The Riff: When Comics Literally Show Their Age...
As a cartoonist, when you create a gag-a-day comic panel that has no continuing characters, you occasionally gaze at the strips that do have characters and think: How much easier would THAT be? Even when such a feature is not at its funniest, it's got those well-developed characters and storylines to lean on.
Character investment, in other words, keeps readers coming back like catnip. And having your well-developed characters actually age, then, is like cartoon crack. Readers are hooked, even when they know not why.
Relatively few creators in the century-plus history of American comics have tried this trick, letting readers follow characters' lives in "real time." Which makes the ending of Lynn Johnston's propulsive narrative all the more prominent. By returning to the starting line, "For Better or For Worse" discards one of its most addictive properties.
Fans might find the strip's "new-runs" equally alluring, but will it feed that deeper fix?
In terms of real-time aging, "FBoFW" has some notable ancestors, of course, and we're most drawn to two. Frank King's "Gasoline Alley" is often cited as the pioneer of letting time take its toll. And Garry Trudeau has aged his college-born characters -- even taking a sabbatical in the '80s so he could fully grow them up -- but the sands of "Doonesbury's" hourglass shift conveniently to fit the creator's needs. And while Zonker might be the man-child, it is Uncle Duke who most springs eternal; he even gets to thrive (despite a near-death experience) years after the man who inspired him, gonzo journo Hunter Thompson, has hit the ultimate Last Call.
Somewhere out there is the next creator who will experiment with Actual Character Aging, perhaps even getting some serious mileage and sizzle from it. It will tempt readers, maybe even keep them entranced for years.
But that's the dicey thing with cartoon aging. Eventually, the cracks begin to appear.
| August 28, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: The Riffs
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