And Next, Conflict Resolution for Garfield and Odie

February 06, 1994|By JOANNE JACOBS

San Jose, California. -- Dick Tracy's wife is suing for divorce. Yes, after 45 years of marriage (and 18 years of courtship), Tess is sick of the hatchet-nosed detective's long hours, and ready to start a new life.

vTC What's next? Will Robin file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against his ''guardian,'' Batman, for sexual abuse, seduction, negligence? (And what about Rex Morgan's sexual orientation? He's been dating his nurse, June Gale, for at least 30 years, without so much as a good-night kiss.)

The Lockhorns are getting stale. Why not ditch the marriage counselor and bring out the carving knife?

The Mitchells are ripe for a split and a custody battle over Dennis the Menace (to decide who gets to not live with him). Let's see Alice Mitchell face up to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Actually, let's not.

Let's not introduce phony reality into the genuine unreality of cartoons. Let's preserve a small, brightly colored refuge from the depressions of daily life, where Mary Worth never places a call to Dr. Kevorkian, Snoopy doesn't picket for animal rights and the Family Circus isn't a cover for kiddie porn.

We need the funny papers to be, occasionally, funny.

Tracy's divorce supposedly reflects the new trend toward throwing contemporary social issues into comic strips. Really, of course, it's an attempt to juice interest in the 63-year-old strip. This is the real trend: Toying with readers' affections in lieu of plot development.

Superman ''died,'' but he's still around.

Dagwood quit J.C. Dithers and Co. to work for Blondie, but is back snoozing at his desk and eating at the diner.

Tess Tracy, nee Trueheart, will be back with her square-jawed hubby, too. But readers who like Dick Tracy as he's been since Prohibition may not return to their old loyalties.

I used to read Dick Tracy when I was a kid in Illinois and it led the cartoon pages in the Chicago Tribune. It always had a picture of the two-way wrist radio, then futuristic, and after a while it added the slogan, ''The nation that controls magnetism will control the universe.''

It featured bizarre mobsters: I seem to remember a guy called Flies in the Face who always had a bunch of flies buzzing around his face, and Pruneface, who had a face like a prune, and Egghead, who had a head like an egg.

Subtlety was not the strip's strong suit.

There was a hillbilly caricature named B.O. Plenty and a magnet magnate who colonized the moon. Then one of the characters (Tracy's adopted son, I think) married the Moon Maid; she looked like a Swedish girl with antennae. In due time, the human and alien had moonkids.

I think it's fair to say this was not a comic strip that relied on realism.

But it's not enough any more to provide people with crime-busting, adventure, fantasy or a few chuckles. Beetle Bailey has touched on the issue of gays in the military, and introduced a character who frowns on General Halftrack's lechery. If Beetle has emerged from the '50s and is now serving in today's military, why not ship the slacker to Somalia? Or downsize him.

Luann featured an earnest, unfunny condom plot, after an episode that made the commencement of menstruation look like the equivalent of college graduation.

Oh, there are bright spots in comicland. ''Calvin and Hobbes'' never asks Calvin to embrace diversity, practice safe sex or show sensitivity to the homeless.

''For Better or For Worse'' threw in a gay best friend, which seemed gratuitous, but I can live with it, given the strip's realistic tone and willingness to let its characters grow up.

''Doonesbury,'' which always dealt with social and political issues, is still funny because its characters change with the times; they're not '60s people pretending to be '90s people. (Though Mark Slackmeyer's declaration of homosexuality comes out of nowhere, and, come to think of it, the strip's slipping lately.)

In a 1989 speech at Ohio State, ''Calvin and Hobbes'' creator Bill Watterson complained that cartoons don't die with their artists; they drag on for decades, recycling the same unfunny gags. ''The pages are full of dead wood. Strips that had some relevance to the world during the Depression are now being continued by baby boomers, and the results are embarrassing.''

In other words, don't divorce Tracy. Kill him.

But don't load the funny papers with problems, issues and relevance to real life. We've got too much real life as it is.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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