Updated: July 25, 2012 6:38AM
Comic strips never really die. Charlie Brown is forever about to kick the football that Lucy is helpfully teeing up for him. Dagwood eternally gazes in rapt anticipation at a sandwich a foot high. Krazy Kat swoons in expectation of his daily brick to the head.
Or maybe I’m romanticizing. Perhaps a chunk of readers read the above and said, “Charlie who?” (Little boy in Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” -- very big, in his day. Lucy, you see, always yanked the football away at the last moment. Every time. Charlie never got the chance to kick it. Not once. An apt metaphor for the disappointments of modern life. Perfect really).
I know that comics are trying to make the shaky transition into the completely digital age because “Pearls Before Swine” comes up onscreen as a widget on the iMac in my office at home, along with a clock and a calendar and a dictionary. I didn’t do that -- one of my teenagers must have; it’s their favorite strip -- so the next generation is obviously following the comics, though I imagine with less intensity, due to all the competition.
If you’re a comics fan, as I am, one of the mysteries of that art is that the greatest cartoonists of our time made their bundles and quit cold. Bill Watterson, creator of the gorgeously drawn, wonderfully true “Calvin and Hobbes,” the tale of a little kid and his toy tiger which -- the genius of the strip -- became a kid-sized tiger buddy when adults weren’t around. Berke Breathed, whose “Bloom County” started as a Doonesbury rip-off but quickly morphed into its own crazy world of a talking penguin in a fruit-covered hat and a dead cat that nevertheless ran for president. Gary Larson, whose “The Far Side” was surreal, witty and sold 45 million books.
They all retired. Watterson was 37. “I believe I’ve done what I can do,” he said. Breathed was 32. ““A good comic strip is no more eternal than a ripe melon,” he said. Gary Larson was the oldest, 44: “I felt I had pushed the rock up to the top of the hill.”
What is it about cartooning? Movie stars don’t do that, popular singers don’t do that.
I think they were reacting to longtime cartoonists like Schulz, who drew “Peanuts” for almost 50 years. (After penning the final strip, he said, “All of a sudden I thought, ‘You know, that poor, poor kid, he never even got to kick the football. What a dirty trick.’”)
All this came back of course when it was quietly announced that the most successful American cartoonist after Walt Disney, Matt Groening, 58, is stopping “Life in Hell” after 32 years.
You might not be familiar with “Life in Hell” — a single panel that ran in the Chicago Reader, it offered the bleak Beckett-ish world of a bunny with a bad overbite, Binky, his one eared son Bongo, and a strange cast of characters including the gay, fez-wearing Akbar and Jeff. Their lives of despair and failure made Charlie Brown seem like Hugh Hefner.
I don’t know if “Life in Hell” was a great strip, or even a significant one, except in its role leading to “The Simpsons” (Groening, in a famous story, cooked up the Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa characters while waiting to see TV producer James L. Brooks, concerned that he would lose the rights to his “Life in Hell” characters.)
But “Life in Hell” helped me endure my early 20s and the lousy jobs I held. When I heard Groening is quitting, I was transported back to an unadorned office in Los Angeles, writing PR, opening a letter from a pal in Chicago, sending me some “Life in Hell” panels.
As grim as the message was (“Do you want to work in an office full of devious, bitter, nervous wrecks who all resent each other,” asks Groening’s employment quiz, “or would you rather toil alone in a windowless room with no distraction and be watched by a security camera?”) it was also comforting, first because it was funny, and second because obviously I wasn’t the only person doing a botch job of navigating the perdition of work and love — whoever was drawing this loopy, word-choked strip was also experiencing the same thing. I was not alone.
A few years later, back in Chicago, I was in Guild Books on Lincoln Ave., and saw his first collection, Love is Hell. Earlier, Groening had signed a bunch of the books, which obviously weren’t flying off the shelf. I bought one, for $5.95, since he had drawn a big, grim Binky crouching in a corner on the inside cover. He dated the sketch Sept. 10, 1986.
Think about it. He was already working on the “Simpsons” shorts that would start airing on the Tracey Ullman show that spring. But he still stood in Guild Books and signed these copies, and drew pictures in them. All in the hope that people would buy them and read his cartoons. Which is also why he drew the strip for 32 years, despite being worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Because it was his strip, his dream, and you don’t give up dreams.
A reminder to all those young people in all those offices, trying to figure out life, which can be like trying to peel a ball bearing with your thumbnails. Keep at it. You might have begun your big success and not even know it.