A Rant about Comic Strips

You get what you pay for. -- Anonymous

It's confession time once again. This time the subject is comic strips. Here's the startling admission: I don't understand the appeal of the comic strip User Friendly.

A little explanation is in order. I know why I don't like it. What I don't understand is why other people like it. Comic strips are a matter of taste, of course; but why do so many people I know like this strip in particular?

Let me list some of the reasons I don't like it.

The Writing

Two adjectives immediately come to mind: derivative and unfunny. As to the former, let's just say that parodies of Star Wars were old when Berke Breathed did them in Bloom County. They aged even more when Mel Brooks made his spectacularly unfunny film Spaceballs. Regurgitating this shtick again makes me wonder whether every writer without an idea relies on it eventually.

And now for "unfunny". Could it be that I'm jaded concerning old Unix in-jokes, tech support stories of ignorant users, anti-Microsoft gags, and technoids-vs-suits wars? Perhaps. My quotient for that kind of thing is quite low, in fact. One of the problems with User Friendly is that its vein of humor doesn't extend beyond this region, which was exhausted long ago. (Can you say Dilbert?) I read it, laughed a long time ago, and now it's old. Oh, it's old.

The Art

I don't usually ask for too much in this area. Sometimes simplicity, when done well, can be charming. Consider Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, for example; even though I didn't find it funny, its iconic style was instantly recognizable and interesting.

However, simplicity is not the same thing as crudity. The drawing style of User Friendly is crude. Furniture is usually depicted as a few straight lines, seen from the side without perspective. The people are little better. The settings? They're usually a blank panel, with sometimes a Bloom County-like Xerox hanging on a wall. That's about it.

I suppose this could change. Some artists evolve over time. G.B. Trudeau's Doonesbury, for example, evolved from crudely drawn characters on blank backgrounds to a strip that uses a wide palette of techniques. Trudeau understands shadow, silhouettes, perspective, transitions, and emphasis. He didn't learn them all at once: his early strips were lambasted for their static quality. Even so, his artistic range was increasing.

As an experiment, I compared strips from two different years of User Friendly. They're consistent; the artist's style hasn't changed at all. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for improvement.

There's a big difference between an accomplished artist drawing in a simple style as a matter of choice, and one who draws crudely due to lack of ability or skill. User Friendly falls into the latter category, and it shows.

The Characters

Let's see... hacker genius, clueless marketing drone, Unix guru, frustrated tech support guy, and... cute little furball. What? A fuzzball with feet? Why doesn't the author just hang a sign on it saying "Comic Strip Cliché #6 - cute little critter"? Wasn't Opus and Dogbert and whatever that thing was in Sluggy Freelance enough?

In the end, the fluffball comes across as being just another box to check in the list of stereotypic characters that appeal to technoids.

Final Notes

Nope, I don't like it.

I'm not talking out of my hat completely here. I've done my research. The night before writing this I read the last five week's worth of the strip. In a previous experiment, I read two separate month's worth of strips, separated from each other by a period of two years. All in all, I've worked my way through more than a quarter of a year's worth of strips. It was enough.

What's interesting about the failure of User Friendly to amuse is the fact that I can look at some comic strips I like and recognize that they break many of the same rules. Consider Sylvia or Zippy the Pinhead; their artistic style and subject matter haven't changed appreciably in twenty years, but I still find them worth reading. Yet I grew bored with Dilbert in a few years, and no longer bother to glance at it in the paper. Why is there a difference?

Come to think of it, I'm hard pressed to come up with comic strips I do like. Calvin and Hobbes was fun; I'm really impressed that its creator ended the strip before he ran out of ideas. Bloom County went downhill quickly after the first book. For Better or For Worse has its soap opera aspects, but it keeps me interested even when I don't follow it for years at a time.

[There's a special pit somewhere for the creators of The Family Circus, Garfield, and Cathy. What's good about this is that the people in the pit are going to be guarded by the creators of Bob the Angry Flower and Jerkcity.]

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's a matter of taste. But the appeal of User Friendly leaves me wondering whether our collective sense of humor has suffered some form of impairment. If this alleged humor is good enough for the self-styled technoid elite, then what does that say about the common person?

I'll have to keep buying the Pogo reprint books.

Last updated 11 February 2001
All contents ©2001-2002 Mark L. Irons

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