Some of the story comics have undergone changes that aren’t hard to explain.
Most of the story comics are written and drawn by teams of people. The only exceptions I can think of are James Allen’s Mark Trail and Dan Thompson’s Rip Haywire. Mark Trail I’ve talked about. Rip Haywire is a weird case. It’s a humor adventure strip for one thing. Also Dan Thompson is apparently some superhuman force as he produces an estimated 14 to 22 daily comics as it is. I don’t know if any of them appear in newspapers. They should.
For the most part, though, story strips have an author and an artist and they’re separate people. It’s easy to think that the important part of a comic strip is the writing. After all, if the story is boring who cares if the art is good? And there are drearily many comics that get by on pretty good writing and indifferent art. So it seems like the change of artist, such as happened with Mary Worth this spring, shouldn’t change much.
People who pay attention should know better. They’d remember Bill Watterson writing of how when he had a weak Calvin and Hobbes joke he’d go all out on illustrating it. Somehow a lavish picture makes a weak joke better. Or they might remember how that experiment in redrawing Apartment 3-G turned a disastrously bad strip into one that at least parses as a story. And yet I was taken by surprise too.
First things, though: it’s not like the art was bad when Joe Giella was drawing it. Above is his last Sunday strip. It’s composed well enough, with a good balance of close-ups and distant shots, and the camera movement is clear enough. Where people are relative to each other is never confusing, and we never get close to that mess where the character on the right speaks before the character on the left. The worst you can say is that the faces seem a bit weirdly flat — Dawn’s hair does not do her any favors, especially in the third row there — and the fingers look weird. Fingers always do. I don’t think newspapers provide enough space for fingers not to look weird anymore. But if I could draw as well today as Giella did, I’d not be beating myself up for not taking drawing more systematically when I was eight.
Joe Giella retired this year, to enjoy rolling around in the piles of syndicated newspaper story comic money I’m sure he has. June Brigman, last artist for the Brenda Starr comic and a longtime comic book artist, took his place. I can’t deny it took time to get used to her style, and I’m not sure we’ve yet met all of the Charterstone Regulars.
The art’s gotten better, though. Brigman’s doing better at getting a sense of volume into the confined spaces of modern comic strips. And she seems to show more ambition in the choice of camera angles. We’re more likely to see the view from higher above or far below figures. It conveys motion even in a static panel.
I can’t say the stories have changed since Brigman (with the help of her husband) took over the art. The stories have been quite the usual for Mary Worth: Dawn pursues a relationship with one of her instructors that every college and university warns its instructors not to do. Tommy gets injured at work and turns his Vicodin prescription into a Vicodin addiction in no time. Charterstone regular Wilbur Westin, who survived a cruise ship, is taking a sabbatical year to interview survivors of other disasters. His girlfriend is pondering whether to date someone she met at community college even though Zak is decades younger than she is. In some of these stories Mary Worth has something relevant to say. In some of them she just makes a cameo to remind you who’s in charge here.
Still, they read better. They do feel like stuff is happening. The little shortcuts and elided bits of logic needed to carry on a story when you get two or maybe three panels a day haven’t stood out so much. I don’t remember any strips showing action or emotion that might have challenged Giella. But a comic strip is the writing and the art, and it turns out somewhat better art does make the comic enormously better.