Saturday, December 3, 2016

Comics: A Great American Institution


I love comics. My newspaper, the Financial Times, is in other respects an admirable publication but, sadly, has no comics. From time to time my parents are kind enough to send me some they've saved.

I don't merely think comics are enjoyable - though they are. Rather, I think they're a great American institution, a cornerstone of the republic, even.

First, there is the shared experience. I associate reading the comics with eating breakfast, often with my father. The comics section is passed around, favorite strips are discussed. But even apart from the physical aspect, even if comics are read electronically, people can discuss their favorite characters and watch their adventures over the years.  And comics frequently comment on our shared experiences, from grocery shopping and office life, to dating and politics.

Second, there is the intellectual exercise. Comics may seem simple, but humor is notoriously difficult to explain. It is usually based on an understanding of the way things work, an understanding shared by the joke teller and the audience, and then some deviation from that usual pattern in some quirky way.

Children, having only recently discovered the order of things, often most enjoy deviations from that order. A man absentmindedly reading his newspaper goes to pick up his coffee cup and, without looking, picks up the salt shaker and pours salt into his mouth. Hilarious.

We don't generally deconstruct every comic we read, but I'm convinced that reading the comics strengths our eye for patterns, particularly within social dynamics.

Third, comics provide perspective. Even in trying times - and when are the times not trying? - it is useful to remember that we can still laugh, that things aren't so bad that we can't carry on. Comics help remind us that the cosmos is ultimately comedic, not tragic. If you haven't read the Bible lately, forgive me for dropping a spoiler: the story ends with a wedding, not a funeral. Comics are a small foreshadowing of that joy.

The strip above is the Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, from 28 November.
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