Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Peanuts Question: Why some comics should die a peaceful death, and vanish from the newspapers

Posted By on Sun, Sep 30, 2012 at 11:13 AM

When I was growing up, I loved certain daily comic strips in the newspaper.

Peanuts, Doonesbury, BC (on occasion) and the incomparable Calvin and Hobbes. When I was younger, I especially loved the Sunday strips, when I would read Dick Tracy, and Joe Palooka (ask your great grand-parents) and, of course, the Sunday Peanuts. Later, Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury became pretty much the only things I read on Sundays.

But all good things must come to an end. Now I buy the large collected comics in book form to read them.

Except for Peanuts, that is. Peanuts lives on, not only in daily strips, but on the yearly holiday TV specials, and the collections of the work of creator Charles Schultz. Movies, plays, clothes, and that piece of music by Bill Melendez (which I sometimes love and sometimes loathe) that shows up the damndest places.

Yes, Peanuts, which I loved for so long, and which I bought so many paperback collections of, still occupies a place in the daily newspapers, amusing folks in the morning. It seems sort of churlish of me to attack Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy and all the others . . .

No, wait. I’m not attacking them at all.

I’m writing about cold business decisions which put work by a long-dead artist (because Peanuts is hardly the only offender) on the comics page when vital work by creators (some of whom you may know personally) lies dying on the vine. Their work may never be seen by the public.

Oh, you sneer, just put it on a website, so the world can see.

Well, their friends can, at any rate.

The folks who keep fresh talent off the pages are the same folks who made the decision years ago to shrink the space available to artists on the page, which is why you so often have to squint when you read the daily strips.

This, by the way, upset Bill Watterson so much that it was one of the reasons that led to his decision to break from writing the Calvin and Hobbes strip in 1995. Through his comic syndicate, all of the newspapers carrying the strip received the following letter:

I will be stopping Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year. This was not a recent or an easy decision, and I leave with some sadness. My interests have shifted however, and I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue. That so many newspapers would carry Calvin and Hobbes is an honor I'll long be proud of, and I've greatly appreciated your support and indulgence over the last decade. Drawing this comic strip has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity.

I’m just venting here, of course. Even if most of us who are truly interested in seeing new talent on the comics pages, presented in a format which truly respected their craft, were to descend upon newspaper offices across the country with pitchforks and torches, the most that would happen is that most of us would end on a terrorist watch list somewhere.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if . . .

******

Reading daily comic strips in 1960s English newspapers

It was quite a change to come from the States to England in 1964, and read the daily strips in The Daily Express, which ran the gamut of family-oriented to the more mature - all on the same page.

There was the highly regarded Jeff Hawke, a science fiction strip which almost no one remembers remembers today - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Hawke.

The James Bond novels were also serialized in daily strip form, some long before they were done as films. If you ever get a chance to buy a collection with these strips in, they are well worth your time.

And Gunsmoke, which ran under the title of Gun Law (at least at the time) in Britain, also had a daily strip. Just like the television series, it was remarkably mature.

So mature, in fact, that it even featured occasional nudity, something that pleased this young boy no end.

For more information on strips that ran in The Daily Express in the 1960s:

http://bearalley.blogspot.com/2008/09/daily-express-strips-25-january-1965.html

Gunsmoke wasn’t the only American television show to undergo a name change in Britain.

The western Sugarfoot became Tenderfoot, and Ironside became A Man Called Ironside, which I think is actually a much better title.

*****

Shove off, Dirk Pitt . . .

It’s true- I’m a sucker for submarine stories. And I love to tell others about them. Why else would I make my wife sit with me while we watched season one of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and I tried to explain to her what a great show it really was?

There just seems to be something extraordinary about the willingness to slip into a sardine can - no matter how big or small - and explore the ocean depths. And stories don’t come much more exciting than the tale of Otis Barton and William Beebe, who descended half a mile down in the world’s first bathysphere.

In Descent: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss, Brad Matsen tells the fascinating (an overused word, but in this case absolutely true) tale of two men from vastly different backgrounds who came together under the auspices of the New York Zoological Society and the National Geographic Society to build and launch such a craft.

Imagine it if you will, two men with barely enough room to turn around, descending half a mile down into a dark world no one had ever seen before, and describing it for a fascinated radio audience. If that doesn’t make your blood race, you need to check your pulse; you may be in a coma, and not realize it.

William Beebe, a largely self-taught naturalist, was obsessed with the ocean. He was also looked down upon by many who actually had scientific degrees, but no where near his amount of sheer physical courage.

The child of privilege and wealth, Otis Barton, on the other hand, seemed to want very much to be famous, and decided that becoming an adventurer - much like animal collector Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck - was just the ticket. In addition, he had the requisite engineering skill to design the bathysphere.

The story of the building of the bathysphere is exciting stuff to read, especially the parts when the water starts to leak in during test runs.

Sadly, bitterness drove the two men further apart than they were at the beginning at the venture. Years later, they were not even on speaking terms.

There is a bittersweet opening to the book, when author Brad Matsen discovers the Bathysphere in an outdoor scrap yard at Coney Island. In Matsen’s words it ” . . . was like coming across a Mercury space capsule among rusting tools and nicked furniture at a flea market.”

But between the first meeting of Barton and Beebe, and the sad encounter in the scrap yard, is one magnificent adventure story that is worth sharing with everyone.

Just writing this review makes me want to read the book all over again.

****

Quote of the Day

Everyone who remembers his own educational experience remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the kingpin of the educational system. He makes or breaks programs. - Sydney Hook

sdrake@cox.net

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