If your taste in comic strips runs to the more literate, introspective and subdued side, the pickings are pretty slim. There’s Krazy Kat, of course, and Mutts, and perhaps Pogo. Beyond that you’re pretty much out of luck.
One feature that takes that genre to a whole different level, in fact that pretty much defines its own genre by going so far beyond those other strips, is Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee. Madonna’s strip (well, he calls it a strip but it’s almost always a single panel) runs only in the San Francisco Chronicle. The feature combines beautiful freehand watercolor drawings of San Francisco cityscapes with little snippets of conversation, short narratives and haiku-like declarations.
Madonna’s texts are often quietly funny, sometimes bittersweet, occasionally forlorn. Some of the most successful are those that read like conversations overheard in a coffee shop (and thus lending some logic to the name of the feature). And while the texts celebrate humanity, our foibles, passions and prejudices, the drawings, at least on the surface, reject humanity completely. Madonna’s dramatic portraits of the city are drawn without human figures — his San Francisco is populated only with the works of man, not the builders themselves.
Madonna in the afterword to this collection explains that a great deal of thought goes into marrying the text and the images. Occasionally the connection is reasonably obvious, many times it is a match of moods that is only manifest to the author. Whatever the connection, the images are hauntingly beautiful. Madonna draws architecture without a straightedge, and the seemingly monochromatic drawings are often warmed with a subdued, almost hidden, use of color, lending the cityscapes a warmth that amply makes up for the lack of humanity.
All Over Coffee is, unfortunately, not a candidate for syndication, nor is it a likely model for other features that widen the bounds of the newspaper comic strip. Which is too bad, because it would be interesting to see what sort of public reaction there would be if a few such strips showed up on the nation’s funny pages. Is there room next to Cathy and Garfield for such things?