The National Comics League

I love Luann. It is, to confess, a weakness. That goofy, button-nosed plain-Jane always-a-teen has had me bewitched for years.

In a household that still gets the local newspaper — an honest-to-God bunch of newsprint that is filled with news, more or less, and is delivered in a little plastic bag onto our driveway every dawn — Luann remains one of my regular morning appointments. She’s right there on the comics page, back of the Living section, in my Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Luann. I know her so well. I remember Quill, her first real boyfriend. I thought that was the real thing. I now think she’s going to end up with ox-ish but good guy Jack. I know all her friends; Bernice, Dez. Her brother, Brad. Her folks. Puddles, her dog. I know about her little rivalry with Tiffany.  I think they’ll be frenemies forever.

jeremyZits is great, too. Jeremy (<) is a hoot. My wife and I have long believed that Jim Borgman, the artist and a former editorial cartoonist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, took his inspiration for Jeremy Duncan, the guitar-slapping sneakerhead at the heart of Zits, straight from our son Luke. Borgman probably gets that a lot.

Baby Blues is fantastic. I like Pearls Before Swine, except when the artist draws himself in, or has one of those ridiculously long Sunday puns. I still stop by to see how Beetle Bailey is doing.

Which leads me, in a blog posty roundabout way, to my buddy Jack, who long ago came up with the idea for the National Comics League.

I don’t remember exactly how it worked, but the NCL was an attempt to crown the best strip on the comics page. It was founded close to 30 years ago, while both Jack and I were covering the early ’90s Cincinnati Bengals. We clearly were looking for things to do during the Dave Shula Era.

The NCL was set up like this (pay attention; it gets complicated):

We read the comics each day. We assigned each strip a score, 1-5. We compared our scores.

That was pretty much it, as I recall.

Jack worked up a schedule — as the founder and commissioner, he did the heavy lifting — and some time before we’d have to stand around for afternoon practice, we’d reveal our scores for that day’s matchups. We’d record the wins, losses and ties. This went on for a few weeks (again, the ’90s Bengals were no joy to cover) and got so involved that Jack had to come up with a standings page. That, truthfully, was maybe the best of it.

((An aside here, as given away by the double parentheses: It’s hard to relay just exactly how miserable those early ’90s Bengals teams were to endure. In both 1993 and ’94, just a few years after a Super Bowl appearance that I missed, they went 3-13. They lost their first 10 games in ’93, and their first eight the year after. They never had a shot. Their seasons were effectively over before they were half-over. God, it was terrible.

((Dave Shula, the son of NFL coaching great Don, was a young, extremely nice fellow who was, as history clearly shows, overmatched on the coaching side of things with the Bengals. His players rebelled at times, and his assistant coaches undercut him. But Dave-mo also ran into some extremely bad luck. The Bengals had two No. 1 draft picks at the time, running back Ki-Jana Carter and defensive lineman “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson, who never amounted to anything. And Dave-mo — I don’t know why we called him that, but we did — was saddled with pretty miserable talent other than that, too.

((It’s often said in sports scribe circles that a bad team is easier to cover, easier to make sense of, than a mediocre team. The idea is that, with a bad team, at least you know. You’re not fooled into thinking that it might be good. All I can say is nobody who said that ever sat through a desultory run like those early ’90s Bengals were on. Whew. The players were miserable. They made the scribes miserable. Dave-mo, as nice as he was, had no answers. There was zero humor to be found in Cincinnati in those days.

((So we turned to the comics.))

We, Jack and I (because no other scribes saw the gag potential in it), decided we had to break the NCL into different divisions. Jack would update the standings, by hand, every day.  Wasn’t complicated. Looked something like this:

Central Division
Calvin and Hobbes 5 2 0 .714
Far Side 4 2 1 .643
Blondie 3 3 1 .500
Beetle Bailey 3 3 1 .500

This went on for a while until, like the XFL and the WNBA, interest waned and the league dissolved, never to be heard from again. I brought it up to Jack a few months ago. Even in retirement, evidently, he has better things to do. Or that gag had been run into the ground. Whatever.

Still, it might be time, I think, for a renewal of the old NCL. People love nostalgia. Even as newspapers continue to fold, comics seem to live. Some natural storylines are there to be had in the new NCL.

  • Can old stalwart Beetle Bailey take on Jeremy and Zits?
  • Can Blondie and her 89-year-old gags stay fresh against Pearls Before Swine?
  • Who makes the cut for the league? Who gets left out? (Sorry, Family Circle. You don’t stand a chance against Baby Blues.)

Far Side is long gone, and so, sadly, is maybe the best strip ever, Calvin and Hobbes.

But there is hope for the new NCL. There’s Luann.


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