About six weeks ago, I drew this Tina’s Groove comic strip:
I had it slotted to run on May 5th, but it never got passed my editor’s desk. You can guess why. Can we still run it if I cover up his ass bottom? I asked. I was told to replace the strip with another one, just to be “safe.”
Safe. That seems to be the strategy for newspaper comics. The thing is, 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.
I’m thankful to have a couple of good editors at King Features that look out for me. If the strip above was given the green light, it may have cost me. Although my experience in syndication has ingrained in me the finer points of PG-rated content, I was surprised that this strip was pulled.
PG To The Power Of Ten It goes without saying that newspapers have to be very careful with content in the comics — if it’s not PG they will not run a strip. And in extreme cases, they will cancel the feature altogether and replace it with a safer one— one that takes no risks. I understand the rules, and have long accepted them. But — and you knew there was a but coming— it’s when PG becomes PG to the power of 10 that I have reason to rant a little bit, and test the waters to see what others think.
Some Insights Most readers would be surprised to know how little leeway newspaper strip cartoonists are allowed in terms of content. Let me put it to you this way: a typical 1990s episode of the TV show The Golden Girls would most likely have a few things in it that would raise a flag if depicted on the comics page. I’m not kidding—the funny dialogue between four elderly women would need serious revision.
This tastes like crap Newspaper comic artists are not permitted to make references to sex, race, or religion— even if the reference is not deemed offensive in other areas of the publishing and entertainment world. We’re not permitted to write lines like “go to hell,” or “this tastes like crap.” There are even constraints on “gross” gags—for instance, a scene where somebody farts would be seriously questioned. (I once had to change a sound effect from “fart!” to “Brapp!” The sound effect was not from a character, but from a garbage incinerator. Wow. You’d have to be truly uptight to be offended by a garbage incinerator that makes a farting noise.)
Who’s That Uptight? You might be thinking — God Sheesh, what’s with those newspaper editors? Can’t they lighten up a bit? Where are they living— Andy Griffith’s Mayberry? Well, no— it’s nothing like that. I don’t have to tell you that newspaper editors are a pretty normal bunch of people who laugh at the same jokes that we all laugh at. It’s not them we should be looking at. What we should shift our focus to is a 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. (Apologies to Brad Anderson.)
All kidding aside, some people get very heated about what they see on the newspaper comics page. My editor Jay Kennedy once told me that a reader had complained to a newspaper editor about a cartoon that depicted a dog drinking from the toilet. It was, the reader said, “offensive to dogs.” Wow.
The question now becomes: why do a meager percentage of readers have this much power over how a comics page is curated?
Are newspaper editors this afraid of losing subscriptions? Yes. And I don’t blame them. In fact, I can relate. I myself agreed to red light the above strip because I, too, am afraid of losing newspapers. Do you see the wild cycle? Do you see the rock and the hard place?
The Mainstream Does Not Include Tina’s Groove? I think it really sucks that newspaper comic artists are not allowed to use words, and depict scenarios that are commonly accepted in today’s mainstream comedy. This degree of stuffiness is the one thing that holds me back from giving my readers my best humor. The strip above was the funniest daily in my bag for that week, and having it flagged was, at the very least, disheartening. Why? Why can’t I run it? Because it might raise an eyebrow? UGH….
Do You Agree? The truth about the cartoon above is that no one is injured or harmed in it. It doesn’t insult any group, or religious faith. And if I changed it so that the guy’s ass rear end is covered by a normal pair of pants, the strip would not be overly explicit. All in all, the humor here is just a little edgy. Most readers, I believe, would get a chuckle out of it. Most readers, I think, crave a little edginess in their comic strip diet. Read the strip again. I think you’ll agree that we’ve seen edgier humor in a typical night of television.
So who is to blame? Not the Syndicate — the syndicate is simply giving the newspapers, our clients, what they want. We can’t blame the newspapers either — the editors are just making their customers happy—and that means all of their customers, even the select few in question here.
I believe the people to blame are those few readers who can’t handle the phrase, “Hey, this sucks,” or the phrase, “Oh my God.”
I’m talking about a tiny portion of the reader-public who would be incapable of reading this very blog post without crapping their pants losing their heads over the words I’m using. What gets me is that this small portion of the readership, it seems, wields the most command over what everybody else gets to read. They are the real editors. They are the real curators of your newspaper comics page. Wow!
A Personal Re-Awakening This is not a complaint. This is a personal re-awakening to just how damn darn safe newspaper comics are, and how little we’ve allowed ourselves—as a business—to keep up with the competition (Webcomics, Alt comics, Radio, Podcasts, Youtube, TV, Magazines.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to be screwed up really upset about it.
Can I cause real change? Probably not. But I do have a fantasy. In my fantasy newspaper editors take a stand against the unreasonable letter-writer, and defend the cartoons that they themselves had hand-picked to run in their paper. In my fantasy it’s not the cartoonist who is stifled, but the uptight reader who complains about a piece of humor that, if it were shown anywhere else, would not garner any complaints that would be taken seriously. In my fantasy, I – and other syndicated comic artists—have the same creative freedoms that prime time TV sitcom writers have. Is that an unreasonable fantasy? Is it?
The Bright End To All Of This? Thanks to the web, I can talk frankly to you, my readers, and tell you about this behind-the-scene stuff that you would not otherwise hear about. Oh, and the best part is— I can show you the censored strip that priggish letter-writing readers don’t want me to show you. I can put the flagged comic on Twitter and Facebook… where it will be forgotten two minutes after it’s read. Yes, that’s right— where it will be forgotten two minutes after it’s read—as it should be. Why? Because the comic is not that edgy. The comic is not that risqué. In any forum outside of the newspaper comics page this comic is run-of-the-mill mainstream safe.
Do you see it this way, or am I way out of bounds? Please tell my your thoughts.