The Slightly Less Gray Lady

I make my students read the New York Times, and many of them think it’s boring. My knee-jerk reaction, as a journalism professor, is to defend it. And while I still do think the Times is probably the best newspaper in the country, I’ve also come to agree with my students. The Times is boring.

But it got slightly less boring last Sunday with the publication in the Times Magazine of a brilliantly conceived yet poorly executed new section that the editors have dubbed “The Funny Pages.” The Funny Pages are divided into three promising sections:

I. The Strip. The first edition of The Strip is an architectural comic of some sort by Chris Ware. I admire Chris Ware quite a bit, and have assigned his graphic novel, ‘Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth’ to my students. His drawings are spectacular and his stories are touching. They’re not particularly funny though. The first episode involves the interior monologue of a townhouse. Don’t know where this is going, but I’m intrigued enough to keep reading even though it’s neither a strip nor funny.

II. True-Life Tales. The editors say that these will be comic short essays in the mold of James Thurber or David Sedaris, both of whose feet I’m not good enough to kiss. Comic short essays are an underappreciated form, and a regular outlet for them would be great. This first one, by Elizabeth Gilbert and about yoga in the South is OK. I didn’t laugh out loud, but these are hit-or-miss. I’ll forgive. Especially since I see these as an antidote to the maudlin “Lives” column that is always on the last page of the Times Magazine. I describe the “Lives” personal essays to my students as “The Day I Found Out I had Cancer was the Day my Cat Died.”

III. Sunday Serial. The third part of The Funny Pages is the second that’s not even intended to be funny (then why the name?). It’s a serialized short novel by Elmore Leonard, who writes comic crime novels. This one is some sort of World War II-era mystery story that so far has a German soldier killing himself in a POW camp in Oklahoma. Where it goes from there I don’t know. I’m not hooked yet, but I got my friend Jason to hold a newspaper for three minutes and read it (though I’ve had success in handing him the crossword, too). And that’s enough of an accomplishment for me.

I’ll keep watching this to see where it goes. I just wish it had a bolder graphic identity. There’s an article on Slate right now about the bold graphics of the old New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s paper. Take the talents behind the Funny Papers and let them loose on a broadsheet, and maybe we’ll have something interesting. For now though, this is a not-so-terrible start.

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