Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Day the Newspaper Comic Died

Dear Brooke McEldowney, Creator of 9 Chickweed Lane and Pibgorn:

I have stood up for you. I have gone to the freaking wall for you. I have looked back upon your older comics with approval, for though many mock them for their unusually literate teenage characters and their tendency to rely on a lot (a lot) of words, I happen to like words. I also happen to have been an unusually literate teenager, and so I do know that such creatures exist. I appreciate the fact that your older strips deal with the sorts of characters not usually found in the funny pages. It is especially pleasant to see you focusing on three generations of a family from which all the men have departed; the dynamics between grandmother, mother, and daughter are nicely handled. None of the three protagonists is particularly stereotypical, and all are fun to watch.

Alas...I mean "were." They were fun to watch. A few years ago, the youngest protagonist, Edda, moved to the city to pursue a career as a ballerina. Since then, the strip has been heading steadily downhill. Edda has lost her gentleness and originality and become--must I say it?--an intolerable, backstabbing little bitch. She spends every strip whining. So do all the other characters. For the last year or so, Edda and her on-again, off-again childhood sweetheart Amos have been at odds for no real good reason except that Edda is a jerk and Amos a jellyfish. Now you have brought them together again.

I am sorry to say that the reunion of Amos and Edda has propelled your once-promising strip into Japes territory. Well...I'm not that sorry. How often do I get the chance to translate phrases such as, "Helplessly, uncontrollably, her fate imminent, manifest" into Middle English? You have provided me with some deliciously juicy words there. You see? There's still hope! You could still pull yourself out of this terrible, terrible tailspin and make your comic worth reading again! At the moment, it seems a little (dare I say) self-indulgent, with Edda and Amos smooching and having hand-sex* all the freaking time. In today's comic, you even thrust the once-independent Edda** into the stereotypical role that has been allotted women since the Dawn of Sexism. Replace Edda with any medieval maiden, and the comic will remain essentially the same.

You know what, Mr. McEldowney? Women exist for more purposes than showing off their bodies and being protected by men. I used to think you realised this, but if you did, you seem to have changed your mind. Welcome to 1381, sir. Come join the party, to which I have also invited the creators of The Family Circus, Hagar the Horrible, Crock, The Wizard of Id, Hi and Lois, and many, many more. I think you'll fit right in. Have some roast boar.

I did once think, Mr. McEldowney, that your comic was one of the things about the funny pages that was actually pretty okay. I really hate it when I'm wrong.

Yours sincerely,

Angry Kem.

P.S.: And if you want to see something really bizarre, check out Pibgorn.
P.P.S.: In the spirit of obscurity and self-indulgence, I have used medieval Roman numerals in the title panel.

*Hand-sex is a peculiarly McEldowneyish phenomenon that involves the cartoonist drawing hands and arms in various states of entanglement in order to represent intercourse. There has been a lot of hand-sex in 9 Chickweed Lane lately.
**Note for the uninitiated: Superlative Girl is Edda's imaginary alter-ego. She is usually able to fly. Apparently, love has deprived her of this power. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.


Jana C.H. said...

It's the Nibelelungenlied. After Siegfried battles and violates Brunhild, she loses all her god-like strength and becomes an ordinary woman, happily marrying Gunther and engaging in catty duels of status with her sister-in-law Kriemhild. Wagner handles it a little more delicately but the effect is the same, as Anna Russell recognized when she contrasted Brunhilde's pre-Siegfried and post-Siegfried leitmotivs.

I think McEldowney has always been a sexist pig, but his trope of pretending his three principal females are dominatrixes has disguised it. If I had read this strip back in the Seventies when I was young and idealistic and had plenty of energy for feminist rants, I would be frothing at the mouth over it. Now I'm just disgusted.

This used to be one my my favorites strips, too.

Jana C.H.
Saith Georges Bizet: To be a great artist is not necessarily to be an honorable man.

Angry Kem said...

It's funny, but I actually didn't start reading 9CL until 2007. In search of yet another procrastinatory activity, I went all the way through the archive (the Houston Chronicle has 9CL strips going back to 2001) in a week or so. I was therefore able to watch the strip slowly but irrevocably changing into the monster it has become. My fondness for the older strips allowed me to retain a sort of zombie fondness for the more recent ones until the current plotline finally opened my eyes to the appalling evolution of Edda. This Sunday's strip just puts a cap on her descent. You're right, Jana, that she has certain Brunhild-like qualities here, but they are qualities that are fairly common to female characters in certain types of literature and film. The woman is often the one who gives everything up for the man. Superlative Girl's symbolic loss of the power of flight echoes every putrid, predictable romantic comedy out there, albeit in a particularly obnoxious way.

I'm not sure McEldowney has always been a sexist pig, but he certainly seems to have become one. Pibgorn has turned into an extended pornographic rape/torture fantasy. This guy has the potential to do something really positive for comics, but he has completely squandered it while reinforcing all the tired old stereotypes that are dragging comic strips down. Argh argh argh argh.

Jana C.H. said...

I wouldn't say the woman is often the one who gives everything up for the man. I'd say she is ALWAYS the one who does it. Consider my beloved operas: the cliche is that at the end of the show one or both of the lovers invariably die, but while the tenor manages to survive the soprano's demise in a fair number of operas, when the man dies the woman will certainly die with him. Werther is about the only opera I can think of in which the man dies and the woman has sufficient strength of character to survive him. Even then it's easy for a director to have Charlotte shoot herself with Werther's gun just before curtain.

But hey! In a week and a half I go see Pearl Fishers at Seattle Opera, and they both live! Wild and crazy stuff.

Jana C.H.
Saith the Derivative Duo: There's the piano! / It marks the cue for the tenor who knocks off the soprano / In a jealous attack.

Angry Kem said...

I used the word "often" mostly because I am an English instructor and incapable of writing "always" without feeling guilty ("Don't generalise," I tell my students). Yes...the motif is a leetle too universal for my tastes. Just once, I would like to see the guy sacrifice everything for the woman without his sacrifice being portrayed as either superhumanly noble (when it's the woman who makes the sacrifice, she's not noble; she's just doing the right thing) or spineless and pathetic.

I wonder if Brooke McEldowney is aware that his strip is channelling Love Is...? 'Cause if he isn't, I wish someone would tell him (and maybe slap him repeatedly until he came to his senses).

Jana C.H. said...

I understand perfectly about avoiding "always." You'll note that I immediately cite an exception, undermining my own claim for universality. But when I tried "almost always" or "999 times out of 1000" it just sounded too wimpy. I needed the emphasis. That frothing-mouthed young feminist is still in there somewhere, screaming.

Jana C.H.
Saith Marlo Thomas: A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.

Anna said...

May I join in the anti-McEldowney chorus? I, too, used to read 9CL, starting shortly before she moved out to the city. I found it interesting--you don't see too many newspaper comics with so many strong female characters--but I gave it up because I find the relentless harping on sex distasteful. And I don't mean just the handjiving, but just that everything the characters do seems to revolve around sex, whether it's Juliette telling her paramour about her underwear, or the attraction of various women to the gay men in the strip, or the interminable Amos-Edda drama, et cetera, et cetera.

What gets to me most about 9CL is the fact that every sexually available female in the strip--from the retired professor to the veterinarian to the ex-nun to the concert pianist to Edda's awkward ballerina friend--has the same perfect ballerina body as Edda. (Compare the body type diversity among the male characters: Mark, Seth, Thorax, Thorax' farmer friend whose name I can't be bothered to look up, Amos, Burkhardt, ex-Father Dursley...) It is very telling that the only women (Gran, the Mother Superior at Edda's school) who are unreceptive to men's advances are not only hideous (shapeless body; wrinkled, scowling face) but also portrayed as bitter, joyless, terrible human beings. The capitulation of Edda, and even more the plotline where Diane quit the convent so she could get married to a man who used to be her direct superior there, leads me to see McEldowney's freudian intentions behind this phenomenon: that all women, regardless of their professed attitude toward sex, really do want sex, and it's just a matter of making them realize that they want it. That men have a God-given right to sexual access to the ballerina-body women. Maybe not all men--some of them, like Burkhardt, are irredeemable louts--but, y'know, the good ones, like Amos. Bleargh.

It's possible I'm being too harsh here.

Still, I don't buy that the 9CL characters aren't stereotypical, as you say. They may have some unusual characteristics (Juliette's sexual aggressiveness, Edda's overwhelming accomplishment in several artistic fields), but they play in to the same old tiresome tropes. Take Amos. He is schlubby, unattractive (and in high school was terribly unkepmt), unsociable, and, as you say, a jellyfish, someone who takes very little action of his own and generally serves to play the straight man to Edda's over-the-top antics. He has no actively interesting qualities. And yet, he has all these captivating women (and sometimes men) with incredible bodies falling over themselves to bed him. This is textbook wish fulfillment fantasy as written by a male cartoonist, like "Luann's" Gunther, like "Garfield's" Jon (who at least needed a good many years to bring Liz around), and on and on ad infinitum.

Forgive the long rant. I just despise 9CL and all its oversexed drivel, and I needed to get it off my chest.

Rita Lake and the Special Goddesses

Angry Kem said...

Anna: Oh, the characters are stereotypical now. I'm just not convinced that they've always been so. Teenaged Edda was much more of a nerd than she is now; teenaged Amos didn't have women falling all over him (in fact, one of the recurring plots involved his relentless pursuit of Mary, a character who has since disappeared without explanation) and was forever being beat up when he demonstrated his profound weirdness in public. That profound weirdness has now vanished. Juliette used to be defined partly via her relationships with her mother and daughter; now, she appears mostly to wear sexy underwear and make out with What's-His-Name. Gran turned up quite frequently and was not an un-fun character; she also had a bizarre relationship with Thorax. I'm not sure I agree with you that the Mother Superior is "bitter, joyless, and terrible"; her eternal scowl used to be mostly a front for her essential niceness. Again, however, she has more or less disappeared from the strip.

I would argue that the characters started out less stereotypical than is usual in newspaper strips and have evolved into entirely stereotypical creatures that deserve to be hit repeatedly with sturdy planks.

Jana C.H. said...

Anne, I couldn't have said it better myself, even in my most fervent days of youthful ranting.

We won't even discuss Fun with Blood and Bondage-- excuse me, Pibgorn-- because we're all too mature and civilized to run shrieking at McEldowney with a machine gun like 21st century versions of Hothead Piasan.

Ah, Hothead, where are you when we need you?

Jana C.H.
Old Italian Political Saying: The conductor changes, the music remains the same.

Michael said...

Since everyone else is talking about 9CL, and as the token male in this discussion, I'll say something about Pibgorn*.

Like 9CL, Pibgorn started off with strong females and weak males. Geoff was an introverted church organist. Prince Crewth was a self-centered idiot. Gaggot was a pedantic, priggish éminence grise. Luciano was an assassin who can't kill his assigned victim. The females were much more three-dimensional. Drusilla was very sexual but then she's a succubus. It's in the job description. Both she and Pibgorn are fairly intelligent, courageous, and willing to take a risk.

However, Pibgorn has made the same move towards more stereotypically feminine females and more dominant males. I noticed this particularly in the "Midsummer's Night Dream" story. Oberon was very jealous of Titania having a lover but bedded Puck (played by Pibgorn) repeatedly. Puck was obviously infatuated with Oberon. The male-dominated sexual relationships in the story were in strong contrast to the early Pibgorn.

On a different topic, I'm glad to see I'm not the only fan of the late Anna Russell here. "Gutrune is the only woman that Siegfried has ever met in his entire life who wasn't his aunt."

*I originally typed "Pigborn." I will not speculate on Freudian slips.

joann said...

Good grief, people! We are talking about a comic strip here. Try to keep it in perspective, and not feel the need to parade your obviously over educated, feminist, (43 year old female writing this), man crushing attitudes all over a medium, and artist beloved by many. I, for one, appreciate an honest view of strong female figures. We are not all, always, unstereotypical, and if you've ever donned high heels, and a push up bra, you know it as well as I do. I thoroughly enjoy this strip, and was grateful the artist chose to ignore bored, snotty bloggers, and continue the strip. Lighten up, for heavens sake, and if the strip offends you so highly; don't read it!

Ami said...

Hooray, bringing a post back from the dead!

Regarding Pibgorn, it's gone the same way of Chickweed only with more bizarre character elements. Pibby has gone from a kind, lighthearted, eccentric faerie to a selfish, fickle, whiny bitch. It is now impossible to view her in any positive light, which is unfortunate when she's the central protagonist of the comic. Our dearest Brookie has really lost his touch. It's really sad, since I used to be glued to both Pibgorn and 9 Chickweed Lane each and every weekday, but now I only read it out of an odd sense of begrudged habit.