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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/19/2008

The Riff: When the Funnies Go Verbose

By Michael Cavna

In the middle of an interview some years back with Pulitzer-winning political-cartooning legend Paul Conrad, I asked about his extreme pithiness. The messages of his cartoons were often conveyed with striking visuals and short captions, and he loathed word balloons. What did he think then, I queried, of editorial cartoonists who relied heavily on dialogue?

His response was fittingly short, and tart: "They should just give up cartooning altogether and become WRITERS!"

Conrad recalled seeing a recent political cartoon that needed 180 words to get across its message. He was disgusted to the point of stopping to count this treasonous verbosity.

As comic strips face space limitations, their cartoonists face a tough task that seems weighted against them: How do you fully develop characters, plot and story before even, depending on your strip, cutting to the punchline?

"Lio," of course, ducks this issue by going without dialogue. And "Dilbert's" Scott Adams is a minimalist master when it comes to reducing his three-panel joke (or jokes) to fewer than 40 words.

At the other extreme, often, are such strips as "Tank McNamara," "Zippy" and "Pearls Before Swine."

This week, for instance, "Pearls" routinely tips the scales at 70-plus words. (Myself, I often try to hew as close to the "magic 50 mark" as possible--much beyond that, my gags seem to quickly lose punchiness.)

The curious thing is: I rarely mind it when "Pearls" goes long--in part because the very funny payoff is so frequently worth the wait. And since "Zippy" seldom seems about the "joke," per se, I will leisurely enjoy the verbal stroll.

On the other hand, even as a former sports cartoonist, I sometimes find "Tank" just too dense, and I fight the urge to edit as I read.

So today, Comic Riffs puts the question to you: Does long-windedness keep you from reading certain strips? Is verbosity a serious deterrent? Or is it a more subtle distinction than that, depending on other factors in the strip?

And of course, if too many words and images is your issue, then there's always one satiric sanctuary: "Garfield Minus Garfield."

By Michael Cavna  | December 19, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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I stopped reading Tank for this reason. The combination of the increasingly small fonts needed, the overabundance of words, and the infrequent payoff makes it an occasional read only.

Too bad, because I used to enjoy it more.

Posted by: Late2Bass | December 19, 2008 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Do people STILL read Tank?
Wiley(Non-Sequitur)is the best when he is in minamalist mode. Can't take the l o n g sagas he occasionally subjects us to in both Sunday and Daily on occasion

Posted by: LeMuff | December 21, 2008 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Agreed re Pearls. Get Fuzzy is on a verbosity streak lately with a story line that is running a bit long, but he's good enough that I'll always read it.
Re Tank, I think one challenge is that that he needs to set up the joke for a series(for some readers to get it). Plus, that's two guys- how do you decide the balance between artist and writer?

Posted by: Montanan | December 21, 2008 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I do skip over long dialogue in Tank and PBS.

I will also generally stop reading the dialogue in Agnes and Zippy by the first or second panel. I've learned that nearly every one of those strips repackages one of maybe three or four "jokes," and one or two panels is typically enough to figure out which one it is on any particular day.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 22, 2008 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree. Too many words shows dearth of artistry.

On a different topic, I've had it with the cockney cat in Get Fuzzy - he should be killed, and the sooner the better. First time Darby's gotten my goat, too. Normally rate the strip A-1, top-of-the-line. He's one of the best inkmen in the business.

Posted by: Jumper1 | December 22, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

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