A Love Letter to Bill Amend’s FoxTrot

Image result for foxtrot

FoxTrot by Bill Amend occupies an odd place in the canon. It’s not the profound artistic achievement of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. It’s not a longform dramatic saga like Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury or Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse nor is it political satire like Trudeau’s genius work. It’s not the glorious weirdness of Gary Larson’s The Far Side. And it’s not the poignant nihlistic tragedy of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

And yet, I don’t think anyone will balk if I put it in the canon next to those strips. FoxTrot is one of those comics everyone I know within a certain segment of my generation knows by heart, at least for a few years. Like Calvin and Hobbes, it was a book fair staple and most of us definitely picked up at least or two volumes. (Or in my case all of them.) We read it in the newspaper. It matters to us.

It matters to us in a way other strips don’t too. FoxTrot felt to a great degree like a lightning bolt as a kid as the strip for us. Peanuts was funny but it took place in a nebulous time between the past and present. Calvin was too weird. By the time we were reading FBOFW, it was too serious to get.

FoxTrot though? It was for us. It was for us because it was wall to wall pop culture references that were day and date or even months in advance. The prerelease hype for Jurassic Park and Star Trek: Generations made it in as did comments on movie trailers around the time of release. It was current in a way strips never were.

It was also for us because it was written in our language. Peter, Paige, and Jason were frankly awful to each other in a way that never felt cartoonish. They acted like us. They talked like us. Even the parents felt real despite us never knowing how true they were because they were sarcastic, talked to each other like real people.

It was also on our level of comedy. It was sarcastic, sure. It was pop culture humor heavy definitely. But it also had impeccable physical comedy. Amend was proudly a cartoonist. He leaned into the beauty of a great expression, a great reaction shot, a bit of exaggeration. So it was damned funny.

It was also one of our first encounters with a satirical voice. Amend wasn’t afraid to skewer the media he loved. He mocked overhype when Jason and Marcus dared to ask if they were setting themselves up for a letdown before walking into Jurassic Park. (No.) There were blows at computer culture and how silly it was. He went after (and continues to go after) Disney with glee. We felt for the first time in on something.

All of that speaks to why FoxTrot felt great as a kid. But that doesn’t explain why it endured. Full House had an exceptionally funny cast and played to kids yet I doubt many of us feel the same now about it. Having recently binged this strip, I’m moved to ponder this. Why does FoxTrot last?

All the things I just listed remain completely true. It depicts real pop culture, not some imagined view. The characters are true to life. It’s still backbreaking funny. But there’s more.

Let’s start with the pop culture point as it’s the one that’s the most fascinating to perceive now. To read FoxTrot is to read a cultural history of the last 30+ years. And it doesn’t feel dated because none of the references ring false. Most are filtered through Jason and he’s a great everygeek. Jason’s reactions to these things either match how we felt or how we would feel. Jason also fixated on the things we absolutely did and still do. And again, the references are at times genius bonus level good. Amend clearly is one of us and thus the strip reads as record.

That geekery reflects how oddly personal the strip is. Amend is a World of Warcraft playing Springsteen fan who clearly loves sports. I don’t need sources for these. The writing on them–and we forget that the strip particularly in the 80s was the rare estuary of geek content and jock content–says it all. That said, his twitter feed gives away exactly how true this is. Maybe it’s not tremendous autobiography but it’s not anonymous.

And that winds up giving the strip a POV that sets it apart. Amend crafts a universal but very distinct world. Like all worlds, every choice is specific. And a lot of those small choices matter. Because this isn’t just a pop culture/family strip. It’s one that reflects a lot of realities that in 2005 we sure as hell weren’t really discussing and are still struggling with now.

So before I go any further, I’m giving you an out. I’ve spent over 800 words and I’ve got more to go. If you want to walk away on these and not dig into some thorny issues that are largely a matter of interpretation, walk away knowing I love the strip and that’s that. But part of why I love it gets tricky to discuss. So…here you go.

One of the things that as to be discussed regarding FoxTrot is the indisputable shift to Jason as the POV character. Beginning with the big summer long storyline in 1997, Jason’s stories dominated. Peter’s lovelife, Andy and Roger’s worklives, and Paige’s romantic dreams featured a lot less until the strip ceased in dailies in 2006. They were still there–and I think Jason’s dominance is a shade overstated–but less.  Jason is a geek. And geek communities haven’t been anything too positive to discuss in recent years. It would be so easy to find Jason an unbearable, cringeworthy figure in this light.

But Bill Amend created a character that I think has a lot to do with why FoxTrot is less a nostalgia fix for me and an almost shockingly fresh one that happens to mostly run 14-32 years ago. Eileen Jacobson rules. She just rules so hard. Eileen is the ultimate girl geek in comic strip form and her conflict turned playfully combative friendship with Jason made the strip’s last decade in daily form pop.

Eileen is the absolutely critical check Jason needed and the voice of the fangirl. She’s the girl gamer who pushes back on Jason’s immature behavior. At one point she pretends to be a stranger in WoW just to prove to Jason they’d be friends if he’d get over himself. She calls him out on his ludicrous LOTR vs Harry Potter beliefs (wow have we heard THAT before.) And she doesn’t put up with how poorly he treats her though she has some level more patience than in real life because she’s a comic strip character and needs to stay around.

Eileen honestly feels like a character who, if she were created for a long running series like she was in the mid 90s, would be despised by a certain segment of the fans. But that’s exactly why her thread feels important. Because Amend was on representing girl geeks early. Hell he even got an Asian girl geek in in 1997 in the form of Phoebe Wu. This feels modern, not dated in its mindset.

And once you look at FoxTrot as a strip ahead of the curve, you realize it didn’t start with Eileen. This forward thinking mentality pervades the strip from day one.

For one thing, Amend always wrote Andy and Paige pretty great. They’re give ample time with stories that let them be just as well fleshed out as others. Paige in particular is painted as an insecure, emotional teenage girl but Amend feels so hard for her. When she’s at her lowest the strip paints her feelings as understandable and normal, not funny. He even does a subtle touch of giving them their girl geeking. Andy gets to be fixated on Titanic and it’s just the same as Jason’s obsessions with the same relatable energy.

He also gives us a nice treatment of toxic men. When Peter shamelessly hits on girls (during his shockingly brief time as a single), he’s painted as an asshole. Paige encounters guys who act gross towards her and she gets to be extremely aggressive fending them off. Leering over the swimsuit issue even leads to Peter getting chewed out by Andy and it feels a hell of a lot like current discussions on Twitter. Trust me, this has not always been true in mass media. See the pornography addiction shared by Chandler & Joey on Friends.

But then there’s his handling of Peter’s girlfriend Denise. Honestly, reading her early strips prompted this entry to exist and it’s why it’s housed on my blog. Denise is a blind girl in a love interest role, the definition of a character unlikely to have agency. But she does. She’s depicted as angry that nobody lets her be independent and looks down on her at the same time she’s given a potent sex drive, at one point having Peter over to “tutor” her in a subject she’s an expert on as a pretext to making out. That’s a hell of a lot to give a supporting character in a comic strip when mainstream media can’t do that much.

FoxTrot has always been and in Sunday form remains a progressive strip. Yes, that’s definitely an interpretation of the text and not a direct reading but the evidence is there. It’s not perfect, as would be expected in a strip where everyone is a caricature to some degree, but it explains why the strip needs to be seen as a cut above.

FoxTrot isn’t the surreal Sgt. Pepper’s of its peers but it’s definitely the comics version of the early Beatles albums. You know when it was made but when you study it, it still feels like it’s fresh. It hasn’t stopped being funny. I doubt it ever will. It remains the brash, funny, relatable voice of its generation.

To Bill Amend, I raise my glass. Thank you.

The Profoundly Crushing Futility of Nostalgia

I have a story to tell.

When I was in my sophomore year of high school, so 19 years ago, on a rainy Sunday afternoon my mom and I drove an hour to go to the movies in Russellville, Arkansas with her sister. I remember everything about walking into that theater. I remember the Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 poster outside. I remember the giant banner for Dungeons and Dragons. I remember the 102 Dalmatians poster. I remember the cool interior of that theater and by cool I mean oddly cold and off with marble and dark lighting. I remember the stadium seating. What we saw was almost immaterial. That experience marked me so hard, even factoring in that three years later I would start weekly visits the the theater when I went to college in that town. That’s the trip I remember.

And nobody gives a damn about hearing that story. It’s the most meaningless story on earth. I went to see Meet the Parents at a theater I hadn’t been to before. Who cares? It shouldn’t be some halcyon story!

But it is because that’s the hell of nostalgia. Yes, I’m taking a moment to interrogate one of the most normal and even healthy impulses that humans live with. Have I written on this before? Probably. But I’m struggling with it this morning and I want to examine why exactly.

You have to understand that nostalgia is inevitable. We have times in our lives we’re glad we lived through. Particularly in stressful times, nostalgia is like a sheath letting us bask in that feeling. We relive those feelings and they nourish us when we can’t be nourished by the outside world. It’s a lovely feeling.

It’s useless though. It’s one of those experiences that should be a plus but it winds up becoming profoundly frustrating. Because it lives inside us and that does nothing to make us feel better eventually.

See part of the human experience is the desperate flailing to connect with others. And when we want to discuss our memories, we’re met with something disturbing. We encounter silence. Because is anyone truly that interested in hearing the happy times of others? And when we hit that silence, intended or not, our memories lose value.

It shouldn’t be this way. Not in any way. We shouldn’t rely on others for our lives to feel important. Our lives matter because they made us us. And we should be able to accept that our history isn’t going to impact others the way that it impacts us because it happened to us.

However there’s a concept I read about that put me in the mind to write this. My generation doesn’t have hobbies anymore. We’ve turned our hobbies into work such as earning revenue for making videos on youtube or the rise of Etsy. It’s particularly difficult when your hobby is writing, one which has been outright scorned if not done for money.

I don’t write fiction well. I tried a screenplay this season. I’m so unhappy with it I don’t want to look at it. I write nonfiction pretty great though. So I could theoretically write all of these things out. And I did. There’s a book on Amazon. But I didn’t do the happy times justice in the book because I knew nobody cared. I hit the high points and moved on.

I’m still carrying around this impulse to talk. But I’ve been led to believe by society that if I can’t make it of some value to others I should shut the hell up. I’m wasting my time. I need to not waste it for others.

There’s no denying the other factor. I want to know my life experiences mattered. I’m wrestling hard with violent depression and self doubt. I feel like I don’t add anything to the world. And I only seem to get personal validation by sharing stories about either my severe mental health issues or my traumatic childhood. (My review writing is justly seen but is highly impersonal.) Anything I write celebrating my past like my Huntsville piece might as well not exist.

So I’m living with this need to be heard and a message I’m getting from society that frighteningly reinforces that my pain gives me value. The things that actually give me strength are discarded.

And I don’t think I’m alone in wrestling with this. I think this is something we cope with as a society. We’re ignored when we’re happy and that doubles when it comes to our pasts. We require our histories to be filled with graphic pain. And I wish that wasn’t so. I wonder how much of depression is drawn from this overwhelming need as a society to ache to be heard.

This entry can’t by its nature reach a conclusion. Only a statement of truth. The year 2000 becoming 20 years ago has to inspire a giant wave of nostalgia. It was such a hyped year followed by a startlingly unimportant reality. I’m forever fixated on that disconnect just as I’m fixated on the slowly building depression I fought that year which hit an apex in the spring of 2001.

I want to talk. I probably will talk. And nobody will give a good god damn. And that has to be ok, like it or not. Because these memories aren’t going away.