See You in the Funny Pages

I was fortunate enough to live during that magical time in the ’80s when Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side overlapped in the newspaper. My parents didn’t even have TV, and this was pre-Internet; the only thing I read in the daily Leader Telegram was the funnies. But whatever it is that makes a cartoon work or an indie game grab players through the controller, those three comics have.

Now, given a glut of stimulating entertainment industry releases, we take it for granted that creativity goes beyond a single medium. Successful graphic novels result in cartoons and app games and movies. And not just Watchmen or V for Vendetta (think Snowpiercer, Tank Girl, or Persepolis). The proliferation of software means the assets we use for one project can be reimagined any number of ways, reaching receptive audiences in each incarnation.

Let’s animate Albrecht Dürer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and turn it into a Mortal Kombat clone. While we’re at it, can we build an interactive VR version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?

Everything’s fair game.

But the ability to transition seamlessly has taken a while, and it’s hard to imagine the comic strips I fell in love with as a kid on Playstation or Xbox. It takes real talent to pull off an engaging pen-and-paper feel in an app; sometimes, a given format works best.

Watterson gets the perfect look on Calvin’s face when he breaks his dad’s binoculars and the world comes crashing down. Breathed’s take on Donald Trump remains worryingly accurate. Gary Larson has a knack for making everything go delightfully wrong. This was far before the advent of Kickstarter or social media, and readership came by way of syndication, a different process than webcomics or apps go through when they succeed in the 21st century; fan mail and editorial control create a different environment in comparison with beta tests or early access.

The world was a bit less connected.

Let’s keep in mind, everyone has always had influences; Krazy Kat‘s use of landscapes and perfectly-timed frozen moments certainly had an effect on subsequent generations of artists. Walt Kelly’s Pogo has rich depth and creates a complete universe with real characters (albeit funny animals) that sets the bar for social critique and world building. The key has always been: Find a kernel that feels right, a quintessential element that cannot be reduced, a novel quality. We feel like we know Calvin and Opus and Bill the Cat.

And I’m glad to see a lot of Watterson’s drawing style in Invader Zim (not to mention Zim’s tyrannical outbursts), because it means his creations have done what impactful art does and burrowed into the brains of other talented people. As the options for publishing continue to grow, so will masterful performances swell in number (along with garbage; there’s always garbage).

The challenge remains: Do we know something good when we see it? Are we versed enough in media to recognize something rare?

Author: Erik Meyer

Erik edits content, writes articles, conducts interviews, and draws silly things for The NerdQ. He also produces Planning Session, a comic showcasing dev discussions.

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