The Unfunny Pages: Artsy Comics Are Alienating Readers

Maui Time | December 23, 2007
Love them or hate them, people react to cartoons. Comic strips like "The Far Side," "Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" inspire devotional cults. Political cartoons, such as the recent Danish Mohammed illustrations and my own post-9/11 Bush-bashing scribbles, can arouse hateful mobs. What's weird is when cartoons elicit no reaction at all.

Which is what has (not) happened since 2005, when The New York Times began running "The Funny Pages," a literary supplement to its Sunday Magazine section that includes a full-page comic strip in every issue. First up was "Building Stories," a graphic novel by Chris Ware serialized in 30 weekly installments. To call Ware an award-winning graphic artist is like calling a cockroach prolific; the only accolade he hasn't won is the Nobel. Yet.

Comic book fans had hoped that The Funny Pages would convince normal adults, who limit their graphic art consumption to political cartoons and comic strips, to buy graphic novels. (Articles espousing comics-as-art typically bear the headline "Comics: Not Just for Kids Anymore.") I don't know why anyone cares about what other people read, watch or listen to. It's not like reading is a communal activity. But grown men (they are mostly men, often so grown as to be terrifying) crave "mainstream acceptance" of their comics habit even more than sexual companionship.

Anticipation yielded to disappointment as Ware, in his typically mannered and obtuse style, rendered the paint-drying anti-drama of a dowdy middle-aged, one-legged (<--call her Ahab, in search of the Great White Male) spinster wallowing in self-inflicted depression in a hundred thousand earth-toned squares. Unless you count phony, plot-less, generalized angst, nothing happened in "Building Stories." Ever.

Ware's word balloons were so small that many mistook them as evidence of his contempt for his audience. Those who scrounged up magnifying glasses learned the sad early first few R.E.M. albums, hyper-reduction was Ware's attempt to cover up his inability to write dialogue.

Nothing wrong with working around your weaknesses, right? But cartoons need great writing more than they need great art. Which is why Gary Larsen is better than Winsor McCay. "Little Nemo" was high art. "The Far Side" is hilarious.

Seven months passed. (To those who didn't give up on "Building Stories," it felt like seven years.) Disappointment yielded to apathy. Fixtures of the tiny world of "art comics" Jaime Hernandez, Seth and Megan Kelso followed with their serialized graphic novellas. Daniel Clowes' "Mister Wonderful" treads standard art-comics territory: unattractive boy meets dowdy girl, insecure girl meets shoe-gazing boy, reader prays for Al Qaeda to blow up their café.

For whatever it's worth, Clowes' entry is the best of a crapulent lot. The life of an artist is a lonely one, sometimes it's hard to get laid, people are mean to dorks. Who cares?

Among that class of New Yorkers for whom the Times is required reading, no one talks about The Funny Pages. Even cartoonists, who argue about every aspect of the medium until their spouses eventually divorce them, care about the high-profile feature about as much as the average American thinks about the latest Baghdad car bomb. The Times' experiment to "engage our readers in some ways we haven't yet tried--and to acknowledge that it takes many different types of writing to tell the story of our time" has received the harshest possible verdict: indifference.

An online poll by the media blog Gawker asked 1,680 readers whether they found The Funny Pages "funny." 92 percent voted "no." Granted, Internet surveys are unreliable. Still, I want to know: Where'd they find the 8 percent?

Part of the problem is serialization. Nowadays we don't want to wait a whole week for the next part of a story. (When I hear about a cool new TV series, I wait for it to get canceled so I can watch it all at once on DVD.) But the Times' main error has been its choice of cartoonists, art school graduates with little to say but draw real purty. Comics are about telling stories--not trying to dazzle, as Ware does, with innovative (but confusing) graphic design. Comic bookshops are bursting with exciting books by creative storytellers that deserve a wider audience, and that the 1.6 million readers of the Times Magazine might actually enjoy (or hate, which would be an improvement over the current yawnfest).

"Why," a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist asked me recently, "are these graphic novelists so empty? They're void...nil." A lot of newer cartoons, I protested, do feature characters motivated by bigger concerns than their feelings of awkwardness and alienation. But they appear in alternative weekly newspapers and in books put out by independent publishers. The Times, and comics anthologies that reflect the official social imprimatur of the journalistic elite, like "The Best American Comics 2007" (edited, naturally, by Chris Ware and featuring his friends), censor important comics.

"I found myself drawn to of work," writes the New York Times Book Review about "Best American Comics," "mostly because I couldn't understand much of it, and, O.K., I worried whether this was a failing of mine or the artists'." This was, incredibly, from a positive review.

Memo to Times Book Review critic: Cartoons are a form of communication. When a reader doesn't understand a cartoon, it isn't because he is stupid. It is because the cartoonist has failed.

Comics Journal critic Noah Berlatsky thinks the current crop of art comics stars are obsessed with trying to overcome some perception that the medium is all about caped superheroes like Superman and Batman. "Alt comics have a huge chip on their shoulders, and they have responded by rejecting everything superhero in favor of Serious Art--which, alas, often means seriously boring art."

Whatever the reason, the literary establishment's insistence on promoting dull cartoons is destroying the chance for comics to become more than what they are today--a small, barely noteworthy, niche.

Clarification: In a previous column about the newspaper business, I wrote: "In his book 'The Vanishing Newspaper' Philip Meyer predicts that 2043 will mark the death of printed newspapers in the United States, 'as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition.'" Meyer e-mailed me to inform me that those words never appeared in his book, but from a speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005.

Meyer says that, in his book, he said that "a straight-line projection of the declining percentage of adults who report reading a newspaper 'every day' brings their number to the zero point in 2043. But to take that as a prediction would require assuming that no one will do anything to change the equation and that newspapers will relentlessly keep turning out their products until there is only one daily reader left. Publishers tend to be stubborn, but not that stubborn!"

Fair enough. But if a columnist can't trust the BBC and The Economist--both of whom misquoted Meyer--who can he trust?

(Ted Rall is the author of the book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.)


Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 33 N. Market St., Suite 201, Wailuku, HI 96793
  • Phone: (808) 244-0777