Friday, December 10, 2010

Newspaper Comics #7

Open up the Sunday comics page of nearly every newspaper and you'll likely be greeted by two comics on the front page:  Peanuts and Garfield.  Well, there is a third comic, that varies, but usually those two are there, and have been for every paper I've read, except one, Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.  Last time I saw it (and it's been a while now) the first comic on it's page is Beetle Bailey.

Ah, Beetle Bailey, I've read a lot of it.  It's one of the few major newspaper comics that covers the military (I'm sure there are others, there has to be), but it didn't start out that way.  When it premiered in 1950, it was actually about college, but less than a year later the star, Beetle Bailey himself, dropped out and joined the army.  And he's been there ever sense, never promoted nor retired.  Poor guy.

Even compared to Blondie, Beetle Bailey is the quintessential gag a day strip.  There are never any long running stories (in it's current form at least), just one joke after another.  This also means the comic is frozen in time.  Originally it was based on Mort Walker's (the artist) experience in the military, particularly a basic training camp, it just never got past that point.  Today, despite Beetle being a private, he's at the same camp he was when he joined the military, with the same superiors and friends.

There has been some changes.  General Halftrack had to undergo a series of sensitivity training as he constantly ogled the only single blond female on the came (who also happened to be his secretary).  There have been characters who were retired and a few new ones added, but the changes are mostly superficial and do nothing to grow the comic in anyway.

And here in lies the comic's biggest problem:  The characters are the definition of one note/one dimensional.  They are literally defined by their one characteristic. Beetle is lazy, Zero is dumb, Sarge is hungry and angry, etc etc.  For a gag a day strip that's not a bad thing, but it also makes the comic extremely predictable and also ensures that the character will only come up if the joke calls for them.  Wikipedia lists 26 active characters, and but I think only half a dozen show up with any regularity.

For webcomics it is the example of what to try to avoid, even in a gag a day strip.  One note characters should always be avoided as they often create an endless cast list, most of which will never appear in the comic more than once or twice in a year.  A more compressed cast provides more opportunity to develop a joke or even short joke story and maintain the humor over the long term. Beetle Bailey suffers so desperately from the lack of joke material at this point that they created a new character a few years ago (Gizmo) to try to introduce more gadget based jokes and I can't remember the last time I saw the character at all.

I'd say most of the young gag a day strips on the net suffer from this problem initially and those that survive often evolve beyond it.  Beetle Bailey is not a great comic, I wouldn't even call it a good comic.  The jokes are flat, repetitive, predictable and worst of all dated.  It is a comic even worse off than other legacy/zombie comics because the original artist is STILL working on the comic and there's little chance it will develop beyond what it is ever.

Well, enough about newspaper comics.  I've got to go do more snowblowing/shoveling.  I'm looking so forward to that.  Until next week kiddies.

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