Comix: The Retribution: Prelude to Justice

Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading the daily comic strips in the newspaper (or, as I called them before setting such childish things aside, the “funnies”). But one thing always bothered me: why was there such a spread of quality? What right did some of this mundane drivel have to grace the same pages that once held such luminaries as Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side?

Even worse, from time to time the newspaper would rotate out the comics they printed, frequently resulting in the loss of a strip I liked in favor of one I thought was terrible (or, more likely, painfully mediocre). At the time, it struck me as unjust. I know that sounds silly, but it’s really how I thought: it was unfair that a better strip lost out to a worse one.

So, that brings us to this blog post. In this series, I will rank, in my opinion, all of the comics that run in the weekday edition of The Oregonian from best to worst. The good ones are going to get their well-deserved recognition, and the bad ones are gonna be called out. A reckoning is coming.

 

Methodology:

The following criteria are going to be used to determine the quality of a comic strip:

Funniness: How funny is it? Not all comic strips are strictly comedic, so for serious ones, I’ll replace this with “Goodness,” to represent the dramatic quality of the story.

Art: The general quality of the art. Extra points go to a distinct or interesting style. Major points are detracted for lazy or boring art.

Characters: Does the strip have interesting characters?

 

Honorable Mentions:

Here are all the comics that I wanted to mention but, for one reason or another, didn’t fit the criteria to be included in this list.

Get Fuzzy by Darby Conley

Get Fuzzy is a comic strip about Rob and his two pets: kindhearted dog Satchel and Bucky, a mono-fanged Siamese cat with delusions of grandeur. It’s comedy is mainly character based, although it also has some commentary on the nature of cats and dogs. There’s a plot line where Bucky attempts to secede Rob’s closet from the Union.

Get Fuzzy earns its place as an Honorable Mention because it’s funny, it has strong (if perhaps one-dimensional) characters, and it has good and distinctive art. Unfortunately, since 2013, weekday editions of Get Fuzzy entirely consist of reruns (although new strips are still released on Sundays). As a result, it’s been dropped by many newspapers across the country, including The Oregonian.

FoxTrot by Bill Amend

FoxTrot is, on the surface, a standard sitcom-like comic strip about the Fox family: father Roger, mother Andy, and their kids Peter, Paige, and Jason. Two things set it apart from lesser strips that follow the same formula. First, rather than relying on the same tired tropes, FoxTrot approaches it’s stories and jokes with some cleverness. Second, Amend (who has a physics degree) incorporates a number of science and nerd culture jokes into the strip – and the comic’s been around since 1988, so he’s been doing it since before it was cool.

FoxTrot earns its spot on the Honorable Mentions list because it’s funny, it has good characters (especially Jason, the nerdy son), it actually tries with it’s jokes and plot lines (a surprisingly low bar, as we’ll see later), and it’s carved a niche for itself with its referential nerd humor. Like Get Fuzzy’s Darby Conley, Amend only releases new strips these days on Sunday. Because it doesn’t run weekdays, it won’t go on the regular list.

Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson

Oh man, Cul de Sac is so good. The heartfelt and deeply funny story of the kids who live on a particular street, Cul de Sac approaches its world with childlike whimsy and perceptive empathy. Cul de Sac’s distinctive art style is by far the best of the Honorable Mentions, and probably the best out of this entire list. Thompson imbues such an energy into each character, and they have real expressions. He has a real flair for visual comedy – a surprisingly rare thing in newspaper comics. Man, just look at how angry Petey gets here. It’s great!

Though it didn’t affect his drawing (other than slowing him down), Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease for years. He passed away in July of this year at the age of 58. His death prompted a flowing out of support online from the comics community. Due to health reasons related to his Parkinson’s, Thompson had canceled Cul de Sac back in 2012.

Cul de Sac earns its place on the Honorable Mentions list because of its sweet humor, surreal take on a child’s view of reality, and exceptionally high quality art. Unfortunately, The Oregonian dropped it after Thompson quit updating it rather than run reruns, so it doesn’t fit the criteria to go on our list – otherwise, it would be at the very top.

A WHOOOLE NEW WOOOORLD

I haven’t updated in quite a while, but like an embarrassing memory from middle school, I’m back just when you thought I was gone for good.

So what’s happened since I last posted? Well, back in April I graduated Magna Cum Laude from George Fox University (it’s OK, I’m not bragging, because I’ll also tell you that I still live with my parents). Leaving college behind has been a hard experience. Although it’s getting better, I’ve felt adrift without the constant activity: the sense that you’re in the middle of things, surrounded by people and ideas, friends and acquaintances all growing and sharing and talking. I’ve gone from living in a house with six other guys to living in a house with my parents and a cat. I’ve gone from being almost constantly busy to being pretty much left to my own devices to find work to do. It hasn’t been an easy transition.

And so what am I doing now? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. After a summer of hemming and hawing, of nervous speculation about the future and worry that I’m not going anywhere, I’m not doing anything, I’m nOT GOING TO AMOUNT TO ANYTHING OH NO I’M GOING TO LIVE IN MY PARENTS’ HOUSE FOREVER WHY CAN’T I FIND A JOB, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I need to slow down and take things one step at a time. This is a hard transition, and I should try to forgive myself if it takes a while. After all, its been 17 years since I wasn’t in school (Funnily enough, things seem to move in cycles – the last time I wasn’t in school, people were looking forward to new Star Wars movies).

So why am I writing this blog post? Well, along with the decision to take things one step at a time, I’ve also decided to focus on this whole “writing” thing. Starting this Friday, expect regular updates. I’ve also got some potential things in the works right now, but I’ll wait to post about those until things are more developed.

Until next time,

 

John

A Tale of A Game

Back in September, Undertale – a small roleplaying game put out largely by one man and backed by a relatively modest Kickstarter – was released to almost instant acclaim. It’s one of the best games of 2015, and I would argue one of the most important games to be released in years.

In a genre – and, in fact, medium – that takes violence for granted, Undertale offers the player the opportunity to play an entirely pacifist game. What’s more, choosing not to fight in Undertale never makes you feel like you’re missing out. Rather than simply not fighting, the player can seek non-violent ways to defeat or appease their enemy during combat. As a result, non-violence becomes not just as viable as violence, but as entertaining.

However, Undertale goes beyond just the gimmick of allowing the player to be a pacifist. It utilizes an interesting combat system unlike anything I’ve personally seen in a game – while traveling utilizes a traditional JRPG top-down style (think Pokemon), combat is determined through a turn-based system in which the player needs to frantically dodge their opponent’s attacks.

Undertale’s true strength, however, is not in its gameplay, as well-made as that is. Undertale is great because it is the most emotionally invested I have been in a game in years. It’s full of interesting, memorable characters who together with the story and atmosphere create an experience that is at times hilarious and melancholy.

Undertale brims with character – obviously in the case of its characters, but also in its music (I even like the music that plays when you die, despite being sick of it happening), environments, gameplay, and story.

I won’t tell you any thing more about it, because it really is an experience worth having unspoiled.

Undertale proves that a game doesn’t need to be high resolution to be beautiful, that gameplay doesn’t need to be expensive to be innovative, and that a story doesn’t need to be complicated to be interesting.

Taking Stock, Part 2

(Continued from last week)

I made my way down the line to the Meloys, and immediately I was starstruck. When it comes time for them to sign the book, I start babbling about how much of a fan I was, about how I hadn’t actually read their book, but I was sure it was very good, and I really like Colin’s music, and I guess I like Carson’s work, too, or at least the illustrations she did for the Decemberists, and any way did I mention that I’m your biggest fan?

They sign the book and, impressively, Colin is unmoved by my awkwardness. Unflappably, he tells me that he likes my shirt (it’s a dark green affair sporting the Green Lantern logo). “I actually had a shirt like that when I was younger,” he continues.

Carson looks at him and says, “I didn’t know that.”

Colin meets her gaze and says, with a hint of a smile, “there’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

And the moment is gone, I move down the line, and signing continues. But for just a brief instant, I saw a private moment between a man I admired from across the gulf of fame and his wife: I moment I, in some small way, helped create.

And that was special.

*

If meeting Colin Meloy was powerful for who I was at the time, meeting Bruce Hale was even greater for who I was in the past.

When I was in about fourth grade, I was introduced to Hale’s Chet Gecko series, and I was hooked. Chet is a wise-cracking, bug-eating gecko at an elementary school for anthropomorphic animals – as well as a hard boiled detective. Along with Animorphs, Gerald Morris’ Arthurian retellings, and Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels, Chet Gecko served as one of the cornerstones of my grade school reading. In fact, I will still occasionally read any new ones that come out, for nostalgia’s sake. These days, they only take an hour or so to read.

So imagine my reaction when I saw that Bruce Hale was going to be at Wordstock 2013. I had to make sure I saw him.

He was there to plug his new picture book, “Clark the Shark,” which was about a shark who went to school or some such silliness – clearly, kids these days didn’t have the same impeccable taste as I did when I was their age. Clark may have been a shark, but he had nothing on Chet Gecko.

I sat in the back, with the parents, behind a gaggle of small children. I am the only person there my age, and I am a little embarrassed. Still, I watch Hale give his presentation, and let myself appreciate the magic of his showmanship.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s excellent with kids. What I didn’t know, though, was that he was an illustrator, and while he talked about books, and art, and the magic of reading, he rattled off sketch after silly sketch of Clark the Shark on a big pad of tearaway butcher paper.

After the presentation, the kids line up to get their copies of “Clark the Shark” signed by its author/illustrator. I line up behind them.

When I get to Hale, he isn’t sure what to say for a moment. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to see a 19-year-old at his presentation on a picture book. Everyone else here is in elementary school. However, I don’t give it time to be awkward. With more confidence than I had expected, I told him that I was actually here for Chet Gecko.

I told him how much his books had meant to me when I was a child. I shook his hand, and asked him to sign my Wordstock program, since I didn’t have a book of his with me.

And, honestly, I think he was touched. I had remembered. He sent out a scant dozen private-eye parody novels out into the teeming ocean of children’s literature, and I snagged and rejoiced in them and now stood in front of him, a decade later, remembering.

And that is why I love Wordstock.

Taking Stock

Last Saturday, I attended Wordstock, a large literary festival (8,000 people attended this year) held annually in Portland. Wordstock took a year off last year and is actually under new management, since it apparently struggled financially the last few years. With a new organization comes new ways of doing things. Here’s how it breaks down:

The Bad: Unlike previous years, Wordstock was held in the Portland Art Museum, instead of the Oregon Convention Center. This allowed much less space overall, so there were fewer exhibitors at the book fair, the entrance and exits to the events were jammed, and things were overall pretty cramped. Also, there were lots of stairs.

Additionally, ticket price went up from $11 to $15, and, more significantly, the festival moved from a two-day event to a one-day event. On the whole, everything was smaller: fewer authors, a shorter festival, and the smaller names. While Ursula Le Guin, a big name in science fiction, spoke at a panel, and Jesse Eisenberg, big-time Hollywood actor and apparently a writer too, spoke at an event, I hadn’t heard of any of the other authors there. This year was definitely a step back in scope from the 2013 Wordstock.

The Good: It’s back.

And that’s enough. Yes, it’s disappointing that it wasn’t bigger, and the change in venue was tricky, but I’m really just happy that it’s back at all. Because Wordstock means a lot to me. I think I’ve made it every year it’s been held since I first went in high school, and each time I’ve gone with my dad. My dad is a big part of why I’m in to books at all, and so that continuing connection we have maintained has made Wordstock, itself a massive celebration of books, even more special.

It’s also important to me for who it’s enabled me to meet. In 2012, Colin Meloy and his wife Carson Ellis were at Wordstock to promote a new book they made – he wrote it, and she illustrated it. For anyone not in the know, Colin Meloy is the lead singer and songwriter of the Portland-based band The Decemberists, one of my favorite bands. These were heady days for a young fan of the band: their most recent album, “The King is Dead,” whose popularity originally attracted my attention, had just come out the previous year. I heard the big single, “Down by the River,” once, and I was hooked. From there, I expanded outward, devouring anything I could get my hands on online. By 2012, when Wordstock rolled around, The Decemberists were my favorite band in the whole world, and Colin Meloy was not someone I could possibly allow myself to miss.

I sat and watched the couple discuss their book – it was actually a sequel – and a variety of other topics: songwriting, illustration methods, their philosophy of art, that sort of thing. It was a good talk. When it was done, it was time for the book signing. With a freshly bought copy of their new book in hand, I stood in line, nervously waiting for my brush with greatness.

To be continued…

Stretched Thin

Imagine an hourglass. Now, imagine that same hourglass, only cosmic. The total sum of potentiality is amassed at the top, each individual grain representing an element of the future; in the bottom bulb, the old dusty past collects in drifts, possible futures realized into actual pasts; and this transformation occurs through a narrow chokepoint, a thin hollow of glass where the present transforms the ever shrinking future into the ever growing past. This small channel is where our lives are lived: plans realized, decisions set, memories made.

And lately, that neck has felt very narrow, indeed.

These last few weeks have been exhausting. To quote Tolkien, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” While I haven’t found any sort of soul-corrupting ring of power, I have been missing a lot of sleep, and I’m beginning to suspect that the two share a lot of the same side-effects.

Everything seems to be coming together, and not in the way directors mean during interviews about particularly good movies: projects stack up on other projects, which in turn stack up on the normal daily work I have, and on top of that I’m a senior and I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life and oh man my bank account’s bone-dry and I don’t know if I’m ever going to see my friends again after graduation and what if I have to live with my parents–

Well, you catch my drift. It’s been a bit stressful. I’m tremendously glad for this weekend, in which I will attend Wordstock, an annual celebration of the written word that I have participated in in my own small way since high school. Still, though, one relaxing weekend can’t fix my life, or keep me on track, and so I suppose I’ll have to look for bigger things.

I’m not too great at being a Christian. Now, I’m fine at it – I’m a good boy, and I firmly do believe in it all. But I don’t think my relationship with God is as strong as it should probably be. And so maybe this is all for the best.

The G-g-g-ghost of Halloween Past

My earliest memory of Halloween only exists in fragmentary snapshots: a duct-tape knife protruding from my brother’s back, fake blood running down an old shirt; hay bales, and a faintly lit corner where a woman read stories out load; my costume – Dennis the Menace, a character I was only vaguely aware of: three dots on each cheek, overalls, and an artificial cow-lick spiked up on the back of my head. I was 4 or maybe 5, and my parents thought I was adorable.

Halloween in my mind is the flickering orange light of a candle fluttering out from holes in a ceramic ghost, casting unsteady bats and crescent moons out into the darkened room with my mom and I; it’s the color of dead leaves and pumpkins, and the solitary caw of a crow echoing against bare branches and the cold October sky; it’s pumpkin seeds and pumpkin guts, scooped and stacked on outdated newsprint with the large metal serving spoon we kept in a drawer with the other tableware; it’s trick-or-treating at the mall, “Halloweentown” on the Disney Channel, a harvest party at a friend’s church.

It’s one of my favorite holidays.

Of course, it doesn’t come close to Christmas, king of the American pantheon. Nothing can come close to that particular holiday’s achievements, although that’s for another blog post. Halloween, though, has its charms. For one, it’s the only fun holiday we have: Thanksgiving and Christmas, while fun, are still tinged with sobriety: even if you aren’t religious, you’re still encouraged to take time to be thankful for what you have, to appreciate your family and loved ones, and to be a kinder and better person over all. Despite the growing materialism of the big holidays, they still have some heart.

Halloween has no heart, and that’s why it’s so fun. Any deeper meaning it once had has been long lost to the mists of time and geography, leaving only a celebration of mock-fear and an excuse for kids to eat candy and adults to drink liquor. Costumes, of course, play an integral role in Halloween, creating a sense of the carnivalesque (to slightly inaccurately borrow a term from literary criticism) – that is, it turns things upside down. People can pretend to be who they want to be, at least for a night. Maybe that’s what Halloween is all about: pretending things are real. Nobody really believes in monsters, but for one night a year, we embrace that fear of the “things that go bump in the night,” and we have fun with it.