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April 10, 2007

On Johnny Hart and Legacy Strips

The news cycle moves so quickly these days I'm not half done with an obituary when I see that news of cartoonist Johnny Hart's passing has moved past the life of the man into appraisals of obituaries some thought disrespectfully leaned towards the controversial aspects of his career and the news that the BC strip will continue. Editor & Publisher has a nice summary of the latter, including how this touches on the larger issue of legacy strips and whether or not strips that have passed on from their original creator are a good or evil in and of themselves in addition to whether or not they're harmful to the newspaper strip in general.

I'm one of those against legacy strips on the whole. I realize that some of them are very good, I'm fully aware that many of them are done because the creator wished for their feature to continue, and I know that in the end a significant audience would prefer to have an old favorite slightly if at all diminished than learn to enjoy a brand new offering. Aside for the affection we all hold for favorite works of art, there's a huge formal component about old strips versus new strips that people rarely bring up -- because you're only exposed to a small sampling of a strip a day, it takes a long time to grow accustomed to its characters and rhythms in a way that you've already absorbed with an older feature. Newspaper strip reading for many fans is a no-effort, modest-reward experience that is best if left as easy to access as possible.

Further, there's no way anyone can really prove that the newspaper page would be better off if strips died with their creators, other than pointing out a few that have and a general, logic-based hunch that, for example, audiences were more entertained by watching Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld than they would have been viewing his run playing Dobie Gillis. As ridiculous as that sounds, I think that's a pretty convincing way of looking at the overall issue. There's no way to keep any piece of art running past the death of its creators without a loss of vitality somewhere along the way, and when that decline defines a significant portion of your public face, it's bound to have a significant effect on the art form.

We have to remember that legacy strips are possible largely because of the conservative nature of the newspaper strip business, the way features bleed clients slowly as long as nothing drastically different happens on the page. And they are desirable in certain cases because of the tremendous amounts of money involved. That's why many cartoonists can shift a strip to other people, perhaps with the thought of continuing the strip after their passing, or perhaps so they can play more golf, run a related business or pursue another creative opportunity. But I think if you really look at what you're getting, even at best, the opportunity to negotiate a period of decline becomes an odd legacy to pursue. In most cases the collective memory focuses on the vital periods and puts the legacy there, not on the current product. Fantagraphics is collecting EC Segar's Popeye, not Bobby London's. The highlight reels don't show Joe Namath playing with the Los Angeles Rams.

All that said, I think there are some specific things to remember about this case. For one thing, after someone's passing is a totally unfortunate time to bring up a more general issue, because of the emotions involved, the reflexive desire that people will have to not let something die. I hope folks will remember how they feel about this issue and bring it up again at a different junction, say when papers have the opportunity to buy a new strip or keep Lynn Johnston's trapped in amber For Better or For Worse. For another, the BC strip has supposedly been a family effort for a while now, and I think that's been reflected in the strip itself. So I think in terms of adjudicating the artistic results we have to think in terms of that strip continuing, not the strip as it existed 1958-1965 or so. A third thing to remember is that to my knowledge Hart had a very close relationship with Rick Newcombe and Creators Syndicate, and I think everyone can be confident that they're facilitating his expressed wishes in a genuine, well-meaning way.

In general, however, I'm encouraged that people are having this discussion because the only way I see the legacy strip fading, perhaps continuing to fade from the certainty it was a generation ago, is for readers to value a dynamic, changing comics page that's the reflection of individual artists embracing the freedom that the comics medium brings, and for the continued growth of alternative ways to value and remember the strips that have reached their end. Talk about what we value and why we value it brings us closer to that goal.
posted 4:11 am PST | Permalink

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