The End of a Weird, Slow-Moving Era Part 1

As you all know, there are many reasons to be interested in living in 2015. One of them – and, admittedly, a minor and specific one – is that with the slow, tortuous death of newspapers comes the slightly-less slow, equally-tortuous death of newspaper comics.

I love newspaper comics, even beyond my extant love for comics in general. Generally, however, what I love are humor strips1, with a dollop of a sort of mordant fascination for the slow-moving, borderline-incomprehensible, consequence-free soap opera strips2.

1 and then usually just the multi-panel ones. There have been, by my reckoning, maybe four consistently-tolerable single-panel strips out of the teeming morass of the ones that crop up impossibly, like weeds. The Post-Far Side acceleration – probably one of the last real “trends” in newspaper comics* – of self-consciously “weird” single-panel humor strips that are neither weird nor humorous is a reasonable topic for discussion fifteen years ago. Or maybe even twenty.
* Newspaper comic strips are extremely slow to move around, trend-wise, and the medium changes glacially. Also: one of the last major trends. There have been a couple of others that haven’t really panned out. .
2 abetted in no small part by Josh Fruhlinger’s indispensable comics blog, The Comics Curmudgeon.

I think it started with the venerable, Sunday-only Prince Valiant, which came along during my youthful phase of interest in knights and horses and whatnot. It was a different portion of the medieval period than the other “charging around on horses and high court” stuff that was sort of in the air then3, which I think made it more interesting, and explained why there was, basically, no action4. At a certain point, my life included a newspaper that had Mark Trail (which I read regularly because I liked the nature drawing, and also it tended toward high-tension plots that I found actively engaging), Spider Man (which was, as a kid, a chance to get some superhero action every day, even if I would later come to realize that it was more “superhero” “action”) and Rex Morgan MD (which I found incomprehensible, but which included June Morgan, and so appealed to at least that part of my brain).

3 which there seemed to be a lot of? I remember there being a King Arthur cartoon where King Arthur himself rode, like, a robot horse with a chariot that fired missiles and stuff? I remember thinking there was a bunch of it around, but I can’t really come up with a reason or more than a handful of barely-remembered things. There was, however, germane to this paragraph, a Prince Valiant cartoon for some brief period of my tiny youth.
4 I read it for several years as a kid, which I find bafflng, because I can’t stand to read it now: that “wall of text next to a static picture” thing it does, with its old-style captions and realistic drawings, bores me to tears. It feels like looking at a painting then reading the little plaque next to it, except it takes twice as long and isn’t going anywhere ever. It’s like it’s designed to be the dryest thing ever, to prove that the non-action of traditional soap opera comics can be completely grafted onto the shell of an ostensible fantasy comics. Blech.

I didn’t read Apartment 3G regularly ever – when I was very young, it seemed dull, and when I eventually figured out how to read daily-serialized comic strips, it still seemed dull. Eventually I grew to enjoy it for its metanarrative – things would develop, huge changes would seem to spur even huger developments, and then, because the watchword for newspaper strips is “convervatism”5, you’d watch all of the huge changes melt away, and normalcy be forcibly restored.

5 like, narrative conservatism, not political conservatism necessarily: nothing can change, the status quo must be maintained.

Every soap opera strip has its version of that. Mary Worth never raises the stakes to levels that would be permanent for the main characters in the strip – although this means some fairly horrendous things happen to the tertiary characters that flit through the halls of charterstone. Judge Parker ends with a kind of progress: whatever the peril or disagreement was over the course of the storyline, it ends up with one set of focal characters (there are several after all this time) bettering their life – usually through the infusion of an enormous amount of money. Mark Trail always stops the devastation to the wildlife. And on and on and on it goes. Apartment 3G, then, is the only one that threatens its charactes with the ringer only to withdraw it time and time again.

Over time, the machinations not only became more labored in story terms, but also because of the strip’s inherent anachronism. In the early sixties, Apartment 3G was created to capitalize on the success of (I, and Wikipedia, believe) Mary Worth. Skewing younger, and with characters based on then-current actresses, it was a new, relatively modern sort of idea. But they’re stuck with the fact that they are, but for a brief interlude6, unmarried (or else why wouldn’t they live with their husbands), and unable to find new roommates. They’re also saddled with the jobs that were “womanish” in the sixties7, and, while they still exist today, exist in fairly different forms that make them seem more old-fashioned than they even need to be.

6 Luann was married, and then replaced in the strip by Beth, who not only practiced the Comic Strip Conservation of Hair Color by being a blonde, but I believe was also a teacher.  
7 to wit: Redheaded Tommy is a nurse, blonde Luann (also Beth, see FN6) is a teacher, and brunette Margo is a secretary/agent/event planner*
* a note on these latter two: when she was an agent, it was written exactly like she was a secretary without an office, and the extent of her “party planning” is left unknown, due to the nature of the strip. See following for more on this.

So they are women who do antiquated forms of jobs that still exist in modernity, they live in a New York City that never really existed but that resembles The City of popular fifties entertainment8, and over time this all sort of bags out to lead to the strip existing entirely outside of reality, and also in a world where every time something happens, there’s a guarantee that an equal and opposite reaction will, essentially, allow it to un-happen. It’s entertaining, then, as a sort of light examination of the form.

8 even when it premiered, it was only really modern for a comic strip. So there isn’t much of the sixties – even the early sixties – present in the stirp. Still just something of a mid-fifties, post-television facelift for the daily serial form, even then at the beginning of its decline.

Serial, continuous comics are unlike just about any other storytelling medium, because they have essentially no advantages. They have three to four panels a day to get something across, and, besides, due to the vagaries of syndication, are often sold separately on weekdays and Sundays, leaving some people only reading five, or only reading one, of the installments per week. Besides that, there’s a small percentage of people who can be counted on to read it every single day. What this ends up meaning is the story has to move slow – so that no one misses a day or two will be lost. It can’t do much with the bait and switch, because people are going to guess (or assume, or infer, it’s possible that “guess” is much too strong a word for it) what’s coming and then come back when it’s happened, if they’re surprised they’re going to be lost, and they’re not going to come back again.

All of which is, of course, theoretical, because there’s no real way to measure comics popularity. The one tool they had9 was letter generation: if people wrote in to complain, you were unpopular and could be replaced (there have also been, historically, polls to determine popularity, but as those are more likely to reveal a hierarchy than actual numbers about who is reading vs. not reading they are simply not as useful). This means that, especially with the serious strips, which require continuing readership, there’s even more of a marked tendency to not rock the boat, and to make no changes that could result in a negative response.

9 it is, as far as I can tell, also still one of the primary tools, but I would imagine that, internet response being fairly measurable, it’s also probably no longer one of the only ones. Although it seems to count for more than I think.

Thus, serial comic strips become something of an exercise in formalism. The exceptions to this necessary stagnation are, across the board, strips that are either fully humor strips (Doonesbury takes place in basically real time, and has all sorts of stuff change), or serio-comic (Funky Winkerbean, leaning heavily on the serio-, staggers its way toward blinkered, unrealistic misery)10, but even in their cases the shake-ups are relatively far-between (and tend to be sorted out for many storylines afterward).

10 Funky Winkerbean and Doonesbury are the exemplars here, but the other two most interesting examples come from For Better or For Worse and Gasoline Alley. FBOFW was intended to be mostly humorous, but also true to life, and while time passed at a somewhat-reduced rate, the characters did age. This meant that it was continuing on in the Gasoline Alley mold. Gasoline Alley was, in its youth, a fairly radical strip: meant to be a slice-of-life look at a quaint town around a group of people who had all recently acquired automobiles, it soon broadened its scope** to cover the entirety of the life of this small town, centered around Walt Wallet and his son Skeezix (still alive, and well over a hundred). In the case of FBOFW, the status quo was never really established, and it changed forms years ago to the effect that it never really lost its narrative drive, although the actual writing quality of the strip did suffer somewhat. Gasoline Alley is a bare shadow of its former self, now existing in the same realm as other soap opera strips, and getting around the necessary unchangingness by simply never starting a storyline more complicated than, say, “Skeezix needs a new drivers’ license.”
** because, honestly, how long could it be about the novelty of owning automobiles, given that owning an automobile stopped being a novelty very quickly?

And so we come back to Apartment 3G. Long-since (if it ever was) unable to conjure up a compelling storyline in and of itself, the main appeal to the strip is watching it snap back into place after the machinations that drive the (increasingly unrealistic) plots twist it out of shape. This is, obviously, a pretty unsustainable way to maintain an artistic property – the number of people who are inclined to read a dull, repetitive, outlandishly old-fashioned comic strip for metatextual reasons is pretty small, especailly when the metatextual reasons are more related to formalism than sarcasm11. And thus it comes to pass that it is seemingly the least-popular of comic strips, and it’s on its way out the door.

11 I previously mentioned the content of and community around The Comics Curmudgeon, a signal post in the world of online newspaper comics discussion – he tends to read the comics with a sort of “Bad Movie Night” glee, and thus spends a lot more time with Mary Worth and Judge Parker than with Apartment 3G, although if you got and look at the recent archives, you can see him navigate the bizarre, seemingly-brain-damaged turn the strip has taken in the last several months.

NEXT: What does it all mean? Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

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