Chickweed Lane: Not a Dissent, Really, But . . .

Posted by on December 3rd, 2009 at 11:06 PM

I wouldn’t call Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane the best contemporary newspaper comic strip, but you can see it from there.  The best right now without a doubt is Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac, followed at a respectful distance by Mark Tatulli’s Lio.  The medium as a whole is so moribund and stultifying that it’s hard to believe a newspaper strip can turn around and have the vitality that these two have.  You’d think it was a malaise that afflicted everyone, like a cinematic zombie plague.  You can see the contrast even with Tatulli’s other strip, Heart of the City, which is not bad but is run down the conventions of the family strip as by a case of the flu.  Lio, on the other hand, is newspaper comics’ current repository of sick humor.  Thompson on the other hand is simply immune to what vexes the family strip, simply through his genius for depicting what makes a little kid adorable.

Chickweed Lane isn’t quite at that level, but it is similarly vital.  It’s always a joy to look at, and if its dialog tends to be stilted its underlying theme that sex is what makes love conquer all has an undeniable appeal.  Who wouldn’t dream of being loved by the ravishing young dancer?  (Who would dream of being loved by Amos?  Well, let’s say that for all its feminist sympathies, this is not a woman’s fantasy.)  Its problems are not the problems of mediocrity, the besetting sin of the contemporary comic strip that isn’t flat-ass bad, and even its faults are interesting.  The number one problem is that it’s glib.  In McEldowney’s world love is a reward for virtue, and if virtuous people are in love for virtuous reasons then love is undying.  Inconstancy, represented by Edda’s absent father, is the product of lack of character.  Leaving aside how true to life this is, which is an issue, this is a problem because it defeats the development of any kind of conflict or drama.  It is such a foregone conclusion that Edda loves Amos and Amos loves Edda that it’s got nowhere to go but in circles.  In the early years of the strip they are childhood soul mates doomed to be kept apart by asymmetrical attractiveness.  As this turned out to be too unworthy a circumstance to keep these two deep spirits apart, the conflict is defused by having the ugly duckling turn into a swan (McEldowney keeps telling us) and the swan to reach the age of consent.  To hear McEldowney tell it the main obstacle to romance is Puritanism, which feels more than anything anachronistic.  The problem is that with all the will in the world a lot of times things don’t work out, and even things that start out working out go sour, that the eye roves, and when you think that happiness in this world is the only happiness you’re ever going to have, you’re less likely to sacrifice it.  It can be a misery, but it gives you a lot of stories to tell.

Here’s the thing.  If you’re going to make fidelity a core value you have to admit that the Puritan ethic had an agenda of enforcing fidelity.  It sought to limit sexual activity to a context where fidelity was a matter of law.  It combined formidable legal obstacles to ending a marriage with a regime of informal ostracism for apostates that could be more formidable still.  This was not a happiness agenda, it was a social order agenda, or by its own reckoning a moral agenda.  The idea was that if people were compelled to act morally they’d reconcile themselves to it.  What we found out when we overthrew this regime is that every freedom we claimed for ourselves had a cost in social order.  The liberal response to this is a question and the conservative response is an answer.  The liberal question is, how do we restore social order while maintaining these freedoms?  The conservative answer is that you can’t, you have to give up the freedoms.  The conservative answer is never enforced because a conservative likes an easy divorce as much as anyone, but that still leaves the liberal question to be answered, and to evade it is a kind of moral cowardice.

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