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Putting that cat to sleep

September 24th, 2007

Stan Lee once said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that Spider-Man would get married only after there were no more stories to tell.

The wall-crawler’s had a ring on his finger for about 20 years.

When and if Spider-Man is “unmarried” will be the subject of a future column, but Lee’s initial reaction, before changing his mind, was right.

Hear that, Jim Davis?

If you’re one of the three people still following the adventures of Garfield, you’re probably aware that Garfield’s owner, Jon Arbuckle has finally become romantically attached to Dr. Liz Wilson, his long-time crush.

For the strip, which for years was running on recycled “I hate Mondays” and “I hate spiders” gags, it’s a breath of fresh air — Arbuckle’s finally found companionship, beyond his self-centered cat and dumb-as-dirt dog.

What it really means — as readers have known since the mid 1990s — is “Garfield” is officially out of ideas.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Davis presumably made a small fortune from his fat cat — books, tie-ins and those once-ubiquitous Garfield car ornaments.

What is wrong is that Garfield and many other comics — devoid of ideas for decades — continue to crowd newspapers’ ever-shirking comics page. Cathy, for example, finally married Irving, her on again/off again boyfriend. Lynn Johnston, creator of “For Better or Worse,” announced this year that her characters would stop aging and she’d reprint older strips as flashbacks.

While I have no love for “Cathy,” I’d argue that “For Better or Worse” is one of the better comic strips of the 20th century. It’s incredibly well drawn, the characters are fully realized and Johnston tackles real-world issues.

“Peaunts,” another comic deserving every positive adjective thrown in front of it, has been in reruns for the past few years, since the retirement and death of creator Charles Schulz.

Twenty years from now, if newspaper comics (and newspapers) even exist, I’ll bet the listings look something like this: “The Best of Garfield,” “For Better or Worse Again” and “Classic Classic Peanuts.”

Yes, there are some current strips that are excellent and still have stories to tell — “Zits,” “Watch Your Head” and “Pearls Before Swine” to name a few. But the vast majority of most comic pages are full of reruns — literally or figuratively. “Blondie,” “Hagar the Horrible” and “The Family Circus” are comfort strips, existing only for daily familiarity.
Thank goodness Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”) and Gary Larson (“The Far Side”) knew when to take a bow.

The New York Times — famously anti-comics — might be the only paper to get it (partially) right.

Every Sunday The New York Times Magazine gives a page to some of North America’s top cartoonists for a serial story. Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential”) began “Mr. Wonderful” this past Sunday, it will run for 20 weeks.

I’m not saying that newspapers should get rid of the comic section — just the opposite. The Times is right for exposing cartoonists like Clowes, Chris Ware and Megan Kelso to a wider audience, but there’s no reason other than high-brow elitism (or, sadly, economics) not to offer readers “Pearls Before Swine” or “Get Fuzzy.”

It’s no secret newspapers are in trouble. Comics are often the first to go — smaller, than from the paper entirely.

Here’s a few thoughts: Invest in strips that will keep readers coming back for the story, not familiarity. Invest in strips that have a shelf life beyond a few years — and promote the hell out of them to force that sense of familiarity. Invest in talented local cartoonists (emphasis on talented — don’t throw a local person in the paper just because he or she is local). Invest in bringing Web cartoonists — often with a following of their own — to print. 
In other words, it’s time to put Garfield to sleep.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

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