Serious Strips

Graphic Novels are often remarkable for the frankness in which they deal with issues that, until recently, were not the common fare in comic form. In fact the strength of the graphic novel, as opposed to the traditional comic serial, is a concentrated storytelling that allows for in-depth exploration of ideas, relationships, and more implicit internal states. The complexity of stories then is allowed to occur in ways often developed through a series of parallel sub-stories or shifts in time that rival anything found in, say, HBO dramas or the well-crafted film.

If graphic novels are a sort of visually-rich literary meat (Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan being a very juicy prime cut), then comic strips are the equivalent of those little baco-bits that your grandma used to sprinkle on your salad to hide the fact that lettuce had gone a little limp.

Recently, two baco-bit comic strips from my youth have become, I dunno, hormone injected (my metaphor is falling apart) and thus more meaty. For Better or For Worse, while at times super-saccharin, has also had moments of emotional intensity and social consciousness. I remember several years ago a storyline that followed a gay character. I found the telling the of his story remarkable in its unremarkableness (if you'll allow me this term). The character appears infrequently but when he does there is little to bring us back to the story the centers on his gayness (unless you are like me and have followed the story for some time). He is, for all intents and purposes, any other character woven into the meandering story of the protagonist family's lives (he is a friend of the son, I believe). If we are to criticize then we should comment that he is perhaps too bland and, worse, a token personage.

More recently I think that mundaneness has worked to great effect however. The grandfather has suffered from a stroke and the stories surrounding him and his companion have given us insight into her and the grandfather's internal struggles. The story has unfolded in an excruciating slow pace to the effect that we, like the caregiver, desire some progress and we share in the grandfather's frustration. It is an interesting device in this series that the characters often are saying something but never connecting. This point made more explicit by the fact that they are framed by the same box thus share that space with dialog balloons that never really interconnect.

The story is ongoing and unfold in way that begins (if only slightly) to mirror the sort of storytelling happening primarily in graphic novels.

Funky Winkerbean is another strip that has been a bit more daring. Recently, the strip has followed the story of a character who is dying from cancer. The story falls back on some very common devices (autumn=death, rain=sadness) but the harshness of the end of this woman's life this week - her physical pain, her husband's unending selflessness hiding his fatigue, and both characters coming to grips with her impending death - all somehow make the story real and, ultimately, life-affirming. It is this type of storytelling which reveals that, far from being irrelevant, comic strips can and should probe more than the silly little things children do. And make a nice meaty read.
gregory turner-rahman