“The Funnies” – Seriously Important

First Garfield Strip In my day job I am working with a client that has been trying to share an initiative with the rest of their company in a variety of different ways: videos, blog posts, presentations, and, just recently, a digital comic. The thinking was that the comic book format would jar the audience out of their normal “ignore all corporate emails” posture and engage people in a way that would be interesting and easier to identify with — it was a way of making otherwise bland corporate communications “fun.”

We’ve all seen this before, of course, using the sequential art format in different ways for different audiences, but when my client kept talking about how much “fun” the comic book would be, it just struck me—for most people, panels of art with talking balloons represents “fun.”

But does it, really? What are comics, now, for most people? I think the answer to that lies in the question, “what were comics, then?”

My earliest comic memories, perhaps obviously, come from the daily newspaper strips and weekly “Sunday funnies” — which is how my very stern and strict and imposing grandfather would refer to them as. As intimidating and strict a figure as he was, even as a child I can remember that he and my grandmother would read the comics as well, and refer to them with my parents and at the dinner table.  I sit here and think about those days gone by, I realize just how much a part of my life the “funnies” were — they gave me a glimpse into what my elders thought was funny and they were fun for me to read as well.

These single panel comics and multi-panel comic strips also taught me how to read comics.

Now, I don’t know what it’s like to raise a kid these days, but I do know that newspapers no longer play the same kind of role in modern life as they once did.  Sure, if you have the time and the strength, you might find yourself lugging around a Sunday paper and picking through it over the morning like a coffee/viagra commercial, but for the most part, I think it’s fair to say that people tend to get their news throughout the day from a variety of devices and screens and that’s pretty much that. The idea of a kid rifling through their parents’ newspapers looking for comics might strike many out there as kind of quaint.

Today, things are obviously different, and regardless of how we feel about these changes, I can’t help but think differently about the future of comics — and for once, I don’t mean their actual existence! I mean, really, what comics will/can be in the future in a world where our relationship with printed paper is changing to drastically from where it has been for so many hundreds of years.

New Yorker Cartoon

“It’s a French film, so we don’t have to shower.”

It’s interesting to think about the stir that motion comics made a few years back. I found it pretty easy to dismiss them out of a hand, but, as I look back, I guess I can admire the effort, the attempt to figure out where comics fit in the spectrum of, well, reading. If the success (or, at least, grudging adoption) of digital comics is any indication, it does seem people do like that aspect of comics, the reading. Motion comics were useful inasmuch as it forced us to think about what comics were for us —and it certainly wasn’t this half-comic/half-cartoon mix that seemed to be focused on pleasing everyone (which, of course, cemented its fate in pleasing no one). Motion comics did set the stage for “Guided View” on tablets and mobile devices, which seems to work pretty well. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it, if you do like it, the option is there for added drama and a closer view of the art, making the smaller screen less of a frustration. Pretty good option, all in all.

The thing about comics, digital or otherwise, is that you pretty much have to decide to go and get them. The newspaper strips and single panel comics in magazines were “free,” more or less, as a kid. They were the “fun” in the otherwise serious endeavor of delivering the news of the world. Your parents paid for the content. One of things I remember about being a kid was hunting around for comics and comic art, no matter the source. From newspapers to The New Yorker and other magazines, I was always looking for “the funnies” even when I had no idea what I was reading. I just liked the format — it was more interesting than “regular” reading and I liked the drawings! However, that process of looking for comics was, I realize, part of the fun as well. I would invariably bump into some article in a magazine that I found interesting enough to check out, an article that I would normally never run into — which taught me to be a better reader.

I think about these experiences and wonder whether the hunt for comics in “normal” media will be as much a part of childhood — and how the absence of these encounters will impact the relevance of the comic book format for generations to come. If the majority of your content given to a child is specific — here’s this child-friendly comic book or here’s that collection of Calvin and Hobbes — then where do those chance encounters? Like, I find most of The New Yorker cartoons funny (well, adult “funny”) now, but as a kid, I had almost no idea why these comics were supposed to be funny (weren’t all comics supposed to be funny?) and I remember trying to imagine where my parents found the humor. But just thinking about the differences between what I thought was funny and what my parents apparently thought was funny definitely helped me, I think,  develop my sense of humor at a young age.

I like the panel-to-panel, page-to-page format of comics quite a bit because I expect that format. It’s what I grew up with, informed first by single panel comics like The Far Side (or perhaps Marmaduke?), then comic strips, then comic books. Pretty simple progression facilitated by newspapers.

Now a device that weighs less than a newspaper can play cartoons for kids. While their parents read the news on their device. There are fewer, if any stacks of newspapers or magazines laying around, and every one is content having that 1:1 experience with whatever they are viewing.

farside-hopeful-parentsWhere do those chance encounters happen? Worse—how do kids learn to read comics? And if comics are not a part of their youth, what is the value of printed sequential art when they grow older? Furthermore, what does a page mean these days? I know plenty of people who refer to their progress in a book by percentage now, thanks to their Kindle or iPad. Digital comics as we know them now are, I think, an interim step to something…else. Not motion comics—that didn’t work—but something that still requires some degree of effort on the viewer’s part (otherwise, it’s “just” a cartoon or a TV show). I’ve mentioned companies like Madefire before, where they are moving away from the rectangular page concept—but, to be honest, it’s been a year and they still haven’t broken into my comic book radar. Clearly, we’re still in the middle of a transition in what comic books are, and I am already wondering if I need to stop using the work “books” when talking about them.

All of this thinking reminds me a bit of poetry, which seems to have been far more relevant in people’s lives a hundred years ago than it is today. Honestly, how many of you out there are pining for a new poetry compilation to come out? Nothing against poetry, of course, it’s just that my only experience was when I was assigned poetry to read and analyze or recite in a few acting classes. That is to say, I only read it when it was forced on me and I had very little say in the matter. And now that I am an adult, poetry has zero relevance in my life. Which is sad and, I guess, vaguely poetic statement.

Look, just like the poetry collections I pass by on the way to the bathroom in Barnes and Noble, comic books will always be around. I just wonder what happens when the associated sense of fun, the sense of nostalgia, slowly exits our collective consciousness. My client chose comics to tell her corporate story, for example, whereas perhaps a few generations earlier she might have thought to use a limerick or short poem.

Is this a bad thing? Well, it is if you are fan of the way comics are right now, and I hope efforts like Free Comic Book Day and conventions go a long way in making new fans of our beloved medium. The problem facing comics is not isolated to just comics, of course — all content is suffering from the benefit of everyone having their own personal media screen. It’s just worth taking a second to realize that in our headlong dash for digital 1:1 convenience we may be losing more than just an appreciation for the incredible stories comic artists and writers and colorists and editors make, day in and day out — we risk be losing a kind of “fun” as well.


Mike Romo is having a lot fun being an actor in LA (at least, that’s what he tells himself.) Email/twitter/facebook.



  1. I still see the “funnies” sections in newspapers and haven’t really seen a shortage of people I know buying newspapers (clearly print has been on a steady decline overall, but I see many people every single day buying and reading physical newspapers).

    Not all comics need to be funny. Lots of them are. Lots of them are not. Comics are a medium and should reflect a wide variety of genres.

  2. Wow, lotta ideas in this one article; lotta of thoughts coming into my head. I honestly think motion comics are a waste, I watched the Watchmen one and gotta say it really took me out of the story and themes and made me think how ridiculous the guy narrating it sounded. Poetry has no meaning in my life as well, I just have zero interest in it and the only thing I hated more then reading poetry in school was writing it. I actually never read newspaper comics because I couldn’t find the humor in ANY of them and just preferred watching cartoons instead. Currently the only comic strip I think is funny is “The Boondocks” by Aaron Mcgruder, tho sometimes the jokes in that go over my head as well. More recently, I want fun media. I want something that will make me laugh wether it’s cartoons, comics, movies; I want something to just make me laugh and chuckle. It’s hard for me to find stuff like that now, especially in comics and that irritates me a little. It’s not that I read all doom and gloom stuff all the time, but most of it is action, sci-fi related and it doesn’t make me laugh.

    I’m not sure where comics are going, I’d guess that most digital content is pretty meaningless to people in general. “This movie is cool but it’s just a file and if I lost it I’d be out $12.”. I imagine that average people who get into digital comics will read them once in a while but if the comic gets canceled they’d just move on to something else to fulfill their needs. With so much information and entertainment at our figertips 24/7, how can any one thing stand out and really “connect” to us?

  3. Don’t forget the HUGE space of web-comics. Sites like Penny-Arcade get a couple hundred thousand views on M,W,F…a link to a website from them is like a death sentance…The sites can’t handle the click through, and crash.

    And it’s hilarious, most days. True, it’s commentary on video games, mostly. But they go into some really interesting spaces. Things like Lookouts (think cub scouts in Middle-Earth) are amazing and stand on their own.

    There is a generation who will be introduced to the sequential art format via the wealth of free web-comics out there.

  4. Although I no longer get a daily newspaper, I was a strip fanatic as long as I remember. Helps that I love sequential art. I followed as many as I could, not only the strips, but also learning about the artists. I was there for the first Garfield strip (to me, the first one – with the above’s punchline – has always been the best). As I got older, I began buying paperback collections, first as a kid buying Peanuts and BC books, up until I was in college for Far Side and Garfield, to adulthood for Dilbert, Foxtrot and Mutts. I finally stopped when my budget and shelf space went kablooey.

    I’m sad to say that although there may always be a place for those strips to appear, their importance as a medium, at least to the new generation of young readers, is lost forever. There simply isn’t enough there to entertain them, and certainly the philosophy behind strips is incomprehensible to anyone under 21. Almost anyone anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised to someday see them only published electronically as a subsection of a news website or genre-specific. That’s probably the only way for them to survive. For myself and all the rest of those faithful strip followers for 3-4 decades, we’ll always love them.

  5. I thought it would be cool if Deadpool had a weekly comic strip.

  6. I haven’t read Sunday funnies or any newspaper comics in a long time. But when I was younger I would go around and read a bunch of them in the library. Garfield, The Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes (of course) were my favorite. At least for the papers I have in my area the strips just aren’t funny anymore. They’re pretty awful….Which makes me sad cause kids today aren’t going to be interested in them as much as me. They’re just as important as anything else in a shape of literature and people should grow up on some good ‘funnies’.

  7. what do you mean “where are they going?” They already went there. Every meme you see and 9gag cartoon shared around is in fact a cartoon/comic, isn’t it? Many are single panel gags, many are sequential, and there are recognizable characters and situations. It’s anonymous and crowdsourced comics, of course, so there’s not much artistry our auteur-istry I should say, but I always smile because I think how common and natural cartoons are nowadays.

  8. To be honest… I don’t need pure funny comics. A mix like Hawkeye is great, but other than that… no.
    Then again, I am also not the biggest comedy fan around, so there is that.

  9. Another good article with a lot to consider, especially your observations about chancing upon discoveries. I also have fond memories of reading comic strips when I was young (some in the daily paper, but also many a book collection from the library). I never thought before whether my enjoyment of them was tied to my enjoyment of comic books, though now it seems obvious that they were connected. And today? I may not be reading the comics page anymore (I read the paper in print, actually, but they have no comics page), but the first thing I do every week with my new issue of The New Yorker is sit down and read all the cartoons.

    I think that comic strips in some form will continue to be around, it just may be on the web. Instead of discovering something laying around the house or in the library, the younger generation might chance upon on a striking cartoon on tumblr, like it, start following the creator, and so on. At the same time, there probably won’t be another strip as massively popular as Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes in the near future, just as no movie will ever be seen by as many Americans as Gone with the Wind, or opera be as popular as it was in the 19th century. Culture shifts, it’s only natural.

    Finally, an image of Opus always makes me smile. I always loved Bloom County . . .