Newspaper Comics Stuck “Between a Crock and a Hard Place”

tinasgrooveNearly everyone can agree that most newspaper comics have a certain stodgy aura, particularly compared to the dynamism and diversity of their cousins in book form. In a three-part extravaganza this week, the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna has been delving into the reasons why via conversations with creators and editors.

First, Cavna spoke to longtime Post comics page editor Donna Peremes, who articulated the near impossibility of allowing creators to show their wit and personality without offending someone somewhere. As evidence, she offered a recent reader note:

I love the comics and realize different ones appeal to different people. Different strokes for different folks. However, toilet jokes and vulgarity do not belong here. Middle school humor through which most people grow….Please do some editing, and use common sense in what you choose to print.

While it may seem somewhat pointless to worry about offending anyone who would complain about “middle school humor” on the funny pages, all the creators and editors who spoke to Cavna agreed that print newspapers are increasingly petrified of losing subscribers. As a result, any hint of an edge in the comics is often sanded off. Amy Lago, who was an editor at United Feature Syndicate before moving to the Washington Post Writers Group, is painfully aware of newspaper comics’ predicament, musing “If we make everything G-rated, do we lose the very readers we want — need — to attract?”

As a syndicate editor distributing comics to newspapers around the country, Lago has a few strategies for preserving some creative freedom while also allowing client papers to keep those easily offended subscribers. She is fairly certain she was the first syndicate editor to offer newspapers the option of a substitute strip, for a 1994 Dilbert in which Dogbert suggested changing the name of the in-world corporation to Uranus-Hertz. Nowadays she occasionally chooses to release a strip online only because she knows that “Internet comics readers are more accepting of saltier fare than print readers.”

Creators themselves are generally understanding of the editors’ positions, but often find the strictures frustrating nonetheless. Dilbert creator Scott Adams says that unlike when his strip launched in 1989, today “I can get away with anything a kid wouldn’t understand. That seems to be the standard these days. But it is still a PG rating, give or take a few childproof references to self-gratification and the like.” When the Tina’s Groove strip shown here was rejected in May, creator Rina Piccolo took to her blog in exasperation:

I’m all for safe. I think safe is a good policy. What I have a problem with is too safe. Too safe is what gets me. It’s having the comics page get so circumspect that, often, all the best humor is washed away and scrubbed clean, or replaced entirely with something less spicy. I think readers will agree that, at least in some cases, ‘too safe’ often means boring.

Piccolo also laid most of the blame not on editors, but on the “very small percentage of people who write letters, and call newspaper offices threatening to cancel their subscription because Marmaduke crapped doo-dooed on the floor that day.”

Finally, in a wide-ranging interview with Cavna, Pearls Before Swine’s Stephan Pastis identified several barriers to newspaper comics’ struggle to remain relevant, starting with “zombie strips”:

There are a number of reasons comics remain in a long-ago conservative era. First off, a number of them are from a long-ago conservative era. Literally. They are repeated strips from decades ago. And that should never happen. What other part of the paper recycles content?

Because replacement writers and artists of these legacy strips often hesitate to meddle with their creators’ original vision, due in part to that ever-present fear of losing subscribers, Pastis says the result is “a strip that is a tame shadow of its original self—a bland echo of its groundbreaking creator. Elvis replaced by an Elvis impersonator.”

Moreover, Pastis explains, those zombie strips that newspapers wouldn’t dare to drop as long as they still exist in some form tend to crowd out new up-and-comers:

To take my Elvis analogy one step further, Elvis had a seemingly endless series of stages to perform on. Cartoonists don’t. There are only so many precious slots in a newspaper. So that Elvis impersonator the paper is clinging to is preventing the next rock superstar from even taking the stage.

A third strike against innovation in newspaper comics are the reader polls that newspapers often use to gauge which comics to retain. While they purport to give readers a choice, Pastis says polls (usually of the online variety and quite unscientific) exhibit “a unique ability to negatively single out any strip that has a point-of-view. Because readers remember that one. So the opinionated creator stands out like a chili pepper in a bowl of oatmeal. And he or she gets killed for it.”

As creators who used to distribute their strips through traditional channels increasingly opt for online platforms instead–see the recently revived Bloom County–and newcomers to the artform are often happy to stick with webcomics in order to retain creative control, newspaper comics seem destined for imminent total extinction unless creators are allowed to innovate and occasionally inject humor that is not just “middle school” but even downright adult.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.