Tucked away on the back pages of our newspapers are little works of art, guilty pleasures, silly trash: comic strips, a pure American art form. Their existence coincides roughly with the 20th century, and one newspaper poll after another suggests they're often the best-read feature in the paper. Yet they get little respect. Readers take them for granted and editors, for economic reasons, keep shrinking their size, which obscures the often lovely artwork and reinforces the common assumption that the funnies are disposable fluff.
I don't think so, and I'll bet you don't either. There's a power to the comics, a power both subtle and gleefully vulgar, that entertains millions of readers every day.
The collective genius of the comics is that impressively often, while being low-down and disreputable, they not only divert us but manage to surprise, stimulate, and even enlighten. What follows are appreciations and evaluations of the best and the most widely syndicated comic strips being offered today.
Calvin and Hobbes
At a time when comic strips are being drawn with minimal detail and written with obvious punch lines, Bill Watterson's creation is nothing less than a miracle. For all his devilishness, Watterson summons up the pain and confusion of childhood as much as he does its innocence and fun. Calvin is a terribly sensitive little boy who finds solace in the company of Hobbes, the stuffed tiger that talks and becomes real only to him. In the process, the two have become the most entertaining, complex characters on the funny pages these days. A+
The Far Side
These are the most consistently witty non sequiturs, puns, and common-sense observations being created in America, in any medium. Gary Larson has brought laugh-out-loud humor back to the funny pages with one-panel drawings that combine surrealism with an amateur's interest in science to create a comic tone that's at once eccentric and aggressive. A snake on the witness stand in a courtroom hisses at a prosecuting attorney, ''Of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot! I'm a reptile.'' When The Far Side started in the late '70s, some readers were shocked by its more macabre panels, but in these Andrew Dice Clay days Larson's drawings seem downright elegant in the precision of their black humor. A
The most controversial of all comic strips, consigned in many newspapers to the editorial page, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury remains uneven, infuriating, and frequently superlative. Earlier this year, Trudeau's sequence of strips about Andy, a man dying of AIDS, was remarkable: tragic and moving while delivering a punch line each day. Working in a field that attracts rabid , conservatives (who knows why?), Trudeau is the comics' most up-front liberal, and he's figured out a way to make his gags serve his opinions. A
The Family Circus
The most underrated comic strip in the country, The Family Circus doesn't make you howl with laughter; instead, it provokes a chuckle of recognition as you admire Bil Keane's unobtrusively innovative drawing style. Based on Keane's own large family, Circus is an ongoing low-key saga about a pair of gentle parents and their rowdy, prepubescent brood; the strip seems happily frozen in time, offering an idyllic vision of the early '60s suburbs as an immaculate haven for growing families. Circus is the only one-panel comic that is in a circle instead of a square; this, combined with the rounded features of Keane's clan, gives it a distinctively stylized look. Where Keane excels, though, is in his brightly colored Sunday strips, which often feature sprawling, complex drawings of the family's entire neighborhood. A
Now celebrating its 40th year in syndication, Peanuts has been coasting on its reputation for quite a while, and rumors of Charles M. Schulz's shaky health make one fear for the future of what is certainly one of the most quirky, original strips in history. When Peanuts appeared in 1950, everything about it was unconventional for its time: Its title did not refer to a particular character; its hero, dome-headed Charlie Brown, was a neurotic worrier well suited to the humor of that post-Freudian era. Charlie Brown was the comics' equivalent of Shelley Berman, a Mort Sahl without the politics. These days, the plaintiveness of Charlie Brown remains touching, but his ddg, Snoopy, has become a smug bore, and the urgent anger of Lucy is now tempered and tame. B+
Zippy the Pinhead
The only widely syndicated strip that began its life as an early-'70s underground comic, Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead is the comics' most surprising success story. Griffith's stream-of-consciousness writing and the questionable taste of using a ''pinhead'' as a hero haven't prevented Zippy from finding an audience that appreciates the big fellow's screwy sayings ("Reality is a sandwich ch id not order"), and loopy plot lines such as a weeks-long search for a mysterious ''Sgt. Bilko Cult of Tibet.'' How did Zippy become a mass-audience favorite? Maybe, as Zippy's spiritual brethren, the comedy troupe Firesign Theater, used to say, ''We're all insane.'' B+
The strip created by Chic Young in 1930 remains one of the most widely read comics in the country: What in the world did Blondie, certainly the slinkiest, smartest housewife in comics history, ever see in Dagwood Bumstead, with his pre-punk spiky hair and compulsive consumption of foot-high sandwiches? Chic Young died in 1973, but Blondie and Dagwood live on under the guidance of Chic's son Dean and Stan Drake. They have done a remarkable job of reproducing Chic Young's drawing style, but there's a lot missing in the characterization, and Blondie is now full of the sort of one-liners that are interchangeable with those in any number of other strips. Still, the suburban atmosphere that Chic Young created is so vivid and durable that Blondie remains a charmer. B+
For Better or Worse
Canadian artist Lynn Johnston's semiautobiographical strip about a big, noisy, loving family is just about the only one around that doesn't make teenagers seem like lazy dolts (see Chip in Hi and Lois) or willful brats (see Fox Trot). Johnston's at her best when she tackles big family subjects birth, death (of a relative or a goldfish), marriage, puppy love, and rock music loud enough to shatter the walls of a bedroom. Charles Schulz once said of her work, ''She isn't afraid of sadness.'' That's the kind of compliment you don't expect to hear about a newspaper cartoonist, and a measure of Johnston's value. B+
Dennis the Menace
Like The Family Circus, Dennis the Menace isn't a hip strip, but it's been one of the best-drawn, most consistently amusing ones since its start in 1951. Artist Hank Ketcham knows how to maintain the balance between cute and bratty. His achievement is that even though Dennis' parents and the slow-burning Mr. Wilson think he is annoying, we readers do not. B
This is another of the very few classic strips that has survived a change in artist while retaining its quality and sensibility. Conceived in 1919 by Frank King as a single-panel comic set in a gas station that would capitalize on America's newfound interest in the automobile, Gasoline Alley became a warmhearted family tale in 1921, when a foundling, subsequently named Skeezix, was left on the doorstep of station owner Walt Wallet. King drew beautiful panels that detailed all the streets and houses of Walt and Skeezix's neighborhood. When he died in 1969, Dick Moores took over and was followed in turn by Jim Scancarelli in 1986; both have done their best to carry on King's gentle, contemplative tone amid modern comics' cramped space and vulgar noise. B
Bill Amend's three-year-old strip is the most idiosyncratic one to debut since Calvin and Hobbes. The drawing is simple and stylized and the jokes capture an adolescent sensibility of meanmeannks and intense sibling rivalry. This is a believable family: put-upon but not foolish parents, plus 16-year-old Peter, 14-year-old Paige, and 10-year-old Jason, who likes to make Paige faint by frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass and then eating them. (It's a joke, a joke they're really raisins but Paige fell for it the first time.) B
Hi and Lois
Hagar the Horrible
Ever notice that the art for these three strips all looks sort of alike? Follow this: Beetle Bailey, the hapless army private, was created by artist- writer Mort Walker in 1950; four years later, Walker started the nice suburban family of Hi and Lois, and enlisted Dik Browne to draw it in the Walker style. Browne went on to create the sitcom-Viking Hagar all by himself in '73. Walker's Beetle thrives on stereotypes; the artist got into a bit of trouble a few years ago for the character of Miss Buxley, a bimbo of a secretary. Recently he introduced another questionable stereotype: Cpl. Joe Kaschioki, a masochistically hard-working Japanese officer who gets up before dawn to file reports.
By my ranking, Hi and Lois has the gentlest humor, Beetle the most distinctive characters, and Hagar the most predictable gags. P.S.: Did you know that Lois is Beetle's older sister? Hi and Lois: B+ Beetle Bailey: B Hagar the Horrible: C
The current version of Chester Gould's venerable cops-and-robbers strip is written and drawn by Dick Locher and Max Allan Collins. This duo recently undermined their comic-strip legend by running a Dick Tracy-makes-a-movie storyline designed to cash in on the hype for Warren Beatty's movie. Before this, Locher and Collins were doing a reasonable job of keeping the square- jawed hero alive by trotting out the grand old villains Mumbles, Pruneface, Itchy, etc. Nonetheless, the strip has lost the edgy, neurotic eccentricity that Gould gave it. C
Read today, Mark Trail seems impossibly old-fashioned, a heavy-handed melodrama about a lantern-jawed outdoorsman who puts out forest fires, captures poachers, and blazes trails through dense woods. Created by Ed Dodd in 1946, Mark Trail anticipated today's ecology movement by decades; Outdoor Tips is the Sunday strip's equivalent of Chester Gould's old Crimestopper's Textbook in Dick Tracy breezy advice on how to survive (in Trail's case, in the woods). The dialogue these days is hopelessly trite, but the drawing is wonderfully distinctive thick black lines that look like woodcuts; it's as if Mark Trail had whittled his own pictures out of logs he'd cut down himself. B-
Like Peanuts, Garfield is now more a marketing phenomenon than a comic strip. There is something likable about this sarcastic cat, and when the cat's creator, Jim Davis, is indulging his mean streak, Garfield features the most sadistic visual slapstick this side of a classic Road Runner cartoon. But too often the art is just perfunctory, the jokes lame. C
Lots of people seem to enjoy this strip as a comics version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, identifying with Cathy's job frustrations and single-womanhood. I can't get past the fact that the drawing is so inexpressive (Cathy smiling is the same as Cathy crying). But Cathy Guisewite made this strip a hit on the strength of her writing, not her draftsmanship; to me, her character seems more pathetic than lovable, and not funny. C-
The current version of this strip, by Leonard Starr, is an utter debasement of the mysteriously dark, brooding, and original creation that Harold Gray wrote and drew from 1924 until his death in 1968. Then too, the Broadway show Annie has sentimentalized her grievously. As Gray conceived Annie, she was a tough-minded, plucky preadolescent who, despite her blank-eyed stare, took her dog, Sandy, on all sorts of adventures, defeating pirates one minute and bootleggers the next; the morals of the tale gibed with Gray's right-wing beliefs. Gray knew how to imply isolation and suspense by drawing small figures in big, amorphous panels; Starr has updated Annie by making her a teenager with an outmoded curly-top; her adventures are drab little escapades that reduce her to a one-girl Cagney and Lacey. D-
The Amazing Spider-Man
The popular comic-book hero transposed to a daily strip: slow-moving (it takes weeks for anything to happen), cutesy, woodenly drawn, never compelling, unaccountably popular why, he's not even amusingly neurotic, the way he is in the comic books. Remember action strips like Steve Canyon and Buz Sawyer, which actually had action? D-
Ernie Bushmiller's original Nancy, featuring the little girl with the very tense hair, was a mysterious piece of pop culture: Stylized to the point of abstraction, featuring jokes so simple they seemed aimed at an audience of amoebas, Nancy was nonetheless wildly popular. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Joe Brainard ''quoted'' Nancy in various paintings; Bushmiller's phrase for what he did when he came up with too sophisticated a gag ''Dumb it down'' became a modernist mantra.
Bushmiller died in 1982, and the strip was taken over by Jerry Scott. This time tradition wasn't well served. Nancy now isn't artfully, ironically dumb; it's just plain dumb. And dull. And badly drawn. F