By nature and by tradition, newspaper comic strips are populist ballyhoo, a capitulation to the masses. Newspaper moguls have always used the same yardstick to determine which comics to carry and which news to cover, and pictures and words are the marketing gimmicks behind the dailies’ lucrative ad-selling business. The phrase “yellow journalism” borrowed its sensational color from the funnies before it ever referred to writing. But if it’s history that determines the place of newspaper strips in the popular mind, the shape the form’s humor has traditionally taken—lazy, sexist, Catskillian, anonymous—is even more unbudgeable. In the short, hundred-year history of the funnies, the fun ossified young.

Daily newspapers that carry comics are a strange, old-fashioned breed: a stiff format for the imparting of cultural information, widely reported (in the papers themselves) to be moribund, that also harbors the raucous, vulgar people’s pages fit only for children and imbeciles. It doesn’t matter that newspaper content itself has become so soft, cheesy, and eager to please—even London’s rigorously comicsless Times has grown weary of shoving forkfuls of fibrous international news at a public craving lifestyle Slurpees—the forms’ differences are of kind, not degree. There’s no comics-page equivalent to sober front-page analyses, and no fluffy style-section evergreen on a bad day can match for pointlessness and distrust of pleasure Cathy on a good one.

If reading is stepping into a private universe, reading the comics is like stepping into a universe not just private but nontransferable. All that hilarity, all those drawing styles, all that implied farce—”action lines,” plummeting superheroes, mailman collisions, children literally backflipping with surprise—lying static on the page. You open the comics section, and you can’t believe One Big Happy is happening to other readers. The pages are like a benign sort of nightmare—the best thing about them is the relief that no one else need know.

Which is not to say they’re horrible; they’re just totally irrelevant. The reason a strip (or panel) takes the country by storm is that it manages to matter to us, here, now. The Far Side hit our most cherished cultural mores right in the tender spot. Calvin and Hobbes refused to buy the myth of childhood’s innocence, a myth central to the idea of comic strips, and made imagination look risky and liberating. Where many of the older comics are sitcoms—the same basic cutouts of situations and characters held up to different backdrops—Dilbert could only take place in a modern office staffed by characters as idiosyncratic as they are recognizable.

The drunk, the layabout, the shrew, the virgin, the tyrant, the coward—most comic-strip types are caricatures of the coarsest kind, none of them flattering, except perhaps to the virgin, and she is that inhuman thing, the inviolate, characterless vessel for her panelmates’ discomfort. Couples seething with sexual resentment have always thickly populated the comics pages, from The Lockhorns to The Bickersons to the inhabitants of Grin and Bear It, and their strife resonates heartily in the thudding mother-in-law cracks, the prurient treatment of young women, the me-Venusian/you-Martian couple byplay in old strips squeezed dry of humor (Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, which, if never funny, is at least inoffensive) and strips like The Born Loser and the odious Sally Forth, which fancy themselves modern. (Let’s not even talk about Momma.) The attitude toward marriage on display in these pages is not only hateful but consistent—unhappy families are all unhappy in the same way, and, worse, for the same reasons. Only Blondie and Dagwood, after all those years together, are untouched by acrimony disguised as gibing; plus, it’s funny every time Dagwood crashes into the mailman.

There are bright spots amid all this neurotic pre-Freudian shadow. Perhaps the bravest and most frustrating strip today is Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse. Johnston has an unnerving honesty; it isn’t the occasional cameos by gay teenager Lawrence that should shock fans, but the Sunday she drew Elizabeth, then 14 or 15, on a summer jaunt with friends, frolicking, drinking beer, driving, making out with some guy she just met—and never referred to it again. It was striking that such a careful chronicler of family life would allow the family dog to die so horribly—she killed off Farley in a river drama—but even more striking that for a day or two readers suspected it might be youngest daughter April who had drowned; Johnston is just rigorous enough to try it. But between these fearless sallies, she retreats, and even if we sense Weed’s alcoholism or Tracy and Gordon’s business failure just around the corner, Johnston seems content to glide, blinkered, around her own foreshadows.

The same jokes, the same characters, the same stale, alien attitudes, the same affection for golf increasing as their creators age—in three pages of this purposeless paste there’s little room to hear another point of view, even if it’s as harmless as that of Curtis. There have to be African-American artists out there, although it’s a sure bet that the people who choose the strips will insist there simply aren’t. But if Robb Armstrong can make something as simple as Jump Start happen (although not in the Post), surely young artists with even marginally more assertive strips are being turned away for the unspoken charge of being “too black.”

But somehow there is room for the parading of private beliefs in the most belligerent manner. Johnny Hart, now a froth-mouthed Christer nutcase with a flaming sword in one hand and an increasingly shaky pen in the other, seems to have forgotten what “B.C.” stands for as he draws his offensive, self-righteous, tyrannical admonishments each Christmas and Easter, and bullies us—all us “cute chicks” and “fat broads” and “four eyes”—at random intervals the rest of the year because it’s assumed we’re not doing right by his vengeful god. Hart should have been banned from the comics pages at the moment of his conversion—if not for offensiveness, then for senility. Although, to be fair, that never stopped Hank Ketcham.

Most comics-page humor, whether dated or progressive, falls within established boundaries—even a strip as absurdly well drawn as newcomer Liberty Meadows keeps its jokes free of the boldness and experimentation creator Frank Cho revels in with his art. Cartoonish humor has its language, one that may have sprung from cultural mythology or mere pervasiveness, that is spoken nowhere but understood on those three pages. The antiquated lexicon still translates easily, although you wouldn’t find the front page throwing around such cavalier symbols—igloos, tepees, Christmas carolers, XXX’d jugs of moonshine, nickel lemonade stands, neighborhood-bars-as-confessionals, even stodgy visions of heaven and hell. Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs, a TV cartoon too smart for many kids, uses retro-chic as its excuse for employing classic animation conventions; a hungry character will be accompanied by a few bars of “Shortnin’ Bread,” anvils are a popular weapon (followed by pianos, safes, and flowerpots, in that order), and any spurious idea is received by a thought bubble containing a screw and a baseball.

There is one aged strip, however, that is carrying on a wholly different tradition—it never depended on humor—one that has died out everywhere but within its own small daily rectangle. Mark Trail was once the proud purveyor of American can-do innocence, a slow-moving amble through the life of ranger Trail and his pals, fiancée Cherry, and other folks who would not be out of place giving Nancy Drew a hand if she were investigating The Secret of Black

Bear Creek.

Educational as well as entertaining, Mark Trail is Boy Scout-macho, conceived from a tradition that stretches back as far as our country’s history, touching Meriwether Lewis, Huck Finn, and Daniel Boone along the way. Wilderness expertise and personal rectitude so unshakable it’s almost priggish are the attributes of such a character, and America has long forgotten to respect him. We haven’t forgotten he exists, of course, but the obsessive perfection of David Lynch’s Special Agent Dale Cooper with his almost insane admiration for the trees and the souls of the dead throws suspicion on all Ranger Rick types. After Twin Peaks, nothing rustically pleasant ever looked the same again.

In our world, Mark Trail co-exists with our knowledge of Twin Peaks and the myriad other available worlds of popular entertainment, but Mark Trail itself harbors no room for such self-knowledge. Insular, rambling, incomprehensible, Mark Trail would be strange even if it were but one fish in a barrel of such product. But, stranded on a tiny ice floe as all other expressions of this brand of American heroism melted away, the strip has become outsider art at its most outlandish, babbling to us with misleading calm on a daily basis.

The human characters are oddly proportioned (big, square heads) and look suspiciously alike; the animals are lovingly crafted down to their toepads. The daily three-panel strip often follows a pattern—one scene drawn in deep perspective, another a pleasing middle-distance composition. In between we “overhear” the people talking while watching a small animal perform some intimate bit of grooming very close up. Cavorting heedlessly or licking themselves thoughtfully, the animals go on being animals even while Mark and his modestly attired cast expound on animal behavior: “This is Sally. She’s a little spooky but she’s a good dog.” Yeah, spooky dogs.

Mark Trail may be unique by default (or forfeit), but it must, at some level, also be unusually plucky to speak to us so hopefully every single day, not admitting that no one else speaks its language. But in the context of those three maddening pages of riotous id—petty feuding, soapbox ranting, venomous prejudice, and joke-mill profiteering—no voice is that much more archaic than any other.—Arion Berger