2011’s Best Comics

Tops of the Strips and Web, Part I

Cleats, Geech, Li'l Abner and More

December 30, 2011
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My picks for the best comic strips and web comics of 2011, this represents just a fraction of the strips I read on a regular basis. No in-depth analysis here, just a brief overview and a link so you can try ‘em on for size. As always, I don’t mention anything I can’t enthusiastically recommend.

Classics Illustrated
These are strips that have breathed their last, that are no more, that run no fresh stories, yet thanks to the magic of the InterWebs are still accessible. If you haven’t read them in the past, see what you missed.

Cleats comic stripCleats: Bill Hinds handles the art on the witty Tank MacNamera sports strip, but had a solo side project for several years in Cleats. What he accomplished here was truly astounding: A story about not merely a kids soccer team but an entire league full of sharply delineated characters but their parents and their siblings and their classmates and their parents romantic relationships and…and…and…and managed to keep track of everybody without a scorecard! Funny, heartwarming, and beneath the comedy very realistic.

Geech: Jerry Bittle died tragically of a heart attack right at the height of his success as a cartoonist. This strip, focused on the dimbulb gofer at a backwater Texas gas station, shares a few characters with his other strip, Shirley And Son. The wit is dry and the punchlines are still fresh after all this time.

Lil Abner comic stripLi’l Abner: The funniest comic strip ever written and drawn by a one legged rapist, Abner and his family are a genuine – ‘scuse me, gen-hew-wine – fixture on the American cultural landscape. This run is from the period where Al Capp’s savage sarcasm lacerated both the virtuous and the villainous, but nobody really got the joke re Abner’s sweetness & lack of guile. As a result, as the strip’s audience grew older and more ossified, Capp’s pen stopped skewering the richly deserving and began striking out at straw men instead. Still, this is a classic, one any serious comics fan needs to have a working knowledge of.

My cage comic stripMy Cage: Ed Powers and Melissa de Jesus’ strip started out as a funny animal version of Dilbert but very quickly evolved into it’s own creation. Vivid, funny characterizations were the strip’s stand out features originally, but towards the end of its brief run the characters began mediating on the possibility that maybe they were two dimensional beings manipulated by unseen three dimensional beings called…humans.

The Norm: Michael Jantze’s fantastic workplace strip never got the mad love it deserved; too many people dismissed it as yet another workplace strip and because Jantze had enough taster & restraint to not constantly pound the reader over the head with the strip’s main conceit (i.e., Norm can call up previous & future selves to compare notes on how to handle a given situation), few recognized the incredible sharp characterizations and writing. No matter; here’s your chance to hop aboard right at the point when Norm and his long time confidant Renie move from friends to lovers to married.

Peanuts: If you are not familiar with Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or, more likely, only familiar with the last years of a venerable institution, it may come as a shock just how fresh and exciting this was when it first appeared. GoComics is reposting only mid-run Peanuts, not the primo stuff, but mid-run Peanuts is still pretty flippin’ good.

Penny And Aggie: This was one of my favorite web comics for a long, long time. Two teenage girls, seemingly poles apart but, at the core, sharing the same genuine character values, start out as enemies & end up friends. Or rather, that’s how it should have ended; instead the creators took a pitch perfect approach and made a bad mistype by turning Penny And Aggie into lovers. I have no squeamishness against gay, lesbian, etc., characters / relationships / plotlines, but that was the wrong note for Penny And Aggie. A brief dalliance, perhaps, then a realization that friendship trumps hormones. They seem a better, more realistic fit as friends than partners. Although the main characters are currently retired, several of the supporting characters are starring in a new college strip called Quiltbag.

Preteena comic stripPreteena: Allison Barrows picked the golden age of ten for her titular character, a time when we’re just old enough to peek through the door of adulthood yet still able to enjoy the fully glories of childhood. This is a charming, funny, but refreshingly non-cloying strip focusing on Tina and her family. More than a little autobiographical (Tina’s parents are artists, just like Allison and her husband), it’s one of the few strips where an older sibling turns out to be the show stealer: Jeri, the teenage older sister, is one of the most self-involved, self-centered characters ever created, yet her innocent obliviousness to this otherwise fatal character flaws proves to be an endless source of fun.

One Panel Power!
Typically these strips use a single panel & have no continuing storylines, but there are occasional exceptions.

Bizarro comic stripBizarro: More often a sly intellectual joke than a genuine belly-laugh, Bizarro keeps a constant high level quality with its off-kilter observations. Not for everyone’s sensibilities.

Boffo: Joe Martin is one of comicdom’s iron men. He does this strip, Willy ‘n’ Ethel, and Cats With Hands on a daily basis, runs a website with new content and archives, and was also responsible for two of the funniest strips of the 1970s & 80s: Tucker and Porterfield. The man who introduced “unclear on the concept” to the American people, Boffo often features Martin’s everyman character in any number of settings ranging from the mundane to the phantasmagorical, though occasionally he veers off with other characters as well. One of the 3 funniest comic strips on the funny pages — the other two being written & drawn by Martin as well!

Cats With Hands: Like Boffo, only focused on cats. You like cats? You’ll like this.

Dinette Set: Julie Larson launched Suburban Torture in various alternate weeklies in the 1980s, when she went legit she toned down the borderline scarey / disturbing art and retitled the strip Dinette Set. A good choice. Dinette Set is a snarky version of Pluggers, with two middle age / middle class sisters and their husbands constantly hoisting themselves on their own petards by thinking they’re far more clever and cunning than they really are (though in fairness, they occasionally deliver the well placed singer themselves).

The Lost Side Of Suburbia: Not really a comic strip, more like an illustrated kid’s story with a new page every day. Will remind you of about 50% of all the CGI kids films out there, so depending on whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing you might want to check this out.

Animals, Funny Ha-Ha and Funny Peculiar
For me, funny animal strips are the ones that wear out their welcome fastest. Here are a few I’m still reading.

The Barn: A cute-yet-odd minimalist strip by Ralph Hagen. Rory the sheep is one of the more endearing animals on the funny pages, though the strip itself veers from insightful character comedy, oddball relationship humor, and whimsical flights of fancy.

Bear Nuts: A wicked, wicked deconstruction of the Care Bears and oh, so very funny. Family concerns (i.e., a newborn) keeps artist Alison Acton from updating more than once a week, but when she does the work is gorgeous.

Dog Eat Doug: A smart and sassy lab named Sophie paired with human baby Doug (Sophie is clearly the brains of this outfit). More grounded in reality than most funny animal strips, which makes their occasional forays into Twilight Zone humor all the more surreal.

Mutts: Love it or hate it, there’s precious little middle ground. The charming old school feel to the art helps sells it to those who love it.

Quentin and Ollie: A relatively new English import (Piers Baker has taken to salting the mine by throwing in more obvious American visual references such as baseball bats and football helmets) about a seagull and a lugworm. Yes, you read that right: Lugworm. Good, droll Monty Pythonesque humor.

Pearls Before Swine: Cartoonist Stephan Pastis was originally a lawyer, and the legal profession’s loss (though apparently they were happy to see him go) is the funny pages’ gain. Pearls is a savagely insightful look at human foibles through archetypical characters (most have names that only refer to their species; i.e., Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra. The exceptions are the Bizarro-minded crocodiles who are so numerous they require names [mostly because Pastis isn’t a good enough artist so you can tell ’em apart]). The strip focuses on surprising complex moral and ethical issues, but the genius is that one never realizes this until after the punchline.

If there’s a comic strip or web comic you think needs to be included in 2012, please drop a link below!

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