Nothing gets newspaper readers stirred up like a cartoon cancelation. Recently, the Deseret News' letters section has been hopping with arguments over the paper's withdrawal of Mark Tatulli's Lio. ---
Now, Lio is a concept strip, and concept strips are always troublesome for some readers. It's%uFFFDnot a jokey cartoon with a punchline, like those laff-out-loud favorites Kathy and Marmeduke (although it does often achieve a certain sublime humor). Nor is it a gripping serial like Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G, with dramatic, socially relevant twists and turns (although Lio occasionally turns out simple plot arcs spanning a few days).
Lio's eponymous character is a maladjusted boy with a whimsical, macabre imagination. He lives between two opposing worlds: A fantasy realm full of goblins, monsters and demons; and a real world dominated by dull practicality and Hallmark sentimentalism. The friction between these two worlds is the basis of the strip's humor, as the boy injects gleeful mayhem into the real world or, alternately, is thwarted in his efforts to do so.
It's not so much "funny" as it is charming and beautifully drawn. Tatulli avoids dialog conventions such as captions and word balloons, relying instead for verbal cues on mise en scéne%uFFFDsigns, labels and placards. Thus, the strip's humor attains the slapstick quality of a silent picture.%uFFFDWith this, Lio%uFFFDcarries a sense of bittersweet nostalgia for a past when cartoon wit was more idiosyncratic, human and naturalistic.%uFFFD
OK, so, maybe this is a false nostalgia.
But there's no question that competition for syndicate approval changes the humor of cartoons. At some point, cartoonists started writing specifically to a perceived mass readership, which imbued their humor with a desperate, tactical flavor: In an effort to maintain ratings, some strips wheedle (For Better or for Worse, 9 Chickweed Lane), some bully (Mallard Fillmore, Pluggers), some try for hipness-through-obscurity (Tom the Dancing Bug, Red Meat) -- and a great many (Blondie, Gasoline Alley, Tank McNamara, Ziggy, et al) simply cling to inertia. (These latter antique strips sometimes attempt to update themselves at their own peril. For instance, Beetle Bailey's introduction of the despicable Gizmo character was disastrous -- but Bailey remains on the comics page, which only goes to show how resistant to change the publishing industry is.)
Even if there never was a time when cartoons were universally drawn For the Sake of the Comic Art, Lio still manages to%uFFFDevoke the surreal insanity of classic strips such as Krazy Kat and The Far Side. So, who knows? Tatulli may only have discovered some new commercial tactical angle, one that's nostalgic rather than wheedling, bullying or clinging to inertia.
On the other hand, maybe syndication still occasionally rewards talent. Lio is a good comic, and I like it.
Its lighthearted treatment of dark, scary things may strike%uFFFDD-News publishers as unsuitably morally ambiguous.But, if readers are upset by its loss, they can always find it online.
Here's one Lio strip I like because it reminds me of the Perry Bible Fellowship "Nice Shirt" toon. (The brilliant%uFFFDPBF was one of those toons which, fortunately or un-, was never quite able to sell out enough to make syndication.)