While there are many different reasons why the newspaper industry is slowly folding in on itself (the fact that you’re reading this article on a screen is definitely one of the main factors), there is an often forgotten cultural treasure that is fading away with it, and that’s the comics page. Great comics don’t come along very often, and most are typically a product of their time. This means that some of the jokes don’t age that well, and fall flat when read years later. However, there are a few standouts, and here are some of the comics that have been generally agreed to be the greatest.
Charles Schultz’s fifty-year odyssey of neurotic schoolchildren has no peers. While many people may just say Charlie Brown or Snoopy, what they really mean is a cast of kids that typically have worries that mirror those of everyday adults, no matter how often they are in class or about to kick a football. The impact of Peanuts cannot be understated, as there have been television specials, movies, and even theme parks devoted to the characters.
The reason Peanuts resonated as much as it did was in part because of the unspoken premise of no adults. We would see the children interact and react to what parents or teachers might say outside of the panel, but simply the lack of presence meant that the children had to be, in effect, their own parents. Linus would give Charlie Brown reassuring advice from time to time, and Lucy would charge him for when he went to her psychiatrist stand.
When it quickly became popular in the early sixties, it was thought that a quick cash-in would be a half-hour holiday special made on a shoe-string budget. A Charlie Brown Christmas ended up becoming one of the best holiday specials around, with a jazz-influenced soundtrack of Christmas classics and original selling millions of copies.
However, the Peanuts empire was just getting started. The world grew, and soon they had the whole gang on trans Atlantic trips, adding the not-as-sweet-as-sugar Peppermint Patty and a baby named Rerun, for more info you can read here. That Schultz kept complete control of the comic right up to its end after five decades is an incredible achievement, especially when one considers that the quality never flagged and that he always found something witty or poignant to say (and frequently both).
The Far Side
Easily the weirdest thing in your newspaper day in, day out for fifteen years, Gary Larson’s single panel fever dreams covered alien abductions, mad scientists, bugs who owned houses, and dogs that could drive bulldozers. Since it was only one panel there wasn’t much action, but plenty of implied action, which usually would suggest that the person or animal might be eaten or explode seconds later. It was not everyone’s cup of tea and generated more than a handful of complaints since it was paired beside the much, much more tame Family Circus.
It is almost certainly the only comic where you will find God seeing the universe as an interactive cooking experiment or the implication that a gorilla played some sex games with Jane Goodall click here. Its popularity with scientists alone means you can be sure that it will live on in strange references in papers and textbooks.
For Better or For Worse
Lynn Johnston’s comic about the lives of the Patterson family is remarkable for several reasons. It’s not the first to depict the daily lives of parents and children, nor is it the first to take a more serious approach to many social issues. But it was the first to do it well, and the first to have all the characters age in real-time. While most are still one-off gags with a punchline after a few panels, there are many multi-day story arcs that deal with divorce, depression, death, and many other aspects of life that in most instances you’d expect the comics to steer away from.
However, the fact that she addressed these issues with very human, fallible characters meant that she quickly had a devoted following of fans following the Patterson family’s every move (including Charles Schultz himself). In some instances, the topics were deemed too controversial for newspapers, and in 1993 several refused to print portions of one of the characters coming out to his parents. Of course, by doing so, it only created even more attention to the issue, which shows that sometimes comics can do a lot more than just put a smile on people’s faces.
Calvin and Hobbes
A comic about an imaginative six-year-old and has not-quite-make-believe tiger friend, Calvin and Hobbes can be as deep as the two philosophers it’s named after, and as silly as superficial as a game of Calvinball (the only rule is that you make up the rules as you go).
While some comic strip artists might take a page from their own life, Bill Watterson took all his ideas from his imagination. There were no childhood memories or offspring that the always troublesome Calvin is based on. The fact that he spends so much time imagining a much more exciting life (whether he’s piloting a spaceship in another galaxy, blowing up his school with a fighter jet, or is a dinosaur stalking his lunch) means he is something that bored kids and adults can always identify with.
That’s why it’s no surprise to find people who readily point out how the comic can be perfect for the present moment. Certainly in a world where more and more social interactions are being done through the anonymity of the internet, the idea of an imaginary friend (tiger or not) is not so far-fetched, no matter how old you are.