Given how much time I spend at Comics.com and on other web-sites checking out random web comics, I figured I might as well put a post with the ten top comics that brighten up my mornings every day.

1. Pearls before Swine*

Hands down my favourite comic strip – Stephan Pastis’s quirky, irreverent cast of animal characters make for incredible humour, combining attitude with simplicity, far-fetched conceits with dead-pan matter of factness, inimitable silliness with stop-you-in-your-tracks insights into the world we live in. A winner.

2. Toothpaste for Dinner

One of my biggest discoveries on the Web – Toothpaste for Dinner combines really, really bad drawing with a mean, scathing, arbitrary and profoundly brilliant view of the world. Drew’s cartoons have this raw, unpolished feel to them, they are rants against a world that Drew sees as fundamentally stupid and unworthy of any respect whatsoever (political correctness? What’s that?). Toothpaste for Dinner is extremely inconsistent – it can go on for days without the slightest spark – but then suddenly out of nowhere there’ll be this line that you’ll never ever be able to get out of your head again – a line so mindblowingly brilliant, it’ll make it worth checking out the site every single day. (E.g. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate” and “Fun Fact: Did you know that the sound that most people call ‘silence’ is actually the sound that mountain lions make when they walk around outside your house?”)

Available at www.toothpastefordinner.com

3. Ballard Street*

One of the subtlest, most stylish comic strips I’ve ever read – Ballard Street is practically a work of art all by itself. Jerry Van Amerongen is the Chekhov of comic artists – his unique talent is for imagining the most outlandish, quirky and plain wierd characters and then introducing them in the most mundane of settings, with an understated, matter of the fact punch-line added to the single frame comic. This means that every new comic is a character sketch all by itself, so that it feels almost like you read through a whole novel (or at least a short story) just to get to this one hilarious scene. Ballard Street may not be to everyone’s taste (some people may find it too dull) but IMHO it’s one of the funniest comics ever.

4. Dilbert*

Need I say more? If you’re not already into Dilbert then you’re either still recovering from your lobotomy or have pointy hair. The really amazing thing is that all these years and all the hype later, Scott Adams can still find things to say that stun you with their simple brilliance and leave you rolling about on the floor of your cubicle.

5. Reality Check / Rubes / Speed Bump*

Frankly, I’ve never been able to keep these three apart in my head. There’s nothing really distinctive about them except that all three are among the finest of the many, many derivative efforts to continue the legacy of that greatest of all comics, ever [voice hushed in awe] The Far Side**. The humour here is trademark Gary Larson – alternate riffs on history, stock phrases, scenes from popular culture; everyday situations extrapolated to animals / objects. Again, the quality is fairly inconsistent here, but if you read all three every day, you’re sure to find at least one that is really, really funny.

6. Doonesbury

Okay, so I’m a confirmed blue-stater. Doonesbury is a true classic – not really laugh out funny (or very rarely so) but just read it for a while and Trudeau’s thoughtful, deeply human humour will ultimately get to you. Probably the most important reason to read the New York Times every single day (available at www.nytimes.com)

7. Herman*

I can’t complete a list of my top comics without including Jim Unger’s trademark long-nosed, chinless men and women. Herman is a glorious read precisely because of this sort of comic baldness – reading it, you never get the sense that Unger is trying to impress / be clever – rather the comics have a flat, almost irritated feel to them, so that you’re almost not sure whether he’s trying to be funny and whether you should be laughing. But laugh you will, because behind his dour tone, Unger is sparkling wit – a genius at seeing the everyday through his own special lens. For sheer ingenuity, Herman doesn’t really compare to the earlier three comics (see number 5 above), but it has a style like no other, and that’s what makes it special.

8. Committed*

It’s a major tribute to Michael Fry’s talent that one of my favourite comics on the web is primarily an exploration of parenting and being married – two activities that I have nothing but disdain for. Part of the reason is that Fry often seems to share my disdain, staying away from any tendency to get sentimental about family life. The home is a battlefield here, a setting in which Fry can explore the arbitrariness of both parents and young children, showing them in all their weary misery (who else could come up with the suggestion that mothers should come with a warning label that says it is not safe to approach them until they have had their first cup of coffee). Any joy that the characters get in these comics comes from the small victories they achieve over each other, and yet the overall effect is strangely funny-sweet. The other thing I love about it is the double whammy of the comic itself and the little extra punch-line on top. Talk about fine excess.

9. Tom Toles

I’m not in general a big fan of political cartoons (it’s probably because I’m not that interested in politics anyway) but I can’t put up 10 comics without mentioning Tom Toles – who is the other major reason for checking out the New York Times every morning. Toles’ take on current events is always bitterly scathing (he is NOT a Bush supporter) but also incredibly creative and effortlessly unique. Whatever the issue, Toles will always find the perfect way to express his point of view – he is easily my favourite political cartoonist. Oh, and as in Committed, don’t miss the little mini-comic at the bottom, that smart-alec-y comment that’s just sitting there waiting for you to finish laughing over the main page.

10. PhD comics

This one is strictly for PhD students only – though the flow of ideas seems to have dried up a little of late, PhD is at once the funniest and most scarily true depiction of PhD life ever. PhD is the Dilbert of academia – it would be funny if your life wasn’t exactly like that!

* All available at www.comics.com
**Other wanna-bes on Comics.com include Strange Brew, Off the Mark and Flight Deck – these are good, but they don’t quite match the three above

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