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Comics I Don’t Understand » The Essential 10

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The Essential 10

on Dec 31st 2015

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In Autumn of 2015, I asked you to send me your lists of specific comics that are so “essential,” we can assume that most fans of the genre will be familiar with most if not all of them.

Over 60 of you responded, sending me 67 different comics, well over 200 comics in all, most of which got multiple votes. Before I list the top 10 (actually 16 because of a 9-way tie, this is the Close But No Segar list:

Doonebury: “Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!” (which was on my personal list)

Peanuts: “Hold My Hand, Chuck”

Bloom County: “Death Star”

B.C.: “Clams Got Legs!”

James Thurber: “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption”

Peanuts: “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” (the original appearance)

And for the statistics-obsessed: Far Side was cited most often, 11 times; James Thurber 8; Calvin and Hobbes 6; The New Yorker (not including James Thurber and Charles Addams) 6; and Charles Addams 5.

And now the winners:

In a 9-way tie for 7th place (top to bottom, Gary Larson’s Far Side, Carl Rose in the New Yorker, James Thurber, Larson again, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, BobMankoff in the New Yorker, that Larson guy a couple more times, and Saul Steinberg in the New Yorker):

gifted.jpg

broccolig.gif

120102_cn-seal-bark_p465.jpg

whatdogshear.gif

chdancing.jpg

how-about-never-cartoon.jpg

cow-tools.jpg

birthmark1.jpg

9th-avenue.jpg

And now coming in at #6, from James Thurber:

thurber-woman.jpg

#5, Charles Addams:

the_skier_3023315k.jpg

#4, Charles Schulz:

firstpeanutsstrip.jpg

#3, Walt Kelly:

enemy.jpg

#2, Peter Steiner:

internet-dog.jpg

And finally from Bill Watterson, published 20 years ago today, voted #1 by a wide margin, and probably the greatest comic strip finale ever:

calvin-and-hobbes-lets-go-exploring.jpg

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Filed in

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Uncategorized | 52 responses so far

52 Responses to “The Essential 10”

  1. Judge Mental Dec 31st 2015 at 10:24 am 1

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    I am completely unfamiliar with half of these (eight of them if you count the “close but no cigar”). I have a personal blind spot for Thurber and The New Your Yorker. There are a couple I don’t even get.

  2. zookeeper Dec 31st 2015 at 11:24 am 2

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    Thanks Bill. Happy New Year!

  3. heather Dec 31st 2015 at 11:52 am 3

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    Yeah, I don’t get the house-man one at all…

  4. Craig T Dec 31st 2015 at 12:32 pm 4

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    “I have met the enemy and he is us” is one of the Pogo quotes that floated around my family when I was young. Oddly, I knew it was from Pogo, but I don’t think I’d seen the comic until now.

  5. yellojkt Dec 31st 2015 at 12:52 pm 5

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    A really, really good selection. The two misses for me are the Spinach/Broccoli one and the Dancing Calvin and Hobbes. For a great strip, that just doesn’t make the cut of memorable events.

  6. fj Dec 31st 2015 at 01:10 pm 6

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    Thanks, Bill, for compiling these.

    I, too, was surprised by the Calvin “dancing” strip: I am a major C&H fan, and that one wouldn’t make my essential 10 C&H list (or even an essential C&H 50 list), let alone top ten of all time from ALL comics.

    The “seal bark” was the only other entry that surprised me.

    Interestingly enough, I considered nominating both “bummer of a birthmark” and “Ginger” but left off both in favor of “God on Jeopardy” and “Car!” (as well as “Cow Tools”).

  7. James Pollock Dec 31st 2015 at 01:10 pm 7

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    I’m a lifelong comics fan, I have a huge library of comic-strip books, and… I’ve never seen half of these “iconic” strips.

  8. feuerstein Dec 31st 2015 at 01:29 pm 8

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    Super selection!

    The Pogo and the Thurber House one were completely off my radar, but doesn’t matter. : )

  9. Judge Mental Dec 31st 2015 at 01:29 pm 9

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    In retrospect my comment came off more curt than I realized. I thank Bill for compiling these and find the list interesting even if a significant portion of these were off my radar.

  10. Jeff Lichtman Dec 31st 2015 at 01:39 pm 10

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    When Gary Larson originally did “cow tools” he received a lot of mail from people who wanted to know what it meant. The humor is supposed to be in the idea that cows would be really bad at making tools. This wasn’t clear, though, so people tried to find something deeper in it. Larson said about the panel, “. . . I drew a really weird, obtuse cartoon that no one understood and wasn’t funny and therefore I went on to even greater success and recognition. Yeah- I like this country.”

    “Cow Tools” is now considered by many the epitome of Larson’s offbeat sense of humor. It went from a flop to a masterpiece.

  11. Morris Keesan Dec 31st 2015 at 02:04 pm 11

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    When Bill issued his initial call for suggestions, I hadn’t realized that he was going to be posting the actual comics — he specifically asked for comics that people would recognize from a brief description. I had submitted “The one where Lucy spoils [movie] for Linus”, and Bill’s rejection note said something to the effect that even mentioning that there was a twist ending to be spoiled in [movie] was a spoiler. I don’t agree, but I’m respecting Bill’s opinion, and not mentioning that strip here. I suspect that people who know that strip will recognize it from my description. I still haven’t forgiven Shulz for that, because at the time, I hadn’t yet seen [movie].

    I only recognize about half of these. I agree with “blah blah blah GINGER”, but if I were going to choose another Far Side, I would probably choose “birds’-eye view of people with targets painted on top of their heads” instead of the others posted here.

  12. guero Dec 31st 2015 at 02:54 pm 12

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    A great selection. Thanks Bill. With the possible exception of the dancing C&H, I would have recognized all of these , so they definitely fit the description of “iconic”. And for more than a couple of them, I figuratively slapped my forehead and said “Oh man!, I should have included that one in my submission, too.”

    As for the Thurber House-Woman, I’m not really sure anyone understands it. It may very well be the epitome of CIDU.

    And there is another FarSide cartoon - “What we say to cats” where the “What they hear” balloon is totally blank.

  13. s.z. Dec 31st 2015 at 03:00 pm 13

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    In the Thurber cartoon, it’s a woman/house. I think it represents how a husband feels coming home, possibly after a night of debauchery, to an angry wife. Or not.

  14. Cidu Bill Dec 31st 2015 at 03:40 pm 14

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    For the record, while I was familiar with all of these other than the Bloom County Death Star, only about half the winners were on my personal list. In fact no two lists were even remotely similar; but after a while patterns emerged as certain strips were showing up nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen times…

    And as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a more qualified group of comic strip experts.

    And of course it’s funny that we just ran this one as a LOL:

  15. furrykef Dec 31st 2015 at 03:44 pm 15

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    My fifth grade teacher had that “Midvale School for the Gifted” shirt, and I liked it, so my parents got one for me too. Nice to see it here.

    I didn’t submit any comics ’cause about the only one I could think of was the “Let’s go exploring” comic, and I knew there was no way it wasn’t going to be on the list. Seems I was right. Some of the others are ones I wouldn’t have thought of, but seem obvious now that they’re on the list, like Calvin & Hobbes dancing. Speaking of:

    The two misses for me are the Spinach/Broccoli one and the Dancing Calvin and Hobbes. For a great strip, that just doesn’t make the cut of memorable events.

    Consider that there are a lot of bootleg T-shirts with this strip (or pictures from it). Whether it’s one of the strip’s top moments is a matter of personal taste, but there’s no doubting it’s one of the most recognizable. Aside from the finale strip, I’m hard pressed to think of another C&H strip that’s better known, and I’m a huge C&H fan. I can think of other strips that might be more worthy of recognition, but the question wasn’t what people should recognize, but what they do.

  16. mitch4 Dec 31st 2015 at 04:05 pm 16

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    What fun! Thanks, Bill!

    FYI, Mankoff used (a form of) that caption as title of his sort-of-memoirs: amazon.com/How-About-Never—Never-Good/dp/125006242X/

    I miss seeing a couple other Thurbers — the “naive domestic Burgundy” which made the not-quite list, and the first wife crouched atop the bookcase.

    s.z. #13, that captures it very nicely!

    The Steinberg cover with the foreshortened view of the U.S. is indeed an icon, much copied and adapted for other locales. I forget that it would count as a cartoon! I can’t think of other of his drawings as iconic cartoons, but I loved for instance the sketch of Mozart vs. Verdi opera fans. He’s a really visionary artist, and his “The New World” is quite unsettling amazon.com/gp/product/B000OJMVAO

  17. mitch4 Dec 31st 2015 at 04:17 pm 17

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    Speaking of comic strip finales, around New Year, Edge City is working its way toward ending their run this week. Doing some fourth-wall stuff, sort of, with the cartoonists coming in as clients of the regular character who is a therapist.

    http://comicskingdom.com/edge-city/2015-12-27 [final Sunday]
    http://comicskingdom.com/edge-city/2015-12-29 [referencing C&H]
    http://comicskingdom.com/edge-city/2015-12-31 [today]

    i’m a little sad to see it end, as I considered it the best of three prominent Jewish family-oriented strips.

  18. Dyfsunctional Dec 31st 2015 at 04:18 pm 18

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    Maybe I’m dense, but why does the essential-ten list start at seven? What happened to ten, nine and eight?

  19. furrykef Dec 31st 2015 at 04:28 pm 19

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    Because of the nine-way tie, which expanded the number of entries from 10 to 16.

  20. furrykef Dec 31st 2015 at 04:32 pm 20

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    If, for example, you have a list of three places, but the bottom two entries are tied, one of the entrants gets first place, and two entrants are tied for second; in this case there is no third place. Now suppose you have a list of three places but there are four entrants tied for second… you can’t just arbitrarily exclude some entrants from second place just because you originally intended to have only three places. So you either have a tiebreaker, or, as Bill has done here, you just expand the list of winners.

  21. mitch4 Dec 31st 2015 at 04:34 pm 21

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    “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

    Yesterday on a neighborhood-concerns listserv, a friend of mine posted a share of a document on the new city regulations on severe weather and leaving pets outside.

    There was a reply from a dog named Lucy (probably not the star of “Wendy and Lucy”) stating that she is part-Malamute, wears a nice warm fur coat, and loves being outside in this crisp weather and visiting with her many friends in the neighborhood. She states her family knows where she is, she is well fed, and regularly sees Dr. [name of local vet that all on the listserv know]. So passersby need not be concerned — and SHOULD NOT CALL THE ALDERMAN OR ANIMAL CONTROL!! (Which was advised in the original document.)

    Another friend replied on-list but addressing Lucy. She said, well that’s fine probably. But don’t you have a collar and tags? Why not wear that jewelry along with your nice fur coat?

  22. Rick Dec 31st 2015 at 05:38 pm 22

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    I look at the “Midvale School for the Gifted” one, and all I can think is what the squirrel would have to say about it.

  23. feuerstein Dec 31st 2015 at 07:26 pm 23

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    15

  24. furrykef Dec 31st 2015 at 08:22 pm 24

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    Yeah, there are actually 15, not 16. I blame Bill for claiming there are 16 in the original post.

  25. Mark in Boston Dec 31st 2015 at 10:38 pm 25

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    I HATED the Calvin and Hobbes “Let’s go exploring” when it came out and I still hate it.

    Why?

    Because they’re going exploring and they are leaving me behind!

  26. Cidu Bill Dec 31st 2015 at 10:39 pm 26

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    You see 16 comics. Tell me you see 16 comics…

  27. Cidu Bill Dec 31st 2015 at 10:50 pm 27

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    When my kids were young, they went to “gifted” classes at a nearby high school on Saturdays. The class lasted for two hours, so I just sat down along the wall in one of the hallways and read.

    At one point, the door handle at the nearby restroom was broken and I’d see kids come by, try to pull the door open, give up, and leave. It occurred to very few of them to just PUSH the door open.

    Since the Far Side cartoon was already around at that point, this never failed to amuse me.

  28. Lost in A**2 Dec 31st 2015 at 10:58 pm 28

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    I see 16 comics. Or was it five lights?

  29. Usual John Jan 1st 2016 at 03:28 am 29

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    Great list. I am familiar with the 15 winners, but I didn’t place two of the close-but-no-Segar runners-up, the Bloom County Death Star and the Peanuts “Hold my hand, Chuck.” Although I must say that, whether or not it is really iconic, “Hold my hand, Chuck” deserves to be. I’m chagrined that I overlooked the New Yorker view of the world in compiling my own list.

    I’m surprised that the first appearance of Popeye (”Whadya think I am, a cowboy?”) didn’t even make the close-but-no-Segar list. It doesn’t seem right that Segar, one of the most popular and iconic cartoonists of all time, isn’t even represented.

    Bill, I believe there is a mistake in your selection of the cartoons. “We have met the enemy and he is us” probably should be understood to refer to the original 1970 Earth Day poster and not the 1971 use in the strip, see http://arnoldzwicky.org/2012/07/21/the-pogo-files/.

  30. jp Jan 1st 2016 at 08:26 am 30

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    15

  31. Powers Jan 1st 2016 at 10:22 am 31

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    If you have a nine-way tie for 7th place, then you have 6+9=15 comics.

  32. Pirk Jan 1st 2016 at 11:23 am 32

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    can someone explain the spinach/broccoli one?

  33. furrykef Jan 1st 2016 at 01:00 pm 33

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    I didn’t get it myself and I think its cultural context is a little lost on us. It was published in 1928, when broccoli was still a novelty in the US. So the idea was that broccoli is a high-class food and spinach is a low-class or common food. It seems a little ambiguous to me whether the idea is the mother is passing off spinach as broccoli, or that it really is broccoli but the kid realized that (in her own mind, at least) there isn’t much difference between the two. If she doesn’t like it, it must be spinach.

    The cartoon is notable because the phrase “I say it’s spinach” entered common parlance for a while after it was published, with the other half of the phrase being implied. It seems this phrase was often used the way we cry “Bull$#!+” today. So I think this particular cartoon is notable in the grand scheme of things… but I must say until now I’ve never seen anybody say “I say it’s spinach”, nor have I ever seen the cartoon. So I doubt it’s so notable to the common person today. But Bill didn’t set any particular standard for notability (i.e., notable to whom?), so that’s fine.

  34. Joshua K. Jan 1st 2016 at 07:50 pm 34

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    @21 mitch4: And did Lucy respond? Or at least anyone from her family?

  35. mitch4 Jan 1st 2016 at 08:54 pm 35

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    We didn’t hear again from Lucy or her family[*], but did see a couple additional posts from people for addressing Lucy, and one short comment from another dog on enjoying getting out of the overheated house.

    *Not on this thread. But Lucy’s human mom is a frequent contributor to the group.

  36. guero Jan 1st 2016 at 09:33 pm 36

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    furrykef, for someone who didn’t get it, that was a pretty good analysis. The other social context you have to give it, is that little kids didn’t swear back then, unlike now. I think the ambiguity is forgivable as it works just fine either way.

  37. furrykef Jan 2nd 2016 at 02:33 am 37

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    Oh, I noticed it. I just didn’t think that was the primary element of the joke.

  38. Kilby Jan 2nd 2016 at 06:32 am 38

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    @ Pogo (29) - Both the 1970 poster and the 1971 strip are “stand alone” reprises, the phrase was originally used in the context of the strip, at the end of an extended sequence on air pollution, reprinted later (1970) in Impollutable Pogo” (page 190). I tried to google a linkable image, but couldn’t find anything usable.

    The final scene has everyone at the picnic table. Albert declares, “All them characters what dumps anything anywhere — they is enemies of the people!“, and flips away his “seegar”, which lands in the lemonade. Porkypine then rises to exclaim, “We have met the enemy, and he - is us.”

  39. Kilby Jan 2nd 2016 at 06:36 am 39

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    P.S. I wasn’t able to find the original “Death Star” strip either, the GoComics archive has a few missing items. The best I could find was this, but some idiot “improved” the strip to include a more modern version of the logo. Breathed’s original logo was hand-drawn (white on black).

  40. Usual John Jan 2nd 2016 at 08:35 am 40

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    Bill, can you tell us what your own list would have been?

  41. jajizi Jan 2nd 2016 at 02:15 pm 41

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    Kilby (original Death Star): Is this the one you want?

    I didn’t remember the Death Star cartoon until I searched for it.

    The other one I didn’t recognize was Peanuts “Hold my hand”. I’ve seen it now, but don’t recall ever having seen it previously.

  42. Mark in Boston Jan 2nd 2016 at 09:56 pm 42

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    In the 1950’s Mad Magazine had a bunch of cartoons written by and for bacteria. In one a mother germ is feeding her baby but the baby says “I say it’s streptomycin and I say the hell with it!”

    I didn’t get it because I didn’t know of the original at that time. I suppose the Mad Magazine writer assumed everyone did.

  43. Kilby Jan 3rd 2016 at 07:15 am 43

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    Thanks, jajizi (@41), that’s exactly the one I was looking for. Alas, no dates, but seeing “waiting 15 years” (to 1998) two strips above makes it all even funnier.

  44. The Bad Seed Jan 3rd 2016 at 11:55 am 44

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    re Ties: In professional golf, they will have some kind of playoffs for first place. But any other ties are awarded equally, like they might have three people in ninth place, and then the next person is 12th place - and each gets the money for that place, paid for by an insurance policy.

  45. BBBB Jan 3rd 2016 at 05:23 pm 45

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    This is a little late, but let me add my thanks to Bill for doing this. It’s a wonderful list. Like others, I’m kicking myself for not remembering some of the cartoons, and I was familiar with them all.
    RE: Pogo. If memory serves, Walt Kelly had a minor habit of drawing things multiple times, but I think this one was originally a single panel poster for the first Earth Day. Another example is his classic “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie” Christmas carol, which appeared multiple times, often with different lyrics.
    Thanks again, Bill. It was a great trip down memory lane.

  46. mitch4 Jan 3rd 2016 at 09:47 pm 46

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    The Thurber “first wife” cartoon I mentioned as worthy along with his others on this list can be found at that link.

  47. mitch4 Jan 3rd 2016 at 09:50 pm 47

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    Actually, after you look at that one, click on one of the breadcrumb links at the top to get to http://jimsworldandwelcometoit.com/2012/12/07/thurbers-cartoons/ and see a nice collection of a few more fine ones.

  48. Kilby Jan 4th 2016 at 02:54 am 48

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    @ The Bad Seed (44) - Golf ties are not “insured”, they simply split the winnings. For three players tied for ninth, they add up the winnings for 9th, 10th, and 11th place, and divide that total by three.

  49. Meryl A Jan 6th 2016 at 02:23 am 49

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    Some I remembered some I have never seen.

    I believe the New Yorker cover cartoon had a title (perhaps added later with the extensive merchandising of it) of New Yorkers view of the country (or something similar).

    As I understand it, there is a story about when broccoli (supposedly developed by producer Albert Broccoli’s family) was being demonstrated to help increase sales, a woman at a demonstration in the US south (for those who don’t know this - an area which has a reputation for frying almost everything) picked up a stalk and said “How do you’all fry this?” This has confused me as it seems so obvious how to fry it (no, I have never done so).

    As to judging - Robert and I judge the Juniors craft categories at the Long Island Fair (a tri county, county fair in the style - more or less and less these days - of a late 19th century county fair). We are allowed to award more than 1 of each place - 1st, 2nd, 3rd and honorable mention, but “no prize may be awarded to any entry which is not worthy of it”. As a result we might have 2 third prizes and some honorable mentions and no first or second prize or any other combination thereof. We are encouraged to hand out honorable mentions as there is only the cost of the ribbon, 1st, 2nd, 3rd receive a ribbon and a very small cash amount (in the adult version of same it is $5, $3 and $2 and less in the adult cooking) so they prefer less of same. We are sure that a lot of people are very disappointed as we look at, say, a perfectly done piece, look at the category and say to each other “a 5 year old, no way - mom or dad did this”. Yes, we have to take children’s ages into consideration in judging what is a first prize for a 5 year old is not generally a first prize for a 13 year old. So, the fact that there are 2 first prizes, does not cut out a 3rd prize.

  50. Cidu Bill Jan 10th 2016 at 01:16 am 50

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    Fair question, Usual John, here was my list:

    Far Side- Gifted

    Far Side- Bummer of a birthmark

    Far Side- What Dogs Hear

    Calvin and Hobbes- Let’s go exploring

    Calvin and Hobbes- Dead snowmen

    Calvin and Hobbes- Late-night dancing

    Charles Addams- Skiing

    B.C.- Dip in the road

    New Yorker- Nobody knows you’re a dog

    Peanuts- Here comes good old Charlie Brown

    Doonesbury- Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

  51. mitch4 Jan 10th 2016 at 10:45 am 51

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    I realized very belatedly I would have wanted to include a B. Kliban cats cartoon. Maybe the original meatloaf cat, or momcat. But it happens that GoComics recently showed this one, which is really among the tops!

    http://www.gocomics.com/klibans-cats/2016/01/05

    Folksinger cat, sitting on stool with guitar.

    Love to eat them mousies …
    Mousies what I love to eat!
    Bite they little heads off,
    Nibble on they tiny feet!

  52. Mark in Boston Jan 10th 2016 at 10:17 pm 52

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    I completely forgot about Kliban’s “Love to eat them mousies” and I had it as a poster on my wall for 15 years.

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