One of the more entertaining newspaper comic strips these days is Mallard Fillmore. Why it's entertaining is something else altogether.
It's not because of the writing. The strip features precious little characterization (only two true recurring characters - Mallard and his boss Mr. Noseworthy), and it has absolutely no ongoing narrative or structure to it. And certainly the strip's title is most likely to make you think, "Didn't that joke go out sometime around the Roosevelt administration? Theodore's, I mean?"
It's not because of the art, either. Creator Bruce Tinsley's work has a certain rough charm, but his feel for body language and caricature is just bizarre. Picture the vibrant and amusing art of Jim Borgman (who illustrates the terrific strip Zits); now picture Borgman drawing the strip after downing a cup filled with one-half Nyquil and one-half Ex-Lax, and that's sort of what Mallard looks like: Sleepy and rushed all at the same time.
No, what makes Mallard entertaining is the overall premise and execution (an apt word, that): Tinsley is a conservative cartoonist writing a strip about a conservative duck working in a newsroom. Working within (or, perhaps, all around) that thin premise, Tinsley spends most of his effort trotting out one after another tired old conservative diatribe against moderates and liberals. His dunderheaded notion of satire occasionally hits the mark of some very, very large targets (I mean, let's face it; Jesse Jackson is a pretty ripe apple in politics these days), but mainly Tinsley seems just desperate to find a choir to preach to. One can easily imagine the legions of conservative Yes-Men who populate this nation nodding along with Tinsley's cartoons, a smirk on their faces resembling that which Tinsley perplexingly plasters on the faces of his liberal targets.
It's things like "the smirk" which lends the strip its essential intrigue. Why are these people smirking? Are they part of some joke that the rest of us aren't in on? Are they all being play-acted by Jonathan Frakes? Has Tinsley taken too much Ex-Lax again? The hopes that questions like this will someday be answered keep one reading, despite the rarity with which Mallard ever approaches anything which might even charitably be called a story.
I suspect Tinsley feels terribly proud of himself for making Mallard a newsman in a world of what he imagines are liberal newsmen. As is usually the case where conservative pundits are involved, the fact that most media outlets are owned by large - giant, even - corporations, corporations whose political interests tend to be conservative in the extreme, never enters into the picture. (The notion that US politics is itself extremely right-wing is also right out in Tinsley's world. In the real world, Democrats generally might best be described as "moderate", with a few fringe elements who might be considered "liberal". The Republicans, of course, generally only appear to border on anything resembling "moderate" when election season rolls around and they realize that oppressing women and workers tends not to win them votes. And, of course, appearances can be deceiving.)
So Mallard is an amusing look at a decidedly bent world-view. I even sometimes wonder whether Tinsley himself believes all this stuff. Maybe some editor made him an offer he can't refuse. "Hey, Bruce! Come up with a conservative comic strip and we'll pay you tons of dough! And you don't even have to make it believable!" But that seems a bit too cynical even for me.
I imagine there must be collections of Mallard, though it's hard to see why anyone'd bother. Unlike Doonesbury, with its ongoing weird soap operas and surrealist humor, Mallard is either timelessly trite, or entirely topical.
Mallard had a week-long series recently about a study showing that most Ivy League university professors consider themselves "liberal", while none consider themselves "conservative". Here's the beginning of the sequence:
Ignoring the nonsensical nature of that second strip above, Mallard then dutifully goes out to interview a Harvard professor to find out if there are any conservatives around. The gag here, of course, being to suggest that universities are The Enemy, because they're stacked with liberal professors turning Our Kids against us Good Conservatives, and that this is a problem which must be fixed.
What really amused me about this sequence, though, was that Tinsley carefully avoids any hint of what seems an obvious idea suggested by this study:
Education tends to make people more liberal!
Think about it: Although the US is by-and-large a fairly conservative nation (especially in its government), as we've become more educated over the last 200 years, we've tended to move to the left on a number of important issues: Slavery was ended; women got the right to vote; the civil rights act was enacted; welfare was created; abortion rights were confirmed; government programs such as the interstate system were created; a progressive income tax was enacted, and so forth. Other western nations whose populations are overall more educated than ours are more liberal still.
And this neatly explains why conservatives are so hostile to the public education system, and seek to subvert it through a "voucher" system for religious schools, thus turning the educational experience into one of religious conservative indoctrination. (Voucher systems are doubly heinous in the way that they hurt public schools to the extent that the help parochial schools.)
Anyway, poking holes in the conservative "arguments" in Mallard Fillmore is fun, and it can help fill four or five seconds if your day between gulps of coffee. Knock yourselves out.
Coincidentally, writer Peter David also considers Mallard Fillmore in the latest (March 1, 2002) issue of Comics Buyer's Guide. He seems to pretty much agree with me, except that he doesn't find the strip's relentless nitwitness amusing. Ah, well.