October 4th, 2007

don't mess with me today, think so do ya?

The Grampa Jim Thing.

So here's the thing, Lynn Johnston: if you are doing your long-running family comic strip right, you don't have to do a bunch of "Grandpa in the old days" strips to make your readers go, "Hey, that's right! We liked that character!" before you kill him off. They already like him. It's one of the benefits of a long-running family comic.

And if you're doing it right, you don't have to use cliffhanger endings that will undermine all future strips, because now who's going to believe it when the grandfather character in FBoFW actually does die? Or when anything else at all happens? You've given him the cliffhanger death-like thing that turned out to be a non-fatal stroke twice now. Not acceptable. Nor does it increase tension. It makes people roll their eyes. Can you think of a moment where pathos has been increased by some dork jumping in front of the difficult scene and shouting, "Psyyyyyych! I bet you thought he was dead, huh? He's not dead! But I bet you thought he was! Got you good that time, huh? When you thought he was dead? But he wasn't!"? No. And there's a reason for that.

And if you're doing it right, holding a mirror up to the concerns of the time doesn't feel like cheap manipulation. A lot of Baby Boomers are dealing with their parents' aging right now; a lot of people my age are dealing with their grandparents' failing health. (And we know we're the lucky ones, to have kept them this long.) You can't use that as a shortcut to emotional involvement. If you're going to make people relive some of the most difficult moments and decisions in their lives on the "funny pages," you have to realize that if you don't do a truly excellent job, you're just grinding our noses into our griefs and fears for nothing. There are a lot of people for whom this scenario is their life right now. Wondering whether their loved one was going to make it. Wondering whether they were making the right choices in end-of-life medical care. Wondering when those choices were going to just evaporate, leaving them with no choices at all. That situation is plenty dramatic if you deal with it honestly. Cheap parlor tricks don't enhance it. It doesn't need enhancement.

You're not doing it right. This is something it's important to do right, and you're not. Bad art matters. Bad art makes a difference. You took a series of risks, and you screwed up each of them, taking you farther and farther away from the point where this might have worked. And now here you are trying to deal with something major, and you've whined and cheated your characters into cardboard cutouts, so you can't trust that anyone will care about them any more, so you fall back on the old retracting stage knife gag, which has never once in the history of its existence wrung emotional investment from an audience. You've lost us. I don't think you'll get us back again. Go make some cheap puns on the dogs' names or jokes about how people get wrinkles as they get older. It's the level you've earned.