Crude Caricatures

A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist goes slumming


That most of the current crop of daily cartoons is reprehensible garbage created by uninspired hacks is almost beyond debate. The comics page, which has the potential to be the newspaper's greatest opportunity for per-capita insight and wit, is instead a depressing ghost town of lazy draftsmanship and exhausted Catskills repartee. Sundays are even worse, probably because with the color and expanded format, one's expectations are higher.

When Gary Larson put "The Far Side" to pasture, the world of syndicated cartoons became a much dimmer place. When Bill Watterson quit "Calvin and Hobbes," the lights almost went out entirely. Outside of "Doonesbury," "Dilbert," "Sylvia" and perhaps a few others, the world of daily strips is a dismal dung heap of tired household observations, grade school moralizing and numbingly obvious witticisms about golf, lawn mowing and pets.

In a sea of watery gruel brewed by cynical shysters, probably the most distasteful is "Pluggers." A one-panel cartoon co-created and drawn by Jeff MacNelly, "Pluggers" is syndicated by Tribune Media Services and runs in about 70 major newspapers, reaching about 10 million readers a day. Using a wide cast of animals -- bears, dogs, elephants -- dressed like people, the cartoon sets forth the notion of the "Plugger," a simple creature so named because he apparently "plugs away" at life. Pluggers are made out to be your average Joes. They work on their cars, they fix their own storm windows and they're not afraid to get under the sink to mess with the plumbing. In its depiction of blue-collar life, "Pluggers" seems bent on being the "Roseanne" or "Home Improvement" of daily cartoons.

"Pluggers" usually consists of some kind of sight gag, where MacNelly illustrates some presumably elemental truth about the life of a Plugger. Typically, the cartoon contrasts the glamorous world of the wealthy and privileged with the stripped down, back-to-basics, low-budget world of the Plugger. One cartoon from last year showed a flannel shirt-clad bear holding a floor mat for his car. The caption said, "To a plugger, interior decorating means new floor mats." Another featured a dog wearing a pinstriped suit, looking at his analog watch. The caption read, "A plugger's digital watch." These are, sadly enough, two of the wittier examples of the cartoon.

Okay, so "Pluggers" is obvious and thunderously unfunny. So what? Well, if "Pluggers" were created by the cartoonist equivalent of Jeff Foxworthy, it would be dismissable as the unfortunate spawn of a folksy, mediocre stand-up comic. But "Pluggers" seems more calculating than that.

If you visit the cartoon's elaborate Web site -- do pluggers have elaborate Web sites? -- you learn that "Pluggers" was not created by some working class hack, but by nothing less than a committee. Reading the site's voluminous background information, you learn that "Pluggers" was conceived in 1993 by a group of five middle-aged men, none of whom seems to have much in common with the proletariat they seek to depict. One is a successful entrepreneur. One is a TV sitcom writer. Another is the "former CEO of a major American company." MacNelly, who prepped at Phillips Academy, is the well-off, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, who lives in the "rolling hills" of Virginia and collects antique cars. These people are Pluggers?

One of the cartoon's first-ever panels, following its debut in 1993, featured that same dumpy bear punching a time clock. The caption read, "If you've ever punched a time clock, chances are you're a plugger." Whether MacNelly and his cabal of current and former CEOs have ever punched a time clock is dubious. And that makes all the more disagreeable the self-important and vaguely jingoistic way the creators promote the cartoon. In the Web site's bit on "Plugger philosophy," Pluggers are defined in phrases that appear to have been lifted from an early draft of Dole's forthcoming acceptance speech: "They're the nation's team players -- the honest dealers, the deadline meeters, the hangers-in-there. They're the everyday wit-and-grit heroes this great nation truly depends on." (It really says that.) Also, we learn that this "good-hearted majority of Americans" are "deeply committed to democracy;" that they "use technology, but don't go gah-gah (sic) over it;" and that they try "to keep life simple, uncomplicated." Can you imagine such a vainglorious manifesto from Broom Hilda or The Wizard of Id?

With the rampant popularity of country music and shows like "Home Improvement" and "Roseanne," the cartoon's creators obviously saw an opening. While many other daily strips depict meat-and-potatoes heartland people, none has dared to do so with such self-aggrandizing verve. But where a show like "Roseanne" was created as a reaction to rosy-world fare like "The Cosby Show," and has always been fueled by Roseanne's strong beliefs and genuine rage, "Pluggers" smacks of the same glib marketing calculation that brought us programs like "America's Funniest Home Videos." That show's host, Bob Saget, has such tangible distaste for his insipid material and for the show's undemanding audience that you can hear the contempt in almost every syllable he speaks. Like Saget, MacNelly is capable of better work. (Three times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his often brilliant editorial cartooning, MacNelly also produces "Shoe," a daily strip of considerable wit and sophistication.) With "Pluggers," MacNelly and his committee of clever entrepreneurs are slumming.

Perhaps the most insufferable thing about "Pluggers," however, is its audacious claim to be speaking for an entire class of people. Soon after asserting, unconvincingly, that "Pluggers" is not about "rednecks or blue collars," the Web site informs us that the cartoon has spearheaded "a new American philosophy -- pluggerism," and then refers to itself as this burgeoning group's "philosophical pilot light."

Please. If there is anything that unites the luckless readers of "Pluggers," it's not their good hearts or work ethic or belief in the American Way. It's their bad taste in cartoons.

Dave Eggers is the editor of Might magazine. He is a regular contributor to Media Circus.