Comics and Culture: The Cartoonist as TV Critic


This article originally appeared in Issue# 59-60

A mother comes into the family room where her son is watching a noisy action/adventure show with his school books spread across his lap.

"Michael, how can you watch TV and do your homework at the same time? Homework is important! It should be taken seriously! And seriously means giving it your undivided attention." Without replying, the teenage boy moves slowly and reluctantly out of the living room and upstairs to his room--where he turns on his boom box before returning to his books.

A real-life conversation? Or perhaps the beginning of a movie or a TV sitcom?

But the dialogue actually reflects the everyday realism of an older medium. This typical parent-child struggle appeared in the first few panels of one Sunday serial of For Better or For Worse, a syndicated cartoon strip by Lynn Johnston that recounts the day to day life of the Patterson family.

Michael and Elly Patterson, the mother and son in For Better or For Worse, aren't alone. In the same Sunday comic section, six-year-old media addict Calvin explains his TV philosophy to Hobbes, his toy tiger/alter ego. Lois, the mother in the family-oriented serial, Hi and Lois, struggles to find an alternative to TV babysitting. On another page, the wry cartoon commentary on daily life Non Sequitur uses the immobility of a couch potato to draw a parallel with the slow pace of TV golf.

So what makes television such a significant player in this other medium, an older rival, and a visual one at that?

A Media&Values retrospective on comics prepared a few years ago by Joy Clough, RSM, has some answers. As she pointed out, comics offer "a cross-section of human psychology and capture significant snatches of American life. Oldtimer or newcomer, the comic strips apparently owe their ongoing appeal to solid psychology. They mirror human life and respond to the human spirit."

Increasingly, in our age, human life is reflected and the human spirit shaped by interaction with television. So it's perhaps inevitable that TV and cartoons mirror each other. This tendency is reflected in recurring storylines in a number of cartoons: in different ways Doonesbury, Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Cathy, among others, use television to define relationships and establish their characters' personal philosophy.

Living With Television

Whether they're conscious of it or not, many of today's cartoonists regard interactions centering around television as a staple subject matter. As Greg Howard, creator of Sally Forth, a comic strip focusing on the day-to-day life of a working mother, puts it, "TV is such an important part of everyone's lives, it would be hard to write a strip for very long without mentioning it."

"Television viewing habits provide a common key to family interaction," says Brian Walker, co-writer with his brother Greg of the family-oriented strip Hi and Lois.

Bil Keane, creator of the 30-year series of child-oriented vignettes, The Family Circus, estimates that 10 percent of his features include the use of a television set in some way. "Not only is TV important in most homes, but it's a very useful tool in helping me present children's perspectives about what's going on in the world. My characters Billy and Dolly wouldn't, for example, attend the Barcelona Olympics. But like the rest of us, they could share and react to the experience on television." Keane's three-year-old, Jeffy, for example, who is dismayed to discover that his agreement to go to bed "after the next commercial," only wins him a brief period of playtime, could speak for us all.

Television is even a fully articulated part of the world of Trixie, a baby too young to speak to the other members of her comic strip family in Hi and Lois. Her thoughts about television, often considerably at variance with adult evaluations (Mommy sees TV wrestling as violent; Trixie sees it as "people hugging each other"), appear in "thought balloons" that present her baby's-eye view of her world--including television--to the reader.

TV's usefulness as a player in modern cartoons presents a paradox for comic storylines, because television watching from the outside is a pretty boring activity.

In responding to this challenge, cartoonists using television in their strips become exponents of media literacy principles almost without knowing it. For example, a series of Sally Forth cartoons from a couple of years ago reflects a challenge faced by many well-intentioned parents: how to monitor their children's TV viewing.

Over a period of several days, humorous dialogue between Sally and her eight-year-old daughter Hilary make a case for monitoring children's TV viewing, concerns about sex and violence on television and the advantages of watching television with your children. When Sally falls asleep at the television set in the midst of a recommended evening of parent-child viewing, the humor doesn't detract from the message: monitoring children's TV use isn't always easy, but it can and should be attempted.

As Howard sees it, Hilary and Sally's conflicts over television serve a dual purpose. They portray an interaction recognizable to many parents, and they present an opportunity to spur serious reflection on children's TV use. Hilary's pro-TV perspective adds humor and helps to avoid preaching.

As a Minnesotan, Howard is extremely conscious of whether the strip "will play in Peoria." In that sense, he feels that he has the chance to present a different perspective from the family serials often found on Hollywood-originated national television.

"I often look at television and have the sense that writers and producers don't know how people in Missouri or Iowa live. Often, cartoonists have something to say simply because they live an average life."

Geographic, and, in this case, a national perspective, also shapes the work of Lynn Johnston, a Toronto resident whose Patterson family chronicles have included references to the Canadian parliament buildings and a trip to the Canadian capital, Ottawa, and even (in an animated feature) a character with a country French accent.

Johnston believes her perspective on television has been shaped by Canadian mores as well. "I used to come home from school to watch The Polka Dot Door, a Canadian children's show. Twenty years later it's still on. It's much slower-paced than Sesame Street, but its stories, reading and playing dressup are tremendously appealing to children."

These positive memories stand in contrast to her worries about the violence on "the other 28 channels." So when Michael tells his father in For Better or For Worse that "there's nothing on but sex and violence," he's reflecting a common view of television that pertains to both sides of the border as well as to his creator.

If fact, TV has helped to change the teenager's view of the world during the last few decades, according to Greg Evans, whose 13-year-old character LuAnn represents teenage angst in the '90s. "When I grew up, kids were playing, now they're watching TV too much; I don't think that's healthy. Teenagers are a glum lot, anyway; everything they experience seems earth shattering.

"Today's teens might be just as immature, but they already know a lot about the seamier side of life from watching TV. It gives them a window on the world, but that window often pictures things they may not be ready to handle."

Although LuAnn argues with her friends over video choices and postpones her homework to watch her favorite shows, Evans says her activities include much less television than most teenagers probably watch in real life. "If it were really proportional, one out of every four jokes would be about television."

Like Howard and Johnston, Robb Armstrong, the creator of Jumpstart, a cartoon about a young African-American married couple, also feels a responsibility to represent his slice of reality. "Sometimes I feel the black community is getting misled by what they see on television. I wonder about what television does to a kid's ambition and drive to excel. To the best of my ability, I feel like I have to be a voice of reason who says, 'Hey, I'm black, too. Listen to what I have to say."'

Joe, the husband in Jumpstart, is a cop who "still thinks police work should be like it is on television. He thinks TV cops have a lot of fun chasing people in cars, being in shootouts, where nothing bad ever happens to you." Joe's older partner Crunchy, on the other hand, thinks that waiting is "the best part of the job because it means that nothing bad is happening to you at the moment."

Comic Comment

Armstrong feels that television is much more important in the lives of his characters Marcy and Joe than it is in his own life. " I have to be somewhat careful about what they say and think about TV, because I don't want to paint TV as some kind of an evil influence. So when Marcy and Joe watch TV, I use their reactions to express ideas about general principles, like the concept of spending too much time on it. Or I may comment on how silly TV can be."

Now a fulltime art director for The Weightman Group, a Philadelphia advertising agency, Armstrong is aware, however, of the irony of television's major impact on his own life. "I was fascinated by the show Bewitched, where Samantha's husband, Darren Stevens, was an advertising art director. I thought it was the coolest job a person could have. So I understand how TV can affect the things you live for."

Which might explain why Armstrong made an exception to his usual avoidance of specific TV scenarios when he decided to draw a series of strips centering on reactions to the hot early '90s sitcom Seinfeld. In Jumpstart's series, Marcy is ostracized from her clique at work because not only does she not view the show regularly, she's never even seen it. The pressure becomes so great she has to watch it just to fit in.

"It wasn't my intention to criticize Jerry Seinfeld or his show," Armstrong says, "but I did want to comment on the way TV can become this kind of a habit. I picked that example because the show has become kind of a cult, watched by an intelligentsia that doesn't ordinarily watch television."

Television's impact on the average lives of ordinary families is also the common territory of the creators of Hi and Lois and The Family Circus, a visually-oriented, somewhat sentimental strip that focuses on "the tug at the heart" that occurs when readers re-encounter children's unique viewpoints and perspectives.

Keane, who began drawing The Family Circus when his own children were small in 1960, now mines the antics of his grandchildren for ideas. Although long a gentle critic of television--he originated a 20-year look at the TV world called Channel Chuckles that was syndicated nationally until 1974--Keane is concerned about the pervasiveness of television in modern children's lives.

"Today's children get to know TV characters better than they know Mother Goose. At the same time, shows that are slanted down for television often don't go over with the young audience." As Keane sees it, producers of Saturday morning cartoons and other shows often lean heavily on violent action because they have so little else to offer. "Children are very discerning, and they don't like being fooled. That's why they often latch on to adult programming, even if they don't understand all of it."

Keane's experience with replays of '50s and '60s television in Channel Chuckles showed him how thoroughly TV personalities become integrated in people's lives. The humor in the TV-page feature, which he quit because of demands placed on his time by The Family Circus, depended on the instant recognition of such traits as news commentator's Edward R. Murrow's chain smoking or comedienne Phyllis Diller's wardrobe. The feature's popularity and long life bears testimony to viewers' familiarity with and fondness for the whimsies and foibles of their living room guests.

Universal Appeal

Many cartoonists point out the pioneering role 100 years of cartooning played in shaping the continuing serials and situation-rooted jokes that go over big on TV sitcoms. Most modern cartoonists share another trait with today's television producers: they're also aiming at the broadest possible audience.

Not that universal appeal is easy in these days of the fragmented media consumer. Notes Hi and Lois' Brian Walker, the son of the originator of the classic military-themed cartoon series Beetle Bailey, "If you're trying to reach the 100 to 200 million newspaper readers who see comics daily, the most obvious thing they share is eating and food." After that, Walker says, comes television. "In the last few decades, television may not be as universal as eating and sleeping, but it's up there."

Although television watching is a common experience, that's no longer true of most shows, Walker warns. "Everyone will know Johnny Carson, but not necessarily a child actor on a particular sitcom."

The basically positive family relationships in Hi and Lois depend on close observation, Walker says. In the days of working mothers and family mobility, much of that centers around changing roles. "This kind of cartoon is a social subject, but not really a direct social commentary. Nevertheless, it's essential to be aware that jokes about Mom's cooking aren't funny in an era when many mothers are preparing dinner after rushing home from work at 6 p.m. We joke about Dad's cooking, instead. Or maybe about television."

What are still funny and relevant to most families, Walker believes, are storylines that focus on family roles, sharing and fights over precedence--many of which now center around television. For this reason, one common TV-related subject has become the various gender-related disputes relating to family use of the television remote control.

Male Dominance

Another cartoon baby, April in For Better or For Worse, expressed it very well without words. In a series of graphic panels, she's shown sitting on her father's lap as he click, click, clicks away changing channels. With a "Yah!" and a "Clunk!" the baby grabs the TV remote and tosses it off his lap. After a surprised pause, her father responds to the ad hoc criticism by saying, "OK...Let's watch this."

"This turns up because it's such a typical family interaction," cartoonist Johnston says. In fact, recent studies of TV use indicate that there must be a lot of women and children out there who would like to respond the same way to male dominance of remote control use. This tension is reflected in a number of recent cartoon scenarios. Variations on the theme have appeared in Hi and Lois, Drabble, Cathy and others.

Such slices of life draw cogent pictures of life-with-television, but they don't always explain it. Reticent cartoonists such as Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury and avant-garde cartoonist Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Life in Hell, expound various media philosophies in their strips, but seldom give interviews. An equally verbal, but more available, media-aware cartoonist, Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, is willing to provide both content and context.

Out of This World

Unlike many other comic strip TV vignettes, Zippy's relationship with television takes place outside the realm of family life. Although a living room is often pictured, in a sense the strip's media conflicts take place inside writer/artist Bill Griffith's head. Most strips represent a draw in the continuing struggle between Zippy the Pinhead--a conehead with a five o'clock shadow and a clown suit--and the acerbic Griffy, Griffith's needle-nosed, analytical alter ego.

Griffith (who originated the query "Are we having fun yet?" which appeared on the cover of a 1977 comic book) freely admits that both characters represent parts of himself, although he identifies more with Griffy as he struggles to provide an antidote to Zippy's blissed-out, mediated state. Between them, the interaction represents a kind of avant garde media lesson.

People so take the TV world for granted that they usually aren't aware of its absurdity until it's pointed out, Griffith says. "That's why Zippy is a good vehicle. He's such an innocent in the whole scheme of things, while Griff is critical, analytical and media conscious; between them they create a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character."

Although mediagenic in its own way--"because of the way it jumps around from day to day I've had the strip compared to a remote control device"--Griffith sees the strip as an antidote to what he calls TV's "passive acceptance mode. TV's goal is to isolate individuals so we all have to buy one of everything. They want us each to buy a car, instead of one car for six people." The essence of TV is in the commercials, Griffith says. "TV without commercials is something else."

Still Having Fun?

In a sense, Griffith, who says he's uninterested in the broadbased appeal sought by most cartoonists, has refined and concentrated his media criticism beyond the scope of his comic page compatriots. But like them, he depends on the pervasiveness of television in everyone's lives.

As a second-generation cartoonist with a special interest in cartoon history, Brian Walker of Hi and Lois has kept tabs on decades of serials. He notes that television appeared in cartoons almost as soon as it became a fixture in the living room. "In strips of the '40s and '50s, TV was still seen as something of a novelty, a household gadget, but it still appeared regularly in comics like Nancy. And it wasn't long before it became as much a part of home as the refrigerator."

In several Hi and Lois episodes, the children find a unique alternative to passive TV viewing: making up, producing and acting in their own television shows, to the vast enjoyment of Mom and Dad.

The moral seems clear. We can't live without television, but we certainly can do a better job of living with it. And, not incidentally, that oldtime printed visual pioneer, the cartoon strip, can point the way to some useful lessons.

As Zippy might say, "Is TV fun yet?"

Author Bio: 

Rosalind Silver, who started as a volunteer writer for Media&Values magazine in 1983, was named editor in 1989 and continued on staff until the magazine ceased publication in 1993. She holds an MA in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She is a copy editor on the Press Telegram, Long Beach, California.