An excerpt from: “Brushbeard the Pirate: Keeping an Even Keel” by Christopher J. Millan
Hal Thompson’s syndicated comic strip ‘Brushbeard the Pirate’ appears in hundreds of newspapers every day (fewer on Sundays). Chances are, it’s in your newspaper. You may have read a great deal of Brushbeard strips; perhaps you read one this morning. And yet, I challenge you to remember a single one of them.
I admit that the Brushbeard strip has become something of an obsession for me, unlike anyone else on the planet. I find it fascinating, and never miss a single day of it. I am probably the only person in the world save Hal Thompson who can truthfully say he’s read every published strip, and certainly the only person who’s ever expended effort to do so. In performing this great work of curiosity and fascination I also read many other comic strips in an effort to validate my theory. I can now say truthfully, authoritatively, that ‘Brushbeard the Pirate’ is the most mediocre comic strip ever produced.
For those who have somehow never encountered it, you now have nearly every piece of information you need about the work. It is a comic strip, of the traditional three-to-four daily panels, gag-a-day type concerning a hapless pirate named Brushbeard and those around him: his “wisecracking” parrot, his idiotic first mate, his incredibly competent cabin boy, the beautiful mermaid who scorns his advances, the “wise sea hermit”, the dashing pirate captain who is his rival and nemesis, and a sea monster just as stupid as the aforementioned first mate. Apart from consistent themes — Brushbeard wants to impress Meredith the Mermaid; Captain Redsword humiliates Brushbeard; “Cuppa” Joe, the First Mate, is stupid — there are no ongoing plots. The gags themselves are the usual comics page fodder: young people are crazy, women and men are different, modern life is frustrating, and so forth. There’s absolutely nothing exceptional about the strip. Herein lies my fascination.
Make a graph plotting the relationship between any two qualities of a comic strip, and Brushbeard will inevitably occupy a position at the center. It is preternaturally average, a stunning work of absolute moderation. It neither attracts nor repels, neither offends nor delights. Every episode is written in such a way to immediately fall off the brain afterwards. every quality about it defines the term “serviceable”. The art is competent. The writing is okay. The gags…they do what needs to be done. It isn’t funny, but nor is it unfunny…the proper term may be “nonfunny”. In the periodic surveys editors use to decide which comic strips to keep and which to lose, I suspect Brushbeard consistently survives because it’s so unobtrusive. While nobody in the world would list it as one of their favorites, neither would it show up on a short list of “hated” strips. Its mediocrity seems to be a defense mechanism that has kept it on the comics pages for nearly forty years. (It is worth noting that “Hal Thompson” is itself a pseudonym for Max Kleinpeter, yet another way in which anything possibly interesting about the strip has been eschewed in favor of the thuddingly dull.)
It would be incorrect to declare Brushbeard a “failure” of a comic strip. Even disregarding its longevity, even disregarding the two paperback collections released in the late 70s (Brushbeard at Sea and Brushbeard Without a Paddle; it’s possible the editor ran out of titles combining nautical terms with cluelessness), the very definition of failure implies a goal being attempted that is not met. Brushbeard seemingly has no goal. Its relentless lack of color seems to exist for its own sake. In this matter, Thompson’s strip has achieved an almost zen-like quality: it just is. Judging it or rating it would be like judging or rating gravity. The best one can do is use it as a baseline — for that’s exactly what it is — for judging other comic strips.
Given any set of numbers, there is a mathematical average among them. This is a simple fact of nature and cannot be avoided. I submit that so too it is with comic strips. I submit that just as “Hal Thompson” is an alias for Max Kleinpeter, Max Kleinpeter is an alias for the comic strip ‘Brushbeard the Pirate’. That is, I declare that Brushbeard has no creator, it simply springs fully formed from the comic strips that surround it. Its existence is as much a fact of nature as any other mathematical average. It needs no human agent to create it; it is generated automatically by the better and worse comic strips that surround it on the page. It is not an artistic creation, it is a scientific imperative.