Friday, March 16, 2012

The Memes, not the Meaning

Controversy in the comic strips takes two forms (and I'm not talking Doonesbury here):
  • Upon the death of an artist, the syndicate (said here in an evil voice meant to conotate money-grubbing, for the lack of a better word, bastards) hires a scab to continue making money, er, drawing the strip.
  • Your local newspaper decides to drop Alley Oop or Beetle Bailey in favor of some other strip.
Here's a third. It's not quite a controversy, but it is worth talking about: Having guest artists take on your work while you deal with something else but are in any other respect quite alive.

That's what Richard Thompson is doing right now with his comic strip Cul de Sac. Thompson himself is grappling with the early onset of Parkinsons Disease, which shouldn't be wished upon anyone. For the past few weeks, he's had guest artists -- today's example is from "Big Nate's" Lincoln Pierce -- doing his strip as he deals with what life has handed him.

While I'm grateful to see the art coming, I've got to say that only Thompson has the flair for Thompson's work. And this isn't just because I don't much care for Big Nate.

I've said before that Thompson, like Charles Schulz, has a unique window into the lives of his subject matter: children. He can make Alice and Petey and their parents do and say things that make me think, yeah, this is real. This isn't made up, this is life coming at me through the comics pages. The little annoyances: Petey lamenting that his assorted jellies caddy is sticky before he gets to it, that he has to sit under a Tiki head at the restaurant, that Ernesto is the only guide he can find to get through the maze of portable classrooms to find his own.

The guest artists, try as they might to mimic the form and memes of Thompson's Otterloops, just don't have that same window into their world, and it shows. This doesn't mean their art or story is bad, but it does mean it's all different enough that I know it's not Thompson's work without having to look at the name scribbled in one of the panels.

It's like Johnny Hart's grandson taking over BC. He's grown into to the strip, I'll give him that, but reading Johnny's strips and reading his grandsons, you can tell the one from the other, and that's even after the grandson's art has grown to nearly mirror his prececessor's. Each has a different narrative take on the story and characters, and though the successor/replacement echoes the memes, the same feeling isn't there.

Fare thee well, Mr. Thompson. Come back when you can.

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