Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An Underestimated Newspaper Strip

The zero-dialogue, four-panel strip Ferd'nand was in my local paper when I was a boy, and was one of my favorites. A few years ago, I started hunting for information about it on the web, and was amazed that I could find nothing at all. Eventually it turned out that by spelling it "Ferdinand" I was spoiling my search results. The strip is active and easily available on comics.com, the big web site for newspaper strips.
Without words, it is wholly dependent on what Ivan Brunetti calls "the language of cartooning." Crisp, original dialogue married to well crafted cartoon messages (that is, the dialogue in the art) carries the best strips forward, but Ferd'nand is wholly reliant on the cartoon language for its message. This makes it a showcase for the cartoon language and an excellent case study for developing cartoonists. 
Ferd'nand's repertoire does not include every aspect of the cartoon language, as some are simply incongruent with who he is. Together with his wife and son and occasionally a baby, Ferd'nand presents the distinct ethnic pose of the immigrant, where every aspect of his new country presents a strange adventure, comic pratfall or delicious triumph. The diversity of his vocations -- he has had every conceivable job -- gives his life the backdrop of the American Dream, and a sunny optimism lost in the new breed of cynical, squinting, wisecracking strips.
Ferd'nand's emotions are always true. Nothing is pumped up to try to telegraph a weak message. True emotions make a character seem more alive. Web and newspaper comics today are rife with overstatement, exaggerated reactions and gimmicky eye depictions. All comic artists should study Ferd'nand. Try your hand at adapting some of your characters to a silent strip format. Artist Henrik Rehr makes it look easy. The great ones are always deceptive that way.