Richard Thompson’s death reminded me how long I took to start following Cul de Sac and how many people had the bad fortune never to start reading it. So I’d like to take some time this month and point out some currently-ongoing comic strips that are worth more attention.
Agnes, by Tony Cochran.
I’ve mentioned some Percy Crosby’s comic strip Skippy. It’s a powerful strip. It’s about the only comic strip from the 1920s that you can read and still understand what in it was supposed to be funny. There are comic strips from that era still going on that are entertaining enough. But they’ve all mutated so far from their 1920s starts as to be unrecognizable. Here you can take the original comic and tell what the joke was. It was an influential comic strip, too. All the comic strips about children concerned about things far beyond their age are working in its shadow. They may think they’re working in Charles Schulz’s shadow, but he was working in Crosby’s.
Tony Cochrane draws one of these strips, and one of the best, under-appreciated ones. Agnes is about the person named in the title, and her grandmother/caretaker, and her best friend Trout. Agnes and Trout are somewhere in elementary school. They live in the sort of poverty that’s so all-encompassing that people who emerge from it grow up saying they never knew they were poor because there just wasn’t anyone who had money. It’s a quiet thing behind much of the strip, that say why Agnes would take up an interest in a horribly mutilated old doll she found behind a dumpster and turn it into a plaything. The poverty quietly adds drive to Agnes’s imagination, and why she should make so much elaborate play for herself.
She’s an imaginative character, the sort that draws other people into her play. Trout mostly puts up with this, despite reservations. Her grandmother is less interested, but does make clear she’s had an adventurous life she’s now content to rest from. The children and adults around her are often bewildered, playing along in that way you do when someone is being more interesting than social convention allows. She brings this operatic touch to everyday business, making more out of a long string of projects that start strong and peter out into little, the way most stuff you do as a kid does. and that without losing the wise-child comic’s ability to make sharp comments on the way the world works.
People learning to write comedy are told the value of picking funny words. It’s not wrong advice but it isn’t quite enough. You need funny words, but a funny word dropped into a boring sentence is amusing the way a Mad Lib is amusing. What you need are funny sentences, which requires more than just a glaze of funny words. Cochran is good at composing funny sentences, ones in which a character will answer Agnes’s request for books about teleportation with “We still have epic tomes on knitting”. “Epic tomes” looks funny; to speak in this context of an epic tome on knitting makes for a funny sentence.
The core cast are two girls and a woman, each of them a solid and independent character. There’s not enough of that in the comics pages. I’m glad there are solid comics like this to read.