Yet Another New Comic Strip

Posted by on November 27th, 2010 at 4:58 PM

The new offering from Washington Post Writers Group, Barney & Clyde, has a provocative title and an intriguing concept. Written by Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten and his son Dan (described in syndicate promotion as “a former college dropout”) and drawn by veteran cartoonist David Clark, who has freelanced for over 20 years, winning the National Cartoonists Society’s Best Newspaper Illustration division award in 1996, the strip couples as unlikely a pair as Bonnie and Clyde.

J. Barnard Pillsbury is an anxiety-ridden billionaire; Clyde Finster is a homeless but “intelligent, entertaining (and possibly crazy) street person.” Unlikely as it seems, these two become friends, which opens pandemonium’s box of today’s most vexing social problem—the gap between the haves-who-have-it-all and the have-nots-who-have-a-lot-of-nothing. Billionaire and bum.

Amy Lago, WPWG comics editor, believes the strip will resonate with urban readers because the dilemma of poverty in a rich country “is in our face daily.”

I think she’s right about the dilemma, but creating comedy out of this predicament is a high risk enterprise. And in the couple weeks’ worth of the strip I witnessed online, I didn’t see much outright confrontation between billionaire and bum that resulted in jokes arising from their very different social and economic status. Here’s a Sunday in which Barney and Clyde contemplate the passing scene on a street corner.

The street corner with its trash barrel is Clyde’s turf. But the gag springs from a universal male kinship not an economic difference. It’s funny stuff, no question; but the comedy isn’t based upon economic inequity. It’s based on common humanity. (Or “man-ity,” I suppose you might say.)

So what? We read the funnies for a laugh, not for instruction in the ills of the social order.

Admittedly, this is early in the strip’s run, and it’s necessary at this stage to establish the personalities of the lead characters—which this Sunday strip builds toward with a sure and deft touch.

In our next visual aid, we have Clyde facing a catastrophe, almost. He has a pet rabbit named Fluffykins, who goes missing. And then comes back. I have unaccountably reversed these two strips from that sequence, but, as you’ll see, it doesn’t matter: both are funny.

Rabbits reproducing like rabbits is not, perhaps, the most original gag in the world; but Clark’s pictures of round-eyed bunnies gives the joke its punch and its visual appeal.

In the next strip, Clyde’s inventive use of some car keys he found in the street is not only admirable in itself within the strip: it is also an inventive gag.

But not nearly as comically inventive as the joke in our next visual aid.

Cynthia is Barney’s daughter from a previous marriage, but her function here is as a juvenile who knows-it-all but doesn’t quite realize how much all she knows. Reading a phone number as an actual number is marvelously inspired stuff.

Barney is surrounded by family and relatives, so the strip will sometimes go for domestic comedy, and this strip and the one below (with Barney’s crotchety aged father) are good examples of that recipe. Cynthia admires her grandfather with a pure adoration, and this strip shows us why.

Making flatulent music with your armpit is probably in the same class of comedy as having rabbits reproduce excessively, but Clark’s natty pictures give even such threadbare classics as these extra oomph.

The Weingartens and Clark have a smoothly functioning understanding of the role of pictures in comic strip comedy, and the writers give the cartoonist ample opportunity to work his visual magic. It’s an expertly done strip, but it doesn’t need the concept for its surefire comedy.

Odds & Addenda. Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup comic strip was one of four strips about women by women that Editor & Publisher’s Rob Tornoe extolled as candidates to take Cathy’s place in the comics line-ups of the nation’s newspapers. A few days ago, Eliot dropped me a note about Tornoe’s cartoon that appeared in the E&P that came out a month after his article about women cartoonists. I ran the cartoon at the end of November 15’s Hare Tonic; here it is again.

With a hint from me, I’m sure you’ll see what Eliot saw and made me see: none of the comic characters scrimmaging for a position on the comics page are the women protagonists of the four comic strips about women by women that Tornoe talked about the previous issue of E&P. An odd myopia but, alas, a typical male blindness, and one that I’m guilty of, too: I didn’t notice this (probably) inadvertent omission until Jan pointed it out to me. I mention this here in the hope that all of us (me included) develops a little more sensitivity on the subject.

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