Comic Strips Worth Reading: Tony Cochran’s _Agnes_


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.

``You look grumpy today, Agnes.'' ``People tell me that all the time.'' ``Probably because of that grumpy look you have.'' ``I'm happy. Genetics just gave me a grumpy face.'' ``Maybe you could smile more often.'' ``Smile when you're born with a grumpy face, people think you're devious.''
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 31st of July, 2016. I don’t have a natural-born grumpy face exactly. But I’m aware that in every picture I look like I’ve decided the low cost of repairing the front steps must be because we got a second-rate job done and we’ll have to have it redone later at much greater expense and inconvenience. So Agnes has a point about the nature of faces.

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.

``Look, Mewbella, you have two options. One is leaping into the abyss.'' ``Ha! You're a riot, you are.'' ``Two, you ca do a crab-like skitter back to this end, let me help you down the ladder and let mocking laughter follow you forever.'' ``I choose that one.'' ``Good. After a time you'll convince yourself it's an invisible herd of giddy geese.'' ``Easy lie to live.''
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 5th of August, 2016. We have all been caught on the end of the high diving board at some time. I remember my father coaxing us into jumping off it by promising he’d buy ice cream cones which, in point of fact, he did about two hours before the diving board issue came up. While I concede the truth of his logical implication we were still grumbling about that for … ah … I guess this makes it thirty years after?

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.

``I have mastered all current yo-yo tricks and now I will make up new ones.'' ``You didn't master all the current tricks.'' ``Yes, I did. They are mastered. Mastered perfectly.'' ``Agnes, I had to cut you free from string six times today.'' ``Yo-yo mastery has been fraught with pitfalls.'' ``And whose blood is on the ceiling? Yours or mine?''
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 12th of August, 2016. I have never enjoyed such dramatic success with yo-yo. It brings to mind that great Ursula Vernon drawing with a hamster bound and dangling from the ceiling by the toaster and demanding that her friend never mind how it happened, just get help.

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.

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Comics, Plus Other Comics


On my other blog is another roundup of mathematically-themed comic strips. It features one of the handful of anecdotes worth sharing from my time working retail. It doesn’t rate inclusion on any blogs about how awful customers are, mind.

So folks who hang around here have something to read, I’d like to bring up a couple of comic strips I like and suggest people try reading. It’s easy to despair about the state of syndicated newspaper comics. There are always reasons to not.

Agnes has made a dress from a Fourth of July bunting, bleached her hair blond, and used a new blush, with red spray paint on other spots. Her friend Trout says 'You look like the mammal version of a parfait'. She is correct.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 17th of May, 2015.

First, Agnes, by Tony Cochran. It’s a well-written strip in the wise-child genre, focusing on Agnes, her grandmother, and her best friend Trout. This makes it one of the too-rare kind of comic for which the lead characters are all strong girls or women. I’m drawn to the writing, though: Cochran doesn’t just make Agnes an imaginative and weird girl. Cochran brings great craft to the writing. A line such as “you look like the mammal version of a parfait” is not just funny but brings to mind how many ways a joke like this could be written that wouldn’t be so well-constructed (“you look like a human candy cane”, for example).

A raccoon and dog see in the clouds the Moon notice and race away from a cloud that looks like a shark. But it's too slow, and the shark-cloud takes a bite out, leaving the crescent moon behind. The raccoon says 'I've been telling people for years but no one believes me'.
Gustavo Rodriguez’s Understanding Chaos for the 17th of May, 2015. Also I’m fond of comic strips with raccoons in them.

Next, Understanding Chaos, by Gustavo Rodriguez. It’s set in the suburbs and divides time between the kids and their families and the animals and their lives. It’s funny, often surreal; but I’m particularly taken by the art. The drawings are evocative, but the compositions and the coloring are great. A comic strip about worms playing band in the flower-pot of a plant that’s actually an extraterrestrial scout would be funny enough. To do that in an illustration worth studying is accomplishment.