It all started innocently enough one day this past summer when I opened up the newspaper (yes, I like to mock the futility of news print occasionally) and saw this:
Now, I've long since come to accept the fact that Family Circus' "humor" is fueled by a readership that is perpetually trapped in some Golden Era of good-natured perfection that never existed in our reality, but this – I wasn't quite sure what the joke was even supposed to be. How could the horrible situation of being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire possibly be uplifting in any way? It was like my world had suddenly been inverted and everything I knew about newspaper comics was a lie. Surely, there was some cryptic drollery I had overlooked. Frantically, I tried to translate the pictographic riddle into something I could recognize. The tires! It must be the tires! Are they new? Or maybe they're demonstrating the effectiveness of that new reinflation technology – the family didn't even notice the damage and was able to continue on with the gaiety of their day!
But no matter what weak formula I concocted, the result was always the same – The strip couldn't be funny. At least, not in it's typically wholesome way. And this is when I did it. I recontextualized the strip as hilarious because the family was so wholesome and lame. Who cared about the intentions of the cartoonist? Instantly in my head popped the image of a murderous serial killer sneaking up behind Pa Circus who, having pulled over onto the side of the road in order to diligently replace the tire, doesn't hear the terrified screams of warning from his family trapped inside the vehicle.
Okay, so it's a little messed up, but if you're one of the many readers who experiences the corny/non-existent "humor" of the funnies on a daily/weekly basis, then you'll understand the sentiment and appreciate the hilarity of such a situation. That's not to say all newspaper strips are this bad. Calvin and Hobbes, for example, was a great example of comics strips done right. Other strips, like Dilbert and Foxtrot have varied, experiencing ups and downs in the quality of their humor, but the era of good newspaper comics seems to be fading, somehow usurped by the mindless gunk that makes up today's typical funnies page. But that's where recontextualizing comes in.
As it turns out, recontextualizing the dailies has a strong community presence on the Internet. The phenomenon encompasses a surprisingly lengthy history and wide range of techniques (which The Comic Strip Doctor discusses in detail better than I ever could), from the base and simple (See: Joe Mathlete Draws a Nipple on Ziggy's Nose So That His Nose Looks Like A Titty) to the absurdly complex and bizarre (Lasagna Cat). The effect is often incredibly amusing, extremely profound, intriguingly philosophical, or some combination of the above. Sure, I had seen The Nietzsche Family Circus (pairing up random panels from the series with random Nietzsche quotes) and Marmaduke Explained (deconstructing the comic with elaborate explanations), but as I dug deeper, I began to find yet more fascinating (and disturbing) things. While the long-favored-now-dead Dysfunctional Family Circus reigned supreme for a good time, the most common abuse has always (arguably) been that of Garfield. Many a commentary were made about the comic simply by altogether removing portions of dialogue, sequentiality, or even characters (one of my new favorites of this variation being garfield minus garfield). Other netizens chose the method of adding something wonderful to the world by commenting on a strip via the strip itself (more excellent examples
can be found here).
And before you begin to think this activity lowbrow and juvenile, know that even the The New Yorker's ongoing caption contests are, underneath their malformed husks, still a type of recontextualizing (well, contextualizing anyway). Of course, that doesn't stop people from going meta and recontexualizing the contextualizing contest.
Still, the most surprising of my discoveries came when the Internet led me full circle to discover a few precious examples of unadulterated comic strips whose bizarreness/inappropriateness allow them to stand unabashedly on their own in my now-forgiving eyes:
These... fulfilling experiences were often highlighted in blogs whose express purpose were to pick apart the strange and disturbing from the daily comic supply simply by analyzing them realistically.
The classic Comics Carmudgeon (because on the Internet, three and a half years is 'classic') was among the first to do this, not merely focusing on a single comic series, but treating them all with equal 'wtf?'-ness. The aforementioned Marmaduke Explained has also become well-known and is now accompanied by the more recent Family Circus Explained iterations and Garfield: permanent Monday - each one following the same formula of clever/over-explanation. Yet still more critical approaches have been taken by The Silent Penultimate Panel Watch (policing the lazy usage of penultimate panels everywhere) and Comics I Don’t Understand (speaks for itself).
So what's the point of any of this? Why do fans and critics alike bother investing so much time in mocking/honoring (depending on your perspective) their newspaper dailies? While the specific motives may differ, I can't help but feel that at least some of it is fueled by frustration. In some ways, newspaper comics almost feel, at least to me, like a subjecting force. We don't have to read them, but if we don't, they linger there awkwardly in the paper, seducing us with promises that this time, this time, it will be worthwhile and oh-what-good-times-we'll-have. It's only a matter of moments before we finally give in to the siren call and find ourselves soon after broken and tear-drenched, ashamed that we ever dared hope we could enjoy our funnies. But recontextualizing is our bastion of hope from this ever-degrading cycle. It gives us back the power to read our comics with mirth and good cheer. Yes, I can honestly say that the experience of recontexualizing has restored my ability to love newspaper funnies again. You too might give it a try - you won't be disappointed.