A Very Bad Comic Strip: John McPherson’s Close To Home

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 – OH COME ON —-

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?

—- UPDATE: JULY 2, 2013 —-

Apparently this joke isn’t too rare HA HA HAH A ha oh god

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.


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.

93 thoughts on “A Very Bad Comic Strip: John McPherson’s Close To Home

  1. I was going to comment that these still aren’t as bad as family circus – but no, you’re right. These are much much worse.

  2. I think.. I think in the last strip, the “guy getting clubbed” is supposed to be a cave painting. The explorer that is discovering it is about to get clubbed in the same manner foretold on the wall. Of course, you’d never get that because… perspective… and such.

  3. Definitely a very bad comic strip overall, but you’re misinterpreting the last one. The explorer is in a cave, looking at a picture of an explorer about to be hit over the head with a club. There’s a picture of a deer on the cave wall to the left, and stalactites projecting from the ceiling. Meanwhile, the explorer himself is about to be hit over the head with a club.

  4. I disagree with the explanation of the last comic the guy talked about. I read it as the first explorer is looking at a cave painting of a second explorer getting conked in the head by the neanderthal who is just about to repeat the act. Still not funny. Why the wall of the cave is convex or bulging outward makes no sense. Cave walls should be conCAVE, right? Those little tornadoes must be candles or something and the stuffed reindeer is another painting as well.

    Or it could be that the blogger just has a really dry sense of humor. Either way these comics suck. Whatever happened to Berkley Breathed….

  5. Actually, I thought the Oct 8th, 2012 was funny. Don’t know if you’re taking the piss in your comment, or really don’t get it. A paleoanthropologist is viewing a cave painting of a paleoanthropologist, possibly himself, being bonked by the other subject in the cave painting–this is clearly anachornistically impossible and therefor twigs cognitive dissonance just enough to be funny.
    What I like about Close to Home in general is that the characters are closer to the norm in terms of dress, taste, and intelligence–yet somehow illustrative of the emotions and foibles of humans across the spectrum. We like to think of ourselves as superior to those made fun of in the look-what-the-cat-barfed-up-in-the-Walmart-aisles–but we’re not, and Close to Home reminds me of that and gives me a chance to laugh at myself.
    As for the art critique, I’m reminded of the devolution of Scott Adams detail in artistry, which correlated with the success of his cartoons.
    I believe the point is not the art, but the non-aestheticness of most of most of our lives.
    The recycling of punch lines, however, is troublesome. Surprised that editors didn’t catch it.

  6. I **think that the last example is of an archaeologist examining a painting on a cave wall. The ‘funny’ comes in when reality is about to mimic art. I think the carrots are an attempt at stalagmites, stalactites, or whatever the equivalent would be if either of these things could grow sideways out of a cave wall.

    **I use ‘think’ here only because it’s really impossible to tell what is really going on, which I suppose is the entire point of you’re using it as an example. I will say this, that albino reindeer with the shank/arrow in it’s neck is the stuff of nightmares.

  7. Good comments, but the last comic isn’t a canyon. The caveman just drew a picture on the wall of the cave depicting himself (or herself, who knows) hitting the anthropologist over the head with a club, next to the other cave drawings. While the anthropologist is looking at the drawings, the caveman sneaks up behind him and hits him over the head. The ‘carrots’ are just roots (or maybe stalactites) sticking out of the roof of the cave.

    1. Well, it looks like just about everyone turned up to say that, doesn’t it? Serves me right for not refreshing before submitting my comment.

  8. Just wondering how much you were paid to write this. I’d like to know, because I thought I’d like to get into the field of snarky artist sniping as well. But if I can make more money as a syndicated cartoonist of McPherson’s caliber, then perhaps I’ll give that a shot instead.

  9. I like it cause it is drawn weird and I don’t understand it half the time. It’s different and odd and a challenge.

  10. Spot-on. McPherson’s cartoons look like copies of Gary Larson cartoons drawn by a pre-schooler. In terms of ‘humor’, there isn’t any I can find. As my father used to say, “This doesn’t even rise to the level of BAD.”

  11. Brilliant analysis. The aspect of this that is most galling, I suppose, is the evident fact that McPherson is incredibly lazy… and yet…it doesn’t matter. He’s syndicated and he’s occupying space that might otherwise go to one of the hundreds of more talented comic artists out there. His laziness is compounded by the laziness of the editors who continue to publish his sketches that he evidently does on a napkin with a radiograph while he waits for his breakfast at a drive-up window. I guess they’re fine as long as he makes deadlines.

  12. Great. Now you’ve made me self conscious of my own drawings.

    Seriously though, great take down. You’re like the the Loïc Wacquant of cartoonists. (He’s a famous sociologist who did a major take down of some published ethnograhers. It was considered quite the bloodbath in sociological circles.)

  13. I think that last one is supposed to be an archaeologist/explorer looking at a prescient cave-painting depicting his untimely end at the hands of a caveman.

    Don’t ask me how I was able to figure this out, maybe it is the stalactites coming from the roof of the cave. Actually his fire looks more like stalactites, maybe nex time upside-down fire would work better.

  14. I feel that way about a lot of comics. I also cut daily syndicated guys some slack. I mean, would YOU really want that gig? I’ve had some horrible, demeaning jobs in my life and I’ve always brought my spirits up by saying “at least I’m not shoveling guts in a slaughterhouse”.
    I think cranking out something like that day after day is sort of like shoveling guts in a slaughterhouse.
    Also, I remember being floored by the horrid quality of one particular cartoonist before I realized John Callahan was a quadriplegic.

  15. I just thought I’d point out that in the ‘Violence Channel’ one, the hand is holding the knife by the blade!

  16. Thought I’d mention these two things here to round the essay out:

    First, as also reported in Boing Boing today:

    In June 2012, “after 1,669 installments (and down to only 38 papers, amid the smoking wreckage that was once the alternative press), Matt Groening put an end to one the funniest and most caustic comic strips ever.

    (Boing Boing)

    Second, someone in the comments on that site wrote: ” I looked up his background because I thought perhaps he drew using his feet, being armless or something. No: an technical engineer.”  That reminded me of the late John Callahan, a quadriplegic cartoonist who drew with his mouth, and whose comics were A) funny and B) wildly artistically superior.

  17. In the minority of panels when the joke is decent, I find the drawing (barely) forgivable. There are a lot of badly drawn comics out there. That said, the combination of lousy jokes, bad drawing and repeats … ouch.

  18. I hate this comic strip, yet my parents insist on purchasing a daily desk calendar version each year for Christmas. It immediatly goes in the office break room that I NEVER use.

    It’s a terrible comic and just bums me out that something like this can survive. I’d much rather read Far Side reprints.

  19. You have said all the things I would like to have but was unable to articulate. Thank you. I share you dislike for every aspect of his work.

  20. I had to remove Close to Home from my daily comics feed because it’s just so appallingly hideous. Everything is covered in hair and sadness. The writing is aggressively mediocre. While it is, of course, a Far Side wannabe, it’s “losing” that contest to The Argyle Sweater, which is a naked attempt and spectacular failure to ape everything about The Far Side.

  21. “Brevity is the soul of wit” This just reminded me of a cheap Far Side. The composition is awful, who needs more then one (bad) attempt at a gag? Does he take all day to think of the joke and then spend five minutes drawing it? Who is editing this junk?
    This should be part of the John K animation school, as examples of bad writing, drawing and composition

  22. The comic may suck but this blog has me laughing my ass off. I would have to say I would not be crying were it not for the shitty artist, therefore he has succeeded in making a funny. You make him whole. Keep up the rant. Between the two of you, it is pure comic genius.

  23. Note that on the television screen depicting “The All New Violence Channel”, there is a hand gripping a knife BY THE BLADE. Why would a person do that? There is a perfectly good non-finger-cutting handle to grip the knife by.