoonists either retiring early or taking indefinitely prolonged hiatuses, there's been a lot more turnover on the comics page over the last few years. Which explains why one day earlier this year, I opened my local daily and was confronted with this abomination:
Now when it comes to comic strips, I'm pretty broad-minded. I've been reading the funnies every day since I was in single digits, and lately I've been loving the move towards meticulously archived collections of legendary strips like Dick Tracy and Mutt & Jeff. I know people groan at "legacy" strips like Blondie and Beetle Bailey, but at least once a month their board of directors comes up a joke that makes me hand the paper across to my wife and say, "Blondie was pretty funny today," If a comic strip is poorly drawn but reliably amusing (like Dilbert), it gets a lot of leeway from me, and if it's beautifully drawn but rarely funny (like Mutts), I'll give it an even bigger break.
But Girls & Sports is terribly, terribly drawn, and its jokes are the worst kind of Stand-up 101 observations about the war between the sexes. In the comic universe of co-creators Justin Borus and Andrew Feinstein, women are unknowable creatures who like shopping and the arts, while men…well, men mainly just like other men. They like watching sports with other men, and drinking at bars with other men, and talking about women with other men. (But not actually talking to women, because that would be kind of fruity.) Girls & Sports is like the daily comics' version of a Bud Light commercial.
Luckily, just when I was starting to despair for the future of the newspaper comic, my daily added this:
Cul De Sac is written and drawn by Richard Thompson, a veteran illustrator whose frizzy style I recall from the days when I lived close enough to D.C. to take The Washington Post. Yes, it's a kid-strip, in a comics section littered with kid-strips, but Thompson's harried lines are a nice counterpoint to the clip-art-ready control of most modern newspaper cartoonists, and his gags are gentle and strange:
At the moment, Cul De Sac is still finding its voice, so it's hard to say whether it'll develop into a kid-strip as consistently unique and insightful as Calvin & Hobbes or if it's be more like Mutts: a strip that started strong but now coasts more on its design than on its humor. Still, it's nice to open the comics page on any given day now and know that I might find this:
Addendum: In some ways I hesitate to tout Cul De Sac too much, not because I want to keep it secret but because I know people have certain expectations from comic strips and comedy, and the wry absurdity of Cul De Sac doesn't have the laugh-out-loud/bleeding-edge feel that a lot of our readers expect–and that they regularly get from some of the better webcomics. Cul De Sac stands out amid the company it keeps on a newspaper page, and it's that change-of-pace that's a large part of its appeal. (The same can be said of Lio, another refreshing new strip that my paper added this year.) Read out of context, Cul De Sac's humor may not play as well.
But something that makes us laugh immediately doesn't always have that long a shelf-life. Jokes that seem to comment on the issues of the day–but are really just referencing them, and allowing us to congratulate ourselves for knowing things–are rarely as timeless as jokes that draw off of an artist's singular sensibility. Too many comic strips today read like they were ground through a gag machine. Cul De Sac looks and feels handmade.