There are only a few reliable ways to tell the childish from the mature. One way used to be whether or not you wet your pants, but overmaturity has sort of erased that distinction. So we’re left with whether or not you look forward to bedtime. And whether you read all the comics in the funny pages.
When I was little, the comics section was the only thing I read in the paper. On Sundays I’d sprawl out on the floor with the full-color version. I hit every strip. Even Rex Morgan and Mary Worth and Apartment 3-G. Some of them were antiques even then, like Gasoline Alley. There was a little bald boy named Henry who spent most of his time spying pies on the windowsill, using hyphens to do it with. There was the Phantom, especially appealing on Sundays when his suit was revealed to be purple. There was also a Fun Page where you could draw the dog, or the man with the pipe, and send it in somewhere with your name and age, and you could win something, but I determined that contest to be fraudulent when I didn’t win, twice. I don’t suppose any of it did me any harm, though even as a little girl I absorbed the difference between Beetle Bailey’s unfortunate Miss Blips, named after her inadequate titties, and Miss Buxley. It was easy enough to see what kind of woman you were supposed to want to be.
Somewhere along the line as an adult I recognized that every time I read Family Circus, a little part of me died. It was worse than just the feeling of having wasted five seconds of my life. It was as if it had taken a little divot out of my spirit. I no sooner read the caption than I felt regret. Not a lot, but a lifetime of tiny regret pangs, all added up, can lodge inside you something terrible. It’s the spiritual equivalent of that low-level inflammation that is said to lead to heart failure. That time I spend reading Family Circus could have been spent staring blankly into space. Where a bird could have popped by. Or even an imaginary internal bird.
So I decided to take it off my roster. Already I wasn’t reading every single comic strip. I had to train my eyes not to drift over to Family Circus, but muscle memory kept tripping me up. Half the time I’d forget and slide over and read the caption and lose another little soul divot. Finally I ingrained my new habit.
“Peanuts” still makes the cut. It was pretty reliable through the years, although the fact that it has been in reruns since 2000 and I never remember any of them from before is probably not a good sign. Still, it’s inoffensive and gives the occasional chuckle, except when any of Snoopy’s brothers are in it. You see a cactus in Peanuts, you’re better off moving on down the page, but you never do. You just absorb that little disappointment and move on.
There have been many fine strips in my lifetime but four of them stand above the rest: Pogo, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and now, Cul de Sac. Nobody ever did anything like The Far Side before Gary Larson did it. Now everyone tries. One of the imitators, Close To Home, not only misses wide every time with the caption but is so poorly drawn that it leaves little stains on your retinas, and you have to scrub them out by reading Cul de Sac.
The reason I was not permanently damaged by the lesson of Miss Blips and Miss Buxley is that I was Alice, Alice in Cul de Sac, all along. Cul de Sac is coming to an end this month, because its creator is ill and can no longer keep it up. Dick Cheney is still clacking along with pig parts and machinery, but Richard Thompson is on the decline. A tree falls in the forest and it’s just as likely the wrong person will be walking under it as the right one. There may be such a thing as justice in the world, but if so, it’s something we’ve constructed. The universe has nothing to say about it.