Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cartoon Crimmicissmm: "Single & Looking"

From - This is a direct quotation of the blurb on the go-comics website of the strip...

"Out of the Gene Pool by Matt Janz

Can’t we all just get along? It’s not the easiest question these days. With all of our differences, it’s amazing the Earth still rotates in one direction. "Out of the Gene Pool" is a comic strip with characters you might recognize from your own neighborhood: hard-working dads, frazzled moms, inseparable friends, gossiping co-workers and some folks who are just plain bizarre. They manage to coexist on this big ball of dirt--one day at a time, aspiring for progress rather than perfection."

And this is what I have to say >;)...

Here's a comic strip that I started out not liking very much, then gradually drew to like it a lot, but since has slipped over the high point of its parabola: Out Of The Gene Pool, which has been recently renamed "Single & Looking."

I am rather ambivalent about this switch. I had grown accustomed to reading the strip and finding something to laugh about more often than not, but I certainly do understand why creator Matt Janz has made the switch. According to his site, he had begun focusing on several characters within the strip and decided to approach his syndicate about making the switch. The characters in question, Jackie and her son, Travis, Sam, Zoogie (a scruffy teddy bear/troll-like creature with a lounge lizard personality, and Madame Red (Sandra Bernhardt), were easily the most popular characters in the strip; each with defined personalities that lent themselves to creative circumstances. My favorite in fact is Madame Red, for her cynical, sarcastic outbursts and a complete lack of, or will for tact, which my sister Terry would have been proud of.

Out of The Gene Pool focused on Sam's older sister Andy and her troll-like husband, Rufus, along with their mutant-like son Miller, whom was best friends with Travis. Being that Jackie and Travis are African American and Miller is kind of a mutant, I read a lot into the minority culture aspect of their relationship with each other and in their everyday lives, even if that was not the creator's intention.

Sam entered the strip more than a year ago and became tight with Rufus and Miller, and by association with Travis. And of course, with Andy and Jackie being BF (but apparently not F), Sam was the doted-on little brother who needed a place to live, a job and most importantly, some (...). Gradually, Jackie and Sam have grown close out of similarly odd and comically sad circumstances (or at the unconscious whim of Mr. Janz) and have become "best friends", which to me is another way of saying that Sam would hit that in a minute if it weren't for three things: Jackie's ideal man is Taye Diggs, Travis would never allow it (poor kid hopes his father gets back with Mom) and for obvious reasons, the demographics for such a pairing are not suitably strong enough to overcome the outrage from the majority of readership that would object to a germophobic, pasty white-boy slacker dating a shallow-minded, middle-aged baby-moms version of Angela Bassett... yes, I am conjuring images of "Waiting To Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back". I suspect in Janz' case, he might be channeling the former, while keeping the latter in his cheek, next to his tongue.

No folks, as edgy as it appears, there likely won't be a comic-strip version of Something New, which actually (in my opinion) would probably be the only way to begin meaningful dialog on race relations in mainstream America. The fact is, their close friendship is probably making some heads explode as is, so good for Matt on that point >;).

But I remain ambivalent. As natural as the process was that generated this change, I always felt that Jackie's shallowness was too irritating to warrant special attention; the only way to justify her status, being that she has many flaws in her character and ability, was to juxtapose her with men with even more outlandish quirks, flaws and inabilities. Yes, he touches well on what a black single mom has to deal with in terms of prospects, especially with a protective and ambitious seed, but coming from my own experiences, I never felt sanguine about lampooning a sista's flaws and insecurities for the sake of laughs when in reality such qualities would either afford her a sitcom on BET or ridicule and derision on the Senate floor. Jackie, as cartoonish and unreal as her character is, has elements about her that I would otherwise find offensive, especially since the mainstream image of black women up to this point has been nearly as cartoonish, or overly more-so.

At the same time, Sam is still more so a supporting player that either reacts to Jackie's discretions/indiscretions, or is the simple butt of jokes about his own flaws. More interesting is his animal-pal Zoogie, who defies categorization simply by the force of his ego, or Madame Red, who defies everything out of pure habit. To me, Sam is no more than a foil for Zoogie's purely self-centered indiscretions, or a sounding board to Travis' ambitions (much as his best friend Miller served as partner/foil.) Sam otherwise has no developed personality other than the fact that he abhors germs, and thus has trouble getting dates or keeping them interested long enough. This makes the pairing of Jackie and Sam uncomfortably odd, even under the circumstances.

That's why it's important to make this distinction, and to me, Janz is still in the process of balancing this: it's a cartoon. How far do you take images and ramp up their virtues and flaws without offending the people they represent, but still retain properties that render them wholly interesting? For me, Jackie's life situation (single mother with job) is closely related to how I was brought up, and therefore I take a special interest in her relationship with her son, her friend(s) and society at large. That's a situation that has been largely untouched in comics and entertainment (with some notable exceptions that were either middling or polarizing), so I look at how Janz portrays these characters. I say, if it were a problem, the New York Daily News would have dropped it like a hot potato from their pages (as they so often did with The Boondocks, which more directly observed and informed on the issue of race relations and particularly interracial relationships), but only time will tell. Other notable strips have changed their name and/or first-team roster in early-to-mid stages of their existence, including Popeye (from Thimble Theatre), Scruffy Smith (from Barney Google and Sparkplug, which was blessed from childhood as the moniker of another quick-change artist, Charles M. Schulz.) A notorious example of this type of evolution, if you will, is Opus (Berkeley Breathed), which began it's existence as Bloom County and then brilliantly segued to Outland before retiring and reemerging some years later as Opus. Ultimately, the characters themselves, and the audience reaction to those characters often determine the direction the entire strip takes. (in Schulz' case however, the name "Peanuts" was actually forced on him by his publishers, and he resented this to the day he died.) Even in my own work, I found it necessary to shake up the roster; add characters and drop others, and in one case completely spin a character into an alternate universe of it's own. This is as natural as living our own lives.

Overall, I recommend the strip based on it's graphic style (clearly cartoonish, but cleanly done so), but with the reservation that the strip either benignly ignores or perhaps is cleverly building up to issues that could certainly shake up the syndicated comic strip industry. It's edgy like sneaking through the barrier edgy, not confronting authority edgy. I still can't tell what the creator's bent is, which more than likely pleases the syndicate to no end as it does not limit it's potential audience to a particular demographic category. But in the wake of Aaron MacGruder, that's still kind of lame. If you like chuckles without strong or subversive commentary, you'll like the strip as was, and as currently constructed.

Yet, as George Carlin so eloquently put it, entropy excites me. You have fun with that.


Shaun P said...

Can't say I've read this comic, Chyll (not carried in either of the Boston papers, not that I even read the Boston papers anymore). But I will check it out now.

As you point out, I've always loved how the comics allow one to comment on society but do it in a way that is almost hidden, unless you're watching closely. IIRC, Michael Moore made that point in the forward to one of Macgruder's "Boondocks" collections. (OT - man, do I miss the Boondocks. Despite the fact that I am an almost 30 something white man, I identified with Huey - and Macgruder - on many levels.)

My two favorite examples of this are first, a Pearls Before Swine series where Rat is running for office, and declares that he is against the rainbows - and then bashes Pig and anyone else who say anything positive about rainbows. Its absurdly funny - until you realize that Pastis is making a very serious point about terrorism.

My second is an episode of Macgruder's Boondocks cartoon, where Huey and Riley enlist the help of Ed Wuncler III and his friend Gin Rummy to find "The XBox Killer". It was only when I watched the episode a second time that realized the parallels to Dubya, Rummsfeld, and the Iraq War. I felt like an idiot - but then I released that was the point. You get lulled into a false sense of security - its a cartoon! - but its not. Wonderful stuff.

And who knows? Maybe this will get a good dialogue on race going. Now if only Ralph Wiley was around to contribute to it . . .

Chyll Will said...

I miss Ralph Wiley. He answered a lot of questions I was asking myself. And, might I say, anyone can identify with MacGruder for the scope of his vision and his fearlessness in retelling what he actually saw. I think before long he'll be back drawing something.

I'll be getting to Pastis soon enough; I was especially grateful for his jam with Get Fuzzy some months ago, because those two are such opposites in style, yet thematically and intellectually identify well with each other.

So glad you got my point as well >;)

OldYanksFan said...

I read an interesting book some time ago. I can't remember the name or author, only that 'Bill Cosby' was in the title.

The book's premise was that Blacks have done very well over the last 20 years... on TV. We have gone from Sanford & Son and black maids to The Cosby Family and Prince of BelAire. This, says the author, makes 'liberal' whites feel very good about the 'Black problem'. That Blacks are making economic progress.

Meanwhile in reality, many quality of life issues have actually deteriorated for the Black community, and for all lower/working class communities in general.

Very interesting how Television has soothed 'white guilt' while the economy for the Black community has actually gotten worse.

Familiar with this book?

Chyll Will said...

I'll look for it and let you know. I'll bet my man Macedonia would know...

Shaun P said...

"I think before long he'll be back drawing something."

For the heck of it, I went to the "Boondocks" TV show webpage - and new episodes will start airing this fall. So you're right once more! I can't wait to see what Macgruder covers this time. Without getting too political, I'll say this and nothing else - I'd love to hear his (and Huey's) thoughts on impeachment.