Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Time and a Place

Don't get your knickers in a knot. Nothing is solved and it just makes you walk funny. ~Kathryn Carpenter

A couple of disparate things (no, no, the housewives are desperate, not disparate) got me to thinking the other day about how people are inclined to get really worked up over things that aren't all that important. We live in a world with hunger, a desperate need for new forms of energy, a continual effort on the part of some to foment war and terror, and really bad traffic jams. So what do people get wound up about? The funnies and blogs.

A lady in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a letter to the editor complaining about Funky Winkerbean, which is a comic strip, not some strange sitcom. Now some of you may have mercifully missed this strip over the years, but it has actually followed a group of kids to adulthood, in the process changing from an occasionally humorous strip to one that has turned into Mary Worth, with even fewer chuckles than the old busybody had.

At any rate, the lady, in a civil manner, said that she turns to the comics to get away from the pain and drudgery of the real world, so she checks out ol' Funky the other day, only to find that one of the characters has breast cancer. This is not the sort of jollity she's expecting. She makes the point, cogently enough, that comics are for entertainment, not lecturing. Generally, opinion was against her, although what was printed was all very polite (must be very nice folks there in Columbus; they should go to Cleveland and teach those people some manners).

Now, I am certainly not going to make light of something as serious as cancer, irrespective of what kind it is, and I certainly agree that awareness of the need to do regular breast exams and get mammograms is important. But, I'm not sure that we need to get that message in a place where we're looking to get a little relief from the drumbeat of imminent death fed to us by the news media. It's not that I object to a message in a comic strip. I love satirical strips like Shoe or Non Sequitur, but I'm getting sick of characters dying or having unwanted pregnancies or whatever. Like the lady, I have gotten to where I skip as many strips in the daily paper as I read.

Back in the sixties, a lot of people were focused on some very important things. Along the way, though, the mainstream began to co-opt the counterculture's dedication, usually to unintentionally humorous effect. One term that gained serious legs was “relevant.” A person might read an article, hear a song, or watch a show, then announce, “Man, that's really relevant.” There was no mention of what it was relevant to, it was just standalone relevant. It seemed to be so important to be relevant that everyone wanted to absolutely shine with relevance, because if you weren't you must be irrelevant, which seemed like a bad thing. It was during this period that serious topics began to creep into the funnies. A few authors managed to pull it off, like Doonesbury or the early Bloom County. But most just got preachy.

We seem to have reached that point again. Doonesbury came back, with everyone older (or dead), but the edge is gone. Gasoline Alley is letting characters die (but Uncle Walt is, oh, 136). For Better or Worse is going to have a divorce (one of the side characters, not the main couple, though how that guy has put up with that woman for all these years is beyond me). Oh, and even Cathy got married (but she's still an idiot; she just has an idiot husband now to complete the set).

To the artists: Hey, gang, we need a little respite from high gas prices, nukes in Iran, and crooks in Washington. Make us laugh. We've all seen someone go through a divorce, and too many of us have had friends or relatives with cancer (if not having had it ourselves). We know these are serious things. We're not looking for serious things back here next to the Sudoku puzzle.

The other thing that got me going involved Blogger. The other day, Blogger wasn't working. Now the Google gang are pretty decent sorts, but they don't do a very good job of telling the army of bloggers what broke and when it might be fixed. As it turned out, I was trying to publish something at the time and was having no success, so I wondered what was going on. After stumbling around in the maze that is the average web site, I found the forums. I should have been able to find the forums just by the sound of keyboards being smashed.

Now there are people who use blogs as part of their livelihood. Journalistic blogs are often very entertaining, although even some these are nothing more than a link to something with a couple of clever quips. And I know there are a handful of people out there who actually make a living with blogs. But I suspect that the vast majority of the howling mob that had gathered in the forum was just trying to post some ordinary stuff, which, although important to the author, could easily wait a day or two before being posted.

This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the Usenet days, Internet users have had no patience for down time. Again, we should separate what's important from what's not. If there's a DNS crisis, and you can't get to your bank's site to pay bills, that could be serious (if you're one of those congenitally late bill payers). Or, if your ISP's e-mail if freaking out, that could be as bad as the old days when the Post Office lost your mail. But, if you can't get to Fark, well, there are only about a zillion other news sites where you can get the all the offbeat news you can eat.

By the way, I read Fark just about every day, but I am able to skip a day when Drew has spilled a Heineken in the server.

But maybe this is the nub of the problem: People get worked up over the trivial while ignoring the really important things. Perhaps this is why the funny papers have become a place for airing serious issues. It's the last place left for anyone to try to get past our apathy.

Look, let's all get together and make a promise to the guys who do the comic strips. If they'll stick to the funny stuff and give us some relief, we honest-to-Peanuts promise to pay more attention to the important issues of the day. Okay? Very well, then, people, you are now charged with spending at least one half hour a day reading, watching, or surfing serious news. You do your job, and then maybe the comic strip guys can do theirs.

As for the bloggers and others who expect the Internet to be at their constant beck-and-call, get over it. The world can live without another link to some off-the-wall article that 10,000 other people have linked. Take a break and go outside for a while, after you've done you're serious news duty, of course. About time we got our priorities straight.

You got that, Funky?

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