Thursday, January 04, 2007

Culture Shock 01.04.07: 'Lio' brings macabre humor to comics pages

If you're a reader of The Daily's comics pages, you've probably already noticed the change. Gone is longtime favorite "FoxTrot," and in its place is newcomer "Lio."

Changes on any newspaper's comics page don't come easy. Every strip has its following — although what some of you see in "Family Circus" I'll never understand. Drop one strip, and the outcry is so intense that you'd think you'd been caught drowning puppies.

But this time, the change was forced upon us when "FoxTrot" cartoonist Bill Amend decided to scale back his workload. He is now drawing only the Sunday strip, which The Daily still carries.

Normally, I'd be extremely upset by all of this. "FoxTrot," along with "Dilbert" and "Mutts," is one of my favorite strips, not counting reruns of "Peanuts." But even I must admit that we and other newspapers that have started carrying "Lio" in place of "FoxTrot" have traded up.

When I first learned about "Lio," I read all of the old strips going back to May 15, when it began syndication. I was amazed. No kidding, "Lio" isn't your typical comic strip.

"Lio" has a surreal, sometimes even macabre sense of humor that owes more to Charles Addams' "Addams Family" cartoons for The New Yorker than to anything currently appearing in the funny pages.

The title character is a little boy and aspiring mad scientist with a menagerie of bizarre pets — including a squid — and a habit of encountering menacing characters, from vampires and extraterrestrials to ants bent on world domination and the kite-eating tree that once menaced Charlie Brown.

Speaking of Charlie Brown, it's also not unusual for Lio to meet other comic-strip characters, or reasonably facsimiles. In one strip, Lio meets a homeless man with a small, stuffed tiger. The man is a thinly disguised Calvin from Bill Watterson's late, lamented strip "Calvin and Hobbes."

And the man has a sign that says, "Retired too early. Please help."

Part of Lio's charm is that he is keenly aware that he is a character in a comic strip. "Lio" is certainly not the first postmodern comic strip, but it is one of the few since "Krazy Kat" to bring a consistently postmodern, absurdist sensibility to daily newspapers.

The man behind "Lio" is Mark Tatulli, who also writes and draws the strip "Heart of the City" and is post-producer for the cable TV shows "Trading Spaces" and "A Wedding Story."

Tatulli, 43, who lives in Philadelphia, describes "Lio" as a pantomime strip with minimal text and seldom any dialogue.

The drawings tell the stories. That means each strip demands more attention than it takes to get the latest iteration of a Garfield-hates-Mondays joke.

With the retirement of Watterson, the demise of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" and the passing of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz, some have wondered if there is any life left in the daily comic strip. And, as an industry, daily newspapers have not helped matters, as we've been forced to scale back the space we devote to comics.

But "Lio" gives me hope that the daily comic strip may yet have some life left.

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