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Posted at 10:39 AM ET, 07/14/2008

The Morning Line: Meta? Meh.

By Michael Cavna

The funnies? Agnes is not amused. (Creators Syndicate)

What is in the drinking water -- or at least the inkwells -- of some of the nation's cartoonists these days? Why are some comic artists, when staring blankly at their Bristol boards, instead diverting their gaze to their own navels?

We speak specifically of the cartoonists-within-the-cartoon that populate the funny pages. It's industry self-reflection run amok. Some creators can do so to hilarious effect -- witness Stephan Pastis's latest self-cameo last week in "Pearls Before Swine," as part of his running commentary on the recent spate of "cartoon killings." But some weeks, it's too much of a good thing.

Take, for example, good ol', ever-questioning Agnes, a strip about a poor, dreaming-and-scheming grade-school girl. She's the vehicle for cartoonist Tony Cochran's twist on the funnies: the "saddies." We get word that Agnes as avatar will execute this weeklong cartoon-within-a-cartoon.

Then there's today's "Curtis," which begins a storyline of a bitter ex-Disney animator who didn't adapt to the ways of CGI. Ray Billingsley's characters are making a heartfelt, pointed statement about the animation industry, so we do give him points for edgy commentary. But add that to other meta-cartoonists that pop up at times in "Zippy" and "Sherman's Lagoon" and this meta-morphosis feels like one of the very tired devices that Agnes so passionately complains about.

What do you think, comic fans? Is the cartoon-within-a-cartoon a swell comic trick that tickles the funny bone, or a dull device that numbs the optic nerve?

By Michael Cavna  | July 14, 2008; 10:39 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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The comic within a comic goes back at least to "Fearless Fosdick" in "Li'l Abner" circa 1950. Parody as crticism is legitimate in literature, and I think should be allowed in comics.

Posted by: Ed Saslow | July 14, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Interesting topic - but could you please link back to the strips you mentioned?

I realize in two weeks the links are obsolete, but today it makes it easier to see what you're talking about, since I'm sure I'm not alone in not reading every comic strip on WaPo....

Posted by: Chasmosaur | July 14, 2008 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I like it when good strips do it. How's that fro insightful analysis?

Posted by: Hodown | July 14, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you - the "Pearls Before Swine" bit where the writer killed himself and Rat off was hysterical. But then Pearls frequently does this kind of meta commentary on the cartooning. My favorite example of this is when there was a particulary bad pun in the strip and the very last panel shows Rat standing on Patasis' desk saying "Dude, you should retire!" I almost spit water through my nose when I read that!

Posted by: dre7861 | July 14, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

All the cartoonists these days grew up in the 1980s, watching "Moonlighting" doing the "breaking the fourth wall" episodes. I blame Glenn Gordon Caron.

Posted by: David Addison | July 14, 2008 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Bud Grace and Frank Cho do it well; Alaniz & Marciuliano did it once in Sally Forth and got a laugh, and now they can't seem to leave it alone. I think the distinction is when it elevates the joke, it works. When it becomes the punchline, it's a crutch.

Posted by: JoE | July 14, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Chip Dunham's overboard does it every so often and is somewhat unique about it. The animator is usually on board with the pirates, working in a cabin belowdecks, while the captain and his two pirate knuckleheads and such are going on about things on and off ship. There's an interesting deconstructionalist value in the way this comic presents comic criticism and the inner workings of the industry. Makes an otherwise cute comic somehow transcendental.

Posted by: Meepo | July 14, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse

It's okay with me for comics to do it. One can only hope that it's done well and that is very subjective.

Great idea to have this blog! As a life-long comic strip fan, I will read it regularly.

As for new strips to add, Rhymes With Orange is consistently good. Arlo and Janis deserves to be on the Post page rather than among the web links. Ditto for Monty.

Posted by: allenwoodhaven | July 14, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

i prefer the meta-cartoonists in political cartoons -- i dug it first with oliphant, now with toles.

Posted by: thetalkingbird | July 14, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

For Bill Griffith, who created Zippy (or is it the other way around?) meta is nothing new. Look at the strips Griffith was drawing in the "underground comics" movement back in the late 60s and early 70s and you will see "Griffy" was a frequent visitor to the strip, which was far more bizarre than the current syndicated version.

Posted by: Jack | July 14, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Overboard, as Meepo mentioned, has the cartoonist as a regular character. The cartoonist is a (or the) main character in Zippy, Bob the Squirrel, and Keith Knight's K Kronicles. It's fun, whether it's full-time (as above) or part-time (as in PBS).

I thought the end of Single and Looking was a great and unique way to end.

One outstanding example is the strip "Clear Blue Water". The characters woke up one day looking great, instead of their frumpy selves. They discussed this, and discovered that their cartoonist decided to put "more effort" into the artwork. For a few weeks, this was the gist of the strip -- they all loved their new looks. When she changed her mind ("too much work") and changed them back, they negotiated with her to allow them to leave one improvement of their choosing. And now the plot is back to normal (or as close to normal as they get there).

A non-comic example is a short story called "Built Up Logically" in which the author (Howard Schoenfeld) was writing the story while the story took place. At one point a character "invented the universe" and therefore the author and hijacked the story. It ends with the author typing the last sentence and "The End".

Posted by: f2 | July 14, 2008 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The series in Foxtrot (that was rerun not that long ago) where Jason proposes to fill in for various cartoonists during their vacations, and we see his take on various strips, was pretty amusing. And didn't some strip not so long ago have a series of guest artists, i.e. other well-known cartoonists, sit in? That was fun.

Posted by: Billy Dare | July 14, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Family Circus does this all the time! Billy fills in for his dad.
Yes, I am uncontrollably drawn to it as well...................

Posted by: jEN8 | July 14, 2008 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Today's Family Circus is about as meta as one can get, in that Bil Keane's drawn a tribute to his late wife.

BTW, Tom Inge did a book on this - Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip - which is still available from Ohio State U's Cartoon Art Collection

Posted by: Mike Rhode | July 14, 2008 10:23 PM | Report abuse

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