A confession: I read and enjoy the daily comics — or the “funny pages” as they used to be called — in the Boston Globe.
Yes, every morning I flip impatiently past the world news and the brilliant feature writing to take in “Zippy”, “For Better or For Worse”, and “Pooch Cafe” while munching on granola and sipping orange juice. To paraphrase Thoreau, I have never found a companion as companionable as solitude — while reading Dilbert on a quiet Saturday morning.
One of the things I like about the comics is to watch themes come and go, like eddies in the zeitgeist, reflecting transitory popular opinions and concerns. I’m always struck by the strange coincidences, as on a recent day when four separate comic strips portrayed essentially the same gag about football. I feel that by reading the comics, I have have a better understanding of my fellow human beings and the larger culture.
I have favorites, of course, and also comic strips that I boycott for their terminal meanness and cynicism. I hold grudges, too. I have refused to read “Adam” for the last six years since original author Bryan Bassett turned the strip over to new artist Rob Harrell. All of which brings me to my complicated relationship with “Frazz.”
For those who have never seen or read the strip, “Frazz” is the work of an artist named Jef Mallett that features a character named Edwin “Frazz” Frazier. Frazz is a renaissance man, well educated and a successful songwriter, who also runs and competes in triathlons. Although successful with his music, he embraces his day job as janitor of Bryson Elementary School, where he happily dispenses wisdom and common sense to the kids and adults that he sees every day.
Frequently, the strip takes as its subject Frazz’s triathlon training, including the running he does with Miss Plainwell, a teachers at the school and Frazz’s romantic interest. I have to say, as someone who has read the comics all my life, it’s a little weird to see serious athletes portrayed with respect for their athleticism rather than with mockery. Among the all the talking animals, couch potato husbands, mischievous kids, and assorted adult slobs and ne’er-do-wells that populate the funny pages, Frazz stands out as something of an outlier.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised by the strip that ran on Thanksgiving morning, reproduced (without permission) below:
I was really stunned by the dialogue in this strip. Assuming that the vast majority of readers are either non-runners or casual joggers, the not-so-hilarious punchline is so ridiculously obscure that I couldn’t help wonder how those readers made sense of it. To recap: Mr. Burke, the fourth-grade teacher, asks Miss Plainwell how her Turkey Trot went. She responds by admitting she made a tactical error when lining up at the start. He says, in effect, that he thought she wasn’t taking the race seriously, and she responds by saying that lining up among the really slow runners made it impossible for her to run at tempo pace.
What the hell? How many people even know what a tempo run is, how it differs from normal running or racing, and why you always do them on Thursdays? Or taking it back to the setup, who can relate to running a race as a tempo run instead of a race, anyway? Not your weekend warrior or your average hobby jogger, that’s for sure. Of course, for someone who trains seriously, the whole strip makes complete sense, but what percentage of Frazz readers train seriously?
Later yesterday morning I drove out to Concord to meet some people after the Concord Turkey Trot (I didn’t race it… OR tempo it). An old friend, and very accomplished runner, ran in the race with a friend, and as I saw her near the finish, I knew in an instant that she was just running it socially. Afterwards, she was struggling a bit with that — she wanted to go on a long run following the race because she felt like she hadn’t really run yet. I knew exactly what she meant. For her, as for any serious runner, there is a world of difference between different paces, as these paces represent entirely different levels of commitment and engagement. But for most of the people running the Turkey Trot, there wasn’t that much of a difference between a race and a run, certainly not enough to leave room for subtle variations, such as tempo run pace.
So Frazz, I salute you for a gag that depends on an appreciation for the fine distinctions between different training paces. I’m not sure how many of us, your readers, were able to keep up with you and Miss Plainwell, but I’m thankful that for Thanksgiving, at least, you treated us like we could.