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Getting the funnies

The ups and downs of the comics page

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Swine
"Pearls Before Swine": Wicked humor from a terrific comic strip.

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Eye on Entertainment
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(CNN) -- Another weekend, another comic book-inspired film. This time around it's "Fantastic Four."

Seems like a lot of attention is paid to comic books and graphic novels nowadays. The art is often brilliant, the writing dense -- and the payoff can be big if Hollywood buys in, as it has with "Batman," "Spider-Man" and "Sin City," to name three.

But does anyone still care about the comic book's humble cousin, the comic strip? Doesn't seem like it, which is a shame -- they're missing some fine work (and even some laughs).

Indeed, comic strip writers and artists seldom get their due. Unless they're the late Hal Foster ("Prince Valiant") or the not-so-late Berke Breathed ("Opus"), they crank out seven strips a week, 365 days a year. (Even Garry Trudeau, unfairly maligned for his vacations, works a pretty full slate.) They have to get their point across in four panels -- or one. And, usually, they have to make you laugh.

Yet the comics are generally taken for granted -- when they aren't the source of complaints.

There are any number of comic strips giving the page energy nowadays. To name a handful:

  • "Pearls Before Swine," Stephan Pastis' often wickedly funny strip featuring Rat, Pig, Goat and Zebra, plus a few idiotic crocodiles, next-door neighbors and other comic strip characters (read a Newsweek article about Pastis hereexternal link);
  • "Mutts," Patrick McDonnell's sweet and wistful strip about a scruffy dog and scruffier cat;
  • "Get Fuzzy," Darby Conley's world of talking animals and their human counterparts -- particularly laughably mean cat named Bucky and a big-hearted dog named Satchel;
  • The veteran "For Better or for Worse," by Lynn Johnston, which packs more drama, laughter and real life into one strip than many TV sitcoms can manage in a season;
  • And the weekly "This Modern World," by Tom Tomorrow, which has bravely skewered politics and news media with a genuine passion much lacking in our real politics and news media.
  • And there's still "Doonesbury" and Ben Katchor and "Tom the Dancing Bug" and "Non Sequitur" and "Overboard" and whatever J.C. Duffy's working on.

    Admittedly, the comics pages are still filled with sclerotic holdovers such as the slow-motion daily car accident called "Mary Worth" or the created-by-committee "Garfield" or the list-list-list-unfunny punch line "Cathy." (Cathy Guisewite, you were so funny on Carson. What happened?) And sure, some people will always say today's comics are poorly drawn or just plain weird and they'll never hold a candle to "Little Nemo in Slumberland" or "Pogo" or name a childhood favorite.

    But you try to provide such dependable and efficient entertainment, and in a few black-and-white panels, yet. Newspapers have been cutting back on comics for years; perhaps they should make an investment.

    Eye on Entertainment turns to those other comic heroes.

    Eye-opener

    "Fantastic Four," a Marvel Comics title that actually predates "Spider-Man" and "X Men," features four scientists -- Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) -- who go into space for an experiment, come into contact with some dangerous cosmic rays, and end up with their DNA altered.

    Richards becomes the stretchable Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm turns into Invisible Woman, Johnny Storm is the flammable Human Torch and Grimm metamorphoses into a rock-like creature called The Thing (no relation to the mid-'70s Volkswagen).

    The newly christened Fantastic Four do battle with Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who has some nefarious plans for New York. In the process, they become close, despite some past relationships: Sue and Reed are ex-partners, Grimm has some anger issues and Johnny ... well, he's young and impetuous.

    If some of this sounds familiar beyond fans of the Marvel universe, the filmmakers were thinking the same thing thing when they saw last fall's "The Incredibles" -- which also features four superheroes with similar traits. However, "The Incredibles" worked on so many levels, thanks to the genius of writer Brad Bird, that it's different than the kind of straight-up comic book material "Fantastic Four" looks to be.

    Incidentally, the production notes say that "Fantastic Four" (nobody uses definite articles anymore: witness "War of the Worlds" and "Bad News Bears") "required, for self-evident reasons, four times the special effects power of any previous comic-to-film epics." Perhaps it's just me, but does it really matter how many of your principals have superpowers when it comes to the special effects budget?

    "Fantastic Four" opens Friday.

    On screen

  • "Dark Water" stars Jennifer Connelly in a J-horror-style flick about a woman who moves into a New York apartment with her daughter. The upstairs apartment has some plumbing problems -- or so it seems. Also starring John C. Reilly and Tim Roth. Opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • NBC offers a special "all gross show" edition of "'Fear Factor" 9 p.m. Monday. And yes, I don't know how you can tell the difference.
  • Those who want to be the new lead singer of INXS, we salute you. The premiere of "Rock Star: INXS" is 9 p.m. Monday on CBS.
  • Sound waves

  • The soundtrack to "Wedding Crashers" (New Line), with an exclusive Flaming Lips song, cuts from Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World, and -- best of all -- Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson duetting on "Hava Nagilah," comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • John Irving's new novel, "Until I Find You" (Random House), is a real doorstop -- at 848 pages, it's up there with "A Son of the Circus" in terms of length. But Irving, with his colorful characters, emotional tightrope walking and rich, often Dickensian plots, seldom lets us down, "The Fourth Hand" notwithstanding -- after all, this is the man who wrote "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and "The World According to Garp." "Until I Find You" comes out Tuesday.
  • Just in time for hurricane season, Cherie Burns offers a chronicle of the "Long Island Express," the September 1938 hurricane that wrecked the East Coast, flooded many communities and shut down the baseball season for several days. "The Great Hurricane of 1938" (Atlantic Monthly Press) comes out Tuesday.
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