There’s a lot of crap out there when it comes to syndicated comic strips. I could get all Comics Curmudgeon on your asses and pick apart tons of strips for a variety of different reasons, but today I feel like picking apart one in particular. And that would be John McPherson’s Close to Home. This strip debuted in 1992, apparently an unabashed Far Side ripoff, except less weird and drawn worse. In the intervening bunch of years, it has apparently gotten much much worser. It consistently delivers the blandest stereotypes and joke set-ups, which is the worserest thing of all. It is a comic featured in my local newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette (syndicated in like, 700 other papers, too, says wikipedia), and I look forward to reading it with great relish every morning. Because I hate it so so much. Because it perfectly encapsulates everything that is wrong and bad about newspaper comic strip writing. Because it is so poorly executed, I usually spend more time trying to comprehend what I’m looking at than I do not laughing at the punchline.
I have been grabbing a few select strips from gocomics.com over the last year or so, thinking maybe someday when I was super-super bored or bedridden, I’d write this blog post. But this morning’s comic was just bad enough that it motivated me to write this right now, today, while my hatred is at a healthy and exuberant high. Is the bitter, jealous rant of a fellow cartoonist? No. Good God, no. I can’t imagine the emotion of jealously arising as a response to this art and writing. This is simply the bitter rant of someone who hates looking at shitty things.
This is my suspicion: I don’t think John McPherson knows how to sketch. I think he has his idea and just starts inking it directly into a pre-printed rectangle. And hey, if something doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. No big deal! On a daily basis, this comic strip provides the worst composition I see from a professional published artist. So let’s take a look at the above example. The treadmill is in the center of the panel, but it is not the punchline. The punchline is that the owners are fat. But one owner is partially obscured by the treadmill, and the other one is cropped off the edge of the panel. So what the reader should immediately recognize is hidden. What really draws the reader’s eye is the large expanse of empty grass area. This had the potential to be a funny joke, sort of. But it is not.
******* UPDATE: FEB 3, 2011 – WHAT THE FUUUUUCK *******
What is WRONG with this fucking man? The first comic, as mentioned above, was poorly-composed and a mediocre joke a best. And now, some number of months later, here we are again, with a FRESH NEW TAKE on THE SAME JOKE. AND IT IS STILL POORLY-COMPOSED AND MEDIOCRE. And this time THE ARTWORK IS EVEN WORSE. Look at that fucking guy on the left! Look how fucking huge those people are in relation to that garage! What is that tennis racket doing? Why is this treadmill $50 more than the other one? What the shit!
I should mention here that these comics are printed in the newspaper in black and white. So panels like this look even worse there. Practically incomprehensible. The black window trim looks exactly like the porch posts which are supposed to be further away (at first I thought it was a three pane casement picture window). Are those curtains? What’s wrong with those curtains? I think the neighbors are in a screened in porch. Everything is extremely flat here; the depth is all ganked up. The dude with the binoculars sort of looks like he’s looking at the roof of the house, which makes it even more confusing to visually decode.
What a wonderful large expanse of blank white wall!
THE WRITING: This comic is a deft combination of two overused clichés in comics – a desert island gag and a “____ For Dummies” reference. The result is spectacularly forgettable. THE ART: Line variation can really help out a drawing sometimes, but McPherson likes to draw body hair and grime with the same pen he draws everything else with, I guess. This man doesn’t look like he’s been marooned on an island. He looks like he was mercilessly beaten with a cactus.
John McPherson is a man who has developed a humor style that only relies on two facial expression types: deadpan-blank or lobotomy-stupid. When he goes out of his comfort zone to try something a bit more emotionally complex, like say “being choked by a python,” what little style he has completely falls apart. As bad as I think this comic is generally drawn, this man’s face manages to look considerably worse (Is he crying or sweating? Why are his pupils dilated? Is there a glaucoma test joke I’m missing?). An aside: Why are his pants so baggy? Why are everyone’s pants in every comic so baggy? Points awarded for not leaving the upper third of the panel completely blank.
Jesus fuck, McPherson. Can’t you draw a fucking car? Do you know what perspective is? Is that supposed to be fire in a trashcan? Is that an Asian man in that broken window? Is that rat the same size as that man’s head? When did car manufacturers stop producing vehicles with hood ornaments, exactly? Is that a knife on the ground? Do most brick wall dead-end alleys have floor trim along the ground? Jesus fucking fuck, LOOK HOW FUCKING TERRIBLE THAT CAR LOOKS. Is it 40 feet long? Is the front tire bigger than the back one? IT IS REALLY REALLY BAD.
Comics need to communicate ideas simply and clearly, especially since they are often reproduced at smaller sizes. In this strip, a relatively simple visual idea is needlessly cluttered. The torch is the whole focus of the joke, but it is tangled up in the composition with the waiter’s arm and the table. the flame looks like a solid ropey thing connecting it to the steak. John Kricfalusi would have a seizure if he saw this. Meanwhile, the man’s arms seem to be melting into his upper torso. I think this is the third example I’ve shown that has a woman wearing that dress. Checkered pants? Where the fuck do you get checkered pants in 2010? Is he in a ska band or something? I don’t think there are any ska bands in 2010, either. Note that his pants are baggy. So is the tablecloth. Conspiracy?
So the rectangle that a comic is drawn in is called a border. The border defines what the comic panel is. Here, the artist has bisected his panel into two. Now, a clear-thinking person might go to the trouble to make the added borders match the existing borders. Maybe, oh I don’t know, use a fucking ruler. Maybe even get extra-fancy and use a little white-out to erase the ends so the two panels look like two distinct boxes. But no no no. That would look too good. McPherson has no time for such things. He’s going for the lumpy line look. And he’s going to lazily slap it on at a jazzy angle, to highlight the blank wall above the computer monitor that has no keyboard. Other things to note: What is that woman supposed to be driving? a ’62 Ford Pickup? Look at those fucking seats! The steering wheel! The copious headroom! I’m almost jealous. Also, what visual cue exists to let the reader know the woman in the top panel can hear what the man in the bottom panel is saying? He is not speaking into anything. She has no cell phone, no headset, no made-up dash-mounted speaker-thing with noise-lines emanating from it. She’s just a dead-eyed woman looking through a windshield that’s two inches away from her face, holding a shaking steering wheel with the skinny little deformed arm that is growing out of the top of her thigh.
An uncharacteristic and wholly unnecessary attempt at detail here. Whoa, man… I can see the nails in the clapboard! I can see… are those nail heads under the porch railing too? Huh? Wait… are those nail heads around the robot, too? More questions: Why does an outside door have trim you normally find on an inside door? Why is there so much attention paid to clapboard and nails, and then the door is entirely blank? Why does each porch step appear to be two feet tall? How exactly did the robot climb the two-foot tall steps?
Another fine example of body hair/grime gone horribly awry, but the thick, stalagmite-like flames really seem to dance on the page! The devil’s head actually starts off okay looking, but then the artistic choice is made to lose the black beard in the black robe. I just noticed that McPherson draws voice bubbles like retarded thought bubbles. Weird. And I will deduce from the increasingly sloped handwriting that McPherson is a lefty, and that his left elbow is Krazy-Glued to his drawing table.
This is the comic that caused me to start saving these things. The visuals of this comic panel are so poorly conceived it makes me writhe in pain. Remember now, this runs in the paper in black and white… Imagine just how blank and expansive that large field representing asphalt really is… that huge chunk of nothing that is taking up the entire bottom half of the panel. Now note the two things that are supposed to be the focus of the joke: the couple cropped off the right side of the panel and the (wheel-less??) car cropped off the left side. There is easily ten or twenty different ways this could’ve been composed to better communicate this crappy joke. But no, this is what the man went with. This. He drew this and thought to himself “NAILED ANOTHER ONE!” Shit, there’s that fucking dress again, too.
******* UPDATE: MAY 23, 2011 – WHAT THE GYAAAGGHH *******
I don’t know what to say. I really don’t.
TODAY’S COMIC, THE ONE THAT FINALLY MOTIVATED ME TO WRITE THIS POST: Where is the woman’s left leg? Is she kneeling? Is she kneeling with one leg in a hole? How much thicker and longer is the man’s right arm than his left arm? Why are his pecs so low? What happened, exactly, to that poor girl’s face? Is he standing upright in the middle of a tractor? Where the fuck is the back rear right wheel of the tractor? Since when are Nebraskans stereotyped as Simpsons-like hillbillies? What is that wavy arrow near the girl’s fist pointing at? Do Nebraskans normally use riding lawn mowers to harvest corn? Is it too much of a burden for the artist to Google Image Search something he doesn’t know anything about so he can at least make a cursory attempt to draw it correctly? How about corn? Is corn too hard to draw?
Close To Home. Nationally syndicated for 18 years. Carried in over 700 newspapers. Apparently there is an editor somewhere that approves of each strip. Good grief.
1. A few more CTH strips I’ve noticed since I originally published this post.
2. If you’d like to read more of my painfully insightful observations on the visual language of comics and cartooning, you should check out my half-kidding-around post Cartooning vs. Technology: How Steve Jobs Ruined Comics.