The Comics Curmudgeon: What I Read

Josh Fruhlinger, better known as The Comics Curmudgeon, talks about the newspapers he still reads and their, well ... comics. Plus, he tells us about his favorite meth-addict Mary Worth character and how he ended up in the comics he lovingly mocks.

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How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a phone conversation with Josh Fruhlinger, stand-up comedian and Comics Curmudgeon blogger.

Well, I get up I turn on the computer. I do not use my phone because it is too small. I still use, because I'm an old person, a stand-alone RSS reader app called ReadKit. I have 168 feeds it in which is just insane. I've never done a full sweep of them since I started using RSS probably ten years ago or longer. But a lot of things that are newer sites, I now follow people on Twitter who tweet things that link to them. So I don't always add new things to the RSS reader.

I'm used to having a big screen, I feel like it's better for my eyes. I work at home, and I just go straight from the bedroom to the home office, and I have my giant monitor and I'm more comfortable with it. It's literally like a two-minute walk to the computer. And I keep the phone out of the bedroom anyway. I open the RSS reader and at the same time I open the browser and open Twitter. It's just sort of a crapshoot which one I look at first. One of the joys — and by joys I mean horrible, horrible things — of working at home is that the day never actually ends. The computer is always on; even if I'm not in the room, I wander back and check it. I have a Mac and the RSS reader is in the dock at the bottom and the little number is always getting bigger, so I'm constantly going back and forth to it.

My wife is more of a print magazine reader than I am. The only magazine I still look at regularly is the New Yorker, which we still get every week. I used to be much more of a print person. We got the print Baltimore Sun here until not that long ago, but partly we stopped because the Baltimore Sun is just such a terrible paper now and it seemed kind of silly to be paying for it. I used to live in the Bay Area and I got the San Francisco Chronicle. And then I got the Sun, and I really did get just a lot of my general interest news from the Sun because that would be the first thing I read in the morning, in national and international stuff. But now when I go online, I get political stuff from the  [Washington] Post and international stuff from the New York Times. Really, the only thing I want from the Baltimore Sun is local news at this point, which the Post is not going to provide.

The reason why the blog exists is that when I moved to Baltimore, the morning and evening papers had merged and so they still had the combined comics pages. The comics were like four pages long. And there were all sorts of comics I hadn't seen before. All the soap strips that I cover were in the Sun. I had always been a comics reader, but I had never seen those particular strips, and that's what got me started doing it in 2004.

A lot of the soap opera strips were jettisoned from the Sun not long after I started the blog, only a few months. At that point I started reading some or all of the strips online. I'm sure the Sun still has comics, but I'm sure it's a terribly sad and reduced section now.

If you know where to look, the images for the cartoons all go online a week in advance. Yesterday, all of next week's cartoons went up on the servers for two of the syndicates, which are the only ones I do now. I do the whole week's worth of my blog on Friday and Monday, and then I schedule it out in advance. I'm always at least one day in advance — almost always anyway. On days when I'm not doing a strip, I get all my media, my initial wave of reading things that have happened out of the way by like eight or so.

(Fruhlinger gently mocks a huge range of comics on his blog, many of which ceased being topical decades ago but still publish daily strips).

B.C. was hella Christian until [creator] Johnny Hart died, and now it's just sort of mild. He had a goofy strip about cavemen and then in the '70s or '80s he stopped drinking and found Jesus and then all of the sudden, his cavemen were all Christian, which is like chronologically weird. Then he died in like 2008 or so, and his grandson or his son-in-law took it over and now that element is not as prevalent. There's still occasional "Jesus gets name-checked on Easter," but it's not quite as in-your-face. But it's no more anachronistic for the cavemen to be wearing eyeglasses than it is for them to be worshiping Jesus.

I think Crock and Wizard of Id don't have an explicit ideological orientation; they're reactionary because they're created by old people. Although Wizard of Id does have a disturbing streak of thinking that torture is really hilarious and depicting it in fairly … not realistic ways, but explicit ways. Like, oh, you're having red-hot coals poked into your skin, it's funny!

It's an art form that I find interesting, and Crock is just something that I never had anything nice to say about because I think it's poorly drawn and not funny at a really base level. I'm sure you can dig up the old books from the '70s and they're good and original and groundbreaking, but it still shouldn't be in hundreds of newspapers.

The world of newspaper comics is really small. Everyone knows each other and as someone writing about it on the internet, I know that people know I exist. With some of the older artists, I assumed, "Oh, they don't know that I'm doing this." All of a sudden, one day in Crock, there was this strip.

For those who don't know, Crock is set in a sort of fake French-foreign-legion in Algeria sort of thing. So there's this foreign legionnaire that was injured in a battle. His name was, like, Frudlinger, which I didn't even register was supposed to be me. He'd been injured somehow — maybe he'd been brain damaged? And then he says, "I'm going to move to Baltimore and start a comics blog," and Crock orders the plug be pulled on him. I was like: This is baffling! I was really, really touched, but literally no one who reads this is going to understand what that joke was, except for me and people who read my blog. It was kind of amazing. I was sort of hoping it would be wrapped around a brick and thrown through my window, but, alas, it was not.

Having done this for so long, I now completely understand and relate to the fact that you find the sort of things that are funny and then you just keep doing them. Whenever I do a joke now, I'll get a nagging feeling and I'll wonder, did I do this joke before? Thank God for Google because I'll be like, I did it in 2008 and I did it in 2006, unless I decide to make a meta-joke about how I keep doing the same joke. Sometimes the strips will run repeats, but not explicitly. They'll just be like, "I'll get this strip from five years ago to my editor and see if anyone notices." I discovered that sometimes that happens and I'll make a joke about it and think, this sounds really familiar. I'll look it up and that strip will have run five years earlier, and I would have made the same joke about it.

My favorite character is probably Tommy, from Mary Worth, who is now back in the strip. He was in the very first Mary Worth storyline that I did on the blog and it was just so bonkers, and it really affirmed my belief that this was something people would enjoy. He had a brown paper bag of crystal meth, which he referred to as "stuff." That was ten years ago, and every few years in the strip they'd mention that he existed and I'd be so excited. Is Tommy coming back? Is Tommy coming back? — and then it really happened and it was like, this can't be real, it's just going to be a cameo. But no, he's there and he's on his mom's couch, and he's looking at porn, that's what he's doing now. He's supposed to be finding a job.

Mary Worth has had several internet-themed plots. A guy who was the son of Wilbur's girlfriend from college showed up and claimed to be Wilbur's son briefly, but then it just turned out he wanted money and then he left, and no grifting happened. And then there was one where Mary's dumb blonde friend got her identity stolen online, I think through a phishing scam. She tried to buy her husband — it was terrible — a CD of Scottish music. She was led down a terrible path where her identity was stolen.

I would like to live in the Judge Parker universe, under the specific circumstances that I am under the protection of the main character. Fabulous things happen to them all the time with no effort, and that's really the theme of the strip. They're incredibly wealthy people that people just give things to, and everything works out for them. There's not a lot of dramatic tension and they're all very blasé about it. I'd like to be adopted by them. They have two adopted daughters. I could be added to the clan. I think that would be nice.

My least favorite character? It's got to be Anthony, the terrible husband with the mustache on For Better or Worse. Oh, Anthony. That strip really elicited strong feelings in everyone, including me. The characters aged in real time, which was the gimmick and the thing that hooked people. Michael, the older brother, was the same age as me. He and I graduated the same year, and of course, whenever Michael did anything, my mother would call me. Like, when Michael got a book deal, oh my God.

He was kind of just bland, but he was emblematic of how the strip — because it was a strip that many people enjoyed for a while — became "I am going to wrap this up and everyone is going to be heteronormatively married off to someone exactly like them." He was sort of the focus of a lot of frustration around that. And his mustache was stupid as well.

My favorite storyline was a sort of well-done-but-wrapped-in-insanity Rex Morgan where he and this other guy have this long golf game in which they talk about how great single-payer healthcare is, which is kind of surprising. It was also crypto-closeted flirting and then the other guy turned out not to be a real doctor. So I'm not really sure if that was an endorsement. "Only people who pretend to be doctors like single-payer healthcare. Real doctors like freedom." I don't know.

The latest comic I've added to the rotation is Heathcliff, which, it turns out in its current iteration, is totally insane in a very bizarre way. I was familiar with Heathcliff, but he wasn't like a strip that I read everyday and decided that I was going to comment on it until people started sending me Heathcliff, and saying, "Are you reading Heathcliff? It's really weird."

Every once in a while I feel like I need to shake things up, but then I never do. We're all creatures of habit, which is why the comics exist. The comics used to be the thing that you first read in the newspaper. It was a way to hook kids in to the habit of newspaper reading. That's certainly what happened to me. The huge majority of people who read them — and this was even true when kids did read newspaper comics — are not children. They read them because they liked them as kids. There's a whole layer of nostalgia to the whole enterprise.

The guy from Slylock Fox is a big fan of my blog. I've met him several times. He drew me a Reeky Rat picture that I have hanging up. Francesco Marciuliano, who's the writer of Sally Forth, is now a friend of mine. He's a fan of the blog. Also, the guy that does the cartoons for the Jumble knows me. I've been put into the Jumble on several occasions, although I only know him online. There are caricatures of me in the Jumble, and it's always me being — I was put on trial at one point. That sort of thing.

I read a lot of web comics, which is one of my largest folders in my RSS feed reader. I don't talk about them in my blog, because it doesn't have the same cultural place. In terms of actually reading comics and enjoying them, that's one of my main things, but it doesn't work for what I do. I read soap opera-y, joke-y strips drawn by Dave Willis — Shortpacked and Dumbing of Age. I like Dinosaur Comics; I don't think I'm alone in that. Matt Lubchansky who writes for The Toast. He doesn't necessarily post super often, but I like him a lot. Overcompensating is a good one, and Wondermark.

David Malki who does Wondermark, used to sell bumper stickers at conventions that said "Garfield isn't funny" in that Garfield font. He told me that he was at a convention and this little eight-year-old girl came up to the table and saw that and she was like, no, actually Garfield's funny. And he said, "Hm, I think you'll find that he's not." And her parents were like, "Yeah, we tried to tell her he's not funny." Then he said a year later she came by and she said, "You know what? You're right. He's not funny." And he said, "I told you."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.