Bob's Comics Reviews August 1996 Arrows


Bil Keane: The Family Circus

The family strip that every hipster loves to hate, thanks to its relentless banality, and the sort of wholesomeness that simply infuriates anyone who has had a normal rather than an fantasy family life.

(a cheery warmfuzzy cartoon that you can't see) The staple of Keane's humor is Cute Things Kids Say ("Our family is a six-pack!"). Then there's outright sentimentality ("Thanks, Mommy. Now blow me a hug"), mind-numbing repetition (Not Me; those damned dotted lines; Billy filling in as cartoonist), Disney religiosity (Grandpa's ghost), and the fact that nothing has changed in the feature for thirty years.

But worst of all are the ones that just aren't funny. Examples:

"You can't drive, Jeffy. You can't even reach the pedals."
"Barfy and Sam are comin' in and Kittycat is thinkin' about it."
"Don't worry, Grandma. Maybe your wish will come true anyway."
"Billy called me a dweeb. Is that a bad word?"
These panels don't even rise to the dignity of 'lame', and certainly not to the zen otherwordliness some find in Ernie Bushmiller. They just sit there, sucking up the reader's life force. Only Fred Basset shares this particular unintentional flatness. (Jim's Journal has the flatness, but there it's on purpose.)

This isn't to say that the Family Circus is a complete desert. An occasional panel is moderately amusing-- e.g "As soon as he learns how to talk, P.J. will tell you where he hid the car keys." And of course if you like Cute Things Kids Say, and jokes so inoffensive they'd get a chuckle out of an ayatullah, why then, this cartoon's for you.

As to the art, I've become intimately familiar with it by being first a contributor and then an editor for Greg Galcik's magnificent Dysfunctional Family Circus. I've rarely scrutinized any comic with such nitpicking attention to detail... The usual complaint is that Keane 'can't draw' (or 'draws like a rabid ferret', in the DFC idiom). This isn't quite fair; he's actually a competent draftsman, and certainly draws better than Jim Davis, or Scott Adams, or Sam Henderson. He does have his tics, though: the single nostrils, the football heads, the missing foreheads, the unearthly ears; the backgrounds, minimal one day, florid the next; the sexy body and wondrously ugly hairstyle he gives his wife. And it has to be admitted that he can't do perspective... the kids can't suck their thumbs without extending their whole arms (and yet are drawn with an almost pederastic attention to the particular pudginess of child bodies); Dolly reads a wedding album that couldn't be more than eight inches square; a clock radio is drawn the size of a VCR; floor lines appear in impossible places. But then, how many cartoonists are masters of perspective?

There's a perverse compliment to Keane in the very success of the DFC. It just invites retitling, and I don't think the Dysfunctional treatment would work anywhere as well for other lame comics. A Dysfunctional Marmaduke would still be about a big annoying dog; a Dysfunctional Beetle Bailey could hardly transcend the fantasy army and the soul-destroying stereotypes of the real thing; a Dysfunctional Cathy could only be three or four variations on "Cathy's a loser." But Keane's situations are simple, yet varied enough that DFCers can comment on almost anything. FC and DFC together achieve a cosmic balance: the Family Circus is a neverland of unrealized and unrealizable family values; the DFC, by exaggeration, shows us how life really is, more effectively than even the deliberately ugly style of underground cartoonists can do.

Check out Horselover Fat's Page o' SpinnStuff-- the Inside Guide to the DFC, a DFC sample page, the Ballad of Greg and Bil, and much much more.

Patrick McDonnell: Mutts

Hipsters love to hate this strip, too. This time, they're wrong.

People think they hate Mutts because it's pointless or cutesy. The problem is actually just that Mutts is about fifty years out of its time. When the prevailing humor is acerbic, satirical, and irreverent, what do you do with a strip that's sweet, silly, and whimsical?

You might start by looking at the drawing. Mutts, with its Ben Day screens and potato heads, doesn't look like anything else on the comics page. It might have fit in fifty years ago, right next to Krazy Kat. (McDonnell is a scholar of Krazy Kat, and you can occasionally find a Krazy Kat moon in Mutts' sky, and the cat's "Yesh" and other abuses of language are understated tributes to McDonnell's model.)

The setup is also simple: it centers on a little dog, Earl, and his best friend, Mooch the cat, and their interactions with the local humans and wildlife. Interestingly, McDonnell avoids easy anthropomorphization. This isn't Garfield: Earl and Mooch rarely do anything, besides talking, that a dog and cat wouldn't really do.

It's also fresh and well written. Once you slow down your Seinfeld-trained mind enough to catch the humor, you may well find that it's one of the better strips on the comics page.

The first Mutts book is finally out.

Update: Twenty years later… a quick check shows that Mutts is still going on, about the same as ever. Well, maybe tastes have caught up with McDonnell: these days, it's the edgy satire that falls flat, as it can't compete with the real world, and we need a little respite into niceness.

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