“OH, my God, this sucks.” Why Writing For Syndicated Comic Strips Is Extra Hard


The other night I watched some TV sitcoms and took note of the dialogue, and the situations the characters found themselves in. I was completely jealous of what the writers were able to get away with. They got to say “gay” (and not to describe someone who’s happy), “crap”, and “Oh, my God”. They also got to freely put their characters in situations that acknowledged the existence of sex, racial differences, and religion. You might think I’d been watching something new. Nope. I was watching vintage family television programming from the 70s and 80s. I was watching, in other words, the often lame humor of yesterday’s entertainment.

Sometimes when I’m writing Tina’s Groove I envy those writers’ freedom to be as genuine as possible. The reason syndicated cartoonists aren’t allowed the same freedoms as TV writers is because our comic strips are created for the family friendly newspaper audience. I should say super family friendly because even the family entertainment on television gets away with a lot more than what a cartoonist can say on the comics page. A lot more. Watch some prime time family TV tonight and note the number of times you hear the expression “this sucks”, “damn”, and “Hell”. And how many times do the characters acknowledge — in the most innocent way — the existence of sex, contraceptives, and same sex marriage? These things are strictly off limits to cartoonists with syndicated strips. The accepted norm on Television — and in life — is taboo on the comics page.

This brings to mind the notion that comics — especially the ones in newspapers — are for kids. That is a crazy idea that only two types of people can entertain: those who are ignorant of comics, and those who are just plain ignorant. I think most kids aren’t bothering with tame newspaper comic humor — they’re watching TV and YouTube where they can find stuff that’s edgier. (I swear I’ve seen billboards say things that would be a no-no on the comics page.) The truth is a large portion of comic strip readers are adults, and a large portion of comic strips are written for adults, and so I find it unfortunate that these strips can’t seem to get out of the “Father Knows Best” realm and keep up with the rest of the entertainment world. I’m not saying that comic strips ought to be as racy as the raciest thing on TV. Not at all. I’m saying that there’s room enough on the page to push the envelope just enough to allow the comics to better compete with other popular forms of entertainment. I’m saying that Tina, Carlos and Suzanne — to use my own characters as an example — should be able to use accepted forms of speech, like “Oh my God”, “this sucks”, and “What the hell?”

I think you can see why writing for syndicated comic strips is extra hard. It’s challenging to get the attention of an HBO audience with “Leave It To Beaver” humor. But here’s the flip side (and isn’t there always a flip side?): constraint nurtures discipline. Creators of syndicated strips are often forced to find novel and creative ways around these restrictions, with sometimes wonderful results. Even without the fairness of a level playing field, I believe quite a bit of newspaper comic strips are better written, sharper, and more entertaining than most of what’s offered on Television. I think you’ll agree.

Still, I would love to hear Tina say, “Oh, my God, this sucks.” Please? Just once? Gosh, no, someone might get hurt.










22 thoughts on ““OH, my God, this sucks.” Why Writing For Syndicated Comic Strips Is Extra Hard

  1. This is one of the reason webcomics have exploded. They are free to explore an adult world in whatever way they feel fits the need of the story. Newspaper-only strips need to adapt to keep pace or go to the web. Otherwise they will continue to be relegated to being ultra-clean at the expense of everything else including readers.

    • I was about to comment this, so I’m glad you already wrote it. I read a selection of both newspaper comics and webcomics online daily, and I’m very aware of the far more crass jokes used by webcomic artists. Sometimes I find the jokes used by syndicated comic artists preferable–the more inappropriate online jokes merely make me cringe.

    • Jay, you’re right on all counts! Except that I’ve see so many excellent webcomics go into reruns because the artist can’t make any money to sustain a living (ask Ms. Piccolo about ‘Velia, Dear’). Comics like Ink Pen, The Meaning of Lila, My Cage, and Housebroken were funny, edgey and poignant. They addressed race relations, gay marriage, adoption and cancer with tenderness and humor without being crass (or woefully miserable like Funky Winkerbean). Unfortunately, all those comics went under and probably couldn’t exist in syndication. Ms. Piccolo probably realizes the double edge sword of syndication. You can make a living but you have to sacrifice on how you can present your work. ‘To get along, you go along’.
      Kind of like a lot of workplaces.

      • Comics is an art business. Not everything is economically viable. You have to find an audience. The same is true for syndicated strips. The difference is who is doing the selling (artist or syndicate). If you can build a community of people willing to support you around your work, you can make a living without the syndicate. If you can’t make the audience even with the syndicate, papers will drop you and you will no longer work that way either. There are many cartoonists today making a living doing their own thing online. See Sheldon or My Cardboard Life for excellent examples of something rated G that is making good money online. There are many, many others that have varying levels of crudeness that are also making a living. A large number of them are rated G or a soft PG. There are the others as well, but that is another niche that has an audience. The Stripped documentary on Kickstarter should have a great view of how this transition is going. Go support it to get the extended length movie when they are done.

  2. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a few of your taboos show up in strips when properly disguised. I’ve definitely seen OMG used in conversations, and I’m thinking no one batted the proverbial eyelashes at it then.
    Your comic-book cousins finally did away with the legendary Comics Code Authority for good about two years ago. I recall the mental jolt I received when I read one of Superman’s thought balloons stating that Clark considered someone a ‘pompous ass’ and no one stopped that from happening! Even Spongebob has fewer restrictions these days.

  3. Tell the truth, I barely notice what you’re talking about, though I do get your point. It’s a difficult line to walk, between squeaky-clean and the “scruffiness” of the real world, yet as you say, the restrictions do make the writing more challenging. Still, these days even the notoriously clean Family Circus is allowed to show the toilet and full nudity, usually of Jeffy. And of course FOOB went out on a limb by having a gay character come out.
    But the end result should still be the writing, a good joke is worth the effort.
    Sooner or later someone’s going to sneak an OMG into a comic, that should be fun.
    Of course, I could see Tina complaining, “This vacuum cleaner really sucks!”
    Monica: “Isn’t that what it’s supposed to do?”

  4. Thank you all for your input. One thing about the whole web comics thing (and maybe this is a topic for another post) — there’s a flip side to having no restrictions at all — that’s not a good thing either. There is no discipline in that sort of writing, and most of the vulgar stuff is just that — vulgar. What people should understand is that it takes a great writer to pull off the risque stuff, and have it be good, and not just tasteless.
    Again — thank you for the thoughtful comments!

    • One of the important differences between the comics page and TV is that TV delivers its features one at a time, half an hour or more at a time. When my kids were little, we had “The Archie Bunker Rule,” which is that nobody who would not be welcome through the door was welcome through the set. There were shows they were not permitted to watch.

      But the comics page is all at once. There it all is. Certain strips may be graphically complex enough to deter young readers, but fewer and fewer in this age of postage-stamp-size printing. Still, kids won’t stumble across anything in Judge Parker because they won’t read it. But Tina’s Groove is graphically inviting (as is Pearls, as are several others).

      The trick is to do it the way you hold conversations around the table at holidays — phrase things in a way that the adults will understand but the kids won’t. I’ve seen cartoonists get some pretty astonishing things past the goalie. Check out Pajama Diaries, for example — the couple is clearly sexually active. And Stone Soup is currently in an arc about Evie heading off for a little time with her man, and I don’t think Habitat Houses are what they’re planning to erect this time.

  5. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this piece and hearing your inside take on this. It’s one thing to perform this task, another to be as consistently funny as you are. Just saw your latest in Parade cartoon–excellent! It’s harder working clean (last night I went to a Andy Kaufman tribute event and there were ten stand-ups and almost all were very provocative and adult in content. You could see how hard it is to stay clean.)

  6. Everything I hear and read says the predominant readers of newspaper strips are seniors. Don’t worry Rina, they tsk tsk the raunchy humor on TV too (except those cute Golden Girls, they’re a hoot!).

  7. Pingback: Rina Piccolo: Writing for comic strips “sucks” sometimes The Daily Cartoonist

  8. The syndicates make it sound like they are always on the edge of being dropped by newspaper clients. It seems to me like that’s a bit overblown, but I can see how losing even one customer represents the risk of a cascade. So, they get cautious as a policy, a practice, and a habit. Some strips get away with more than others: Doonesbury is a great example of pushing the envelope socially and politically. Gary Trudeau gets away with it because it’s expected of him, and those likely to be offended avoid the strip or growl under their breath. So, for Tina to become edgier against the syndicate’s constraints, there is always that possibility enough readers may be upset enough to complain… What I think you believe is that such a shift might gain more readers than it could possibly repel. That would be a great study: write raunchier arcs and distribute them to half the papers, giving the rest the more sedate run. It would be a lot of work to get a valid set of measurements, and a big selling job to the syndicate, since they’re the ones to lose out if things don’t work out. Simply doing something like that would attract more attention to the strip, as readers hit the Web to see what the “other” Tina is doing.

  9. You’ll have to vent your spleen in your online comics. : )

    Having said that, I think Seinfeld or someone once said that writing comedy without relying on crass humour is a much more difficult skill.

    Coming up with a gag a day, let alone drawing it, would be a challenge – so well done you!

  10. Pingback: Comics A.M. | ‘Walking Dead’ eases its grip on bookstore chart | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  11. Hi, I have a question. How did you go about protect/copyright/trademarking your comic strip and characters? I am considering doing my own comic strip and tying to figure this out. Thanks for reading my question.

  12. ポスト|おやおや、これは非常に素晴らしい本当にいいだった。でコンセプト私はたい?作る| | 正確な実際の努力非常に良い時間とを考慮さらにさらに、このような書面に入れ記事しかし?私は何を言うことができる、私は多くを先延ばしして?にしないで、まったく 見える 一つのことが行わ。

  13. I am an amateur cartoonist, having drawn a personal comic strip of my own on a regular basis for a number of years during my grade school and college years (everyday during my high school years) before work and other aspects of “real life” forced me to discontinue my strip. For decades, I have been reduced to occasional doodling so I didn’t forget how to draw my characters, which included a cast of young teenaged kids, a young woman aged to her early twenties when I stopped my strip, a few adult characters in their forties through sixties, and a few anthropormorphic animal characters. It has been a long-time fantasy for me to return to drawing my strip after I retire and maybe submit my strip to syndicates to see if there is any interest. I would love a post-retirement career as a professional cartoonist. Nevertheless, I would continue to draw for myself anyway, with only friends and family seeing any of my work, as it was in my younger days.
    Peanuts was always my favorite strip, and I enjoyed Cathy as well. I must admit myself to be on the side of conservatism in the newspaper comic strip realm. I prefer a style of humor that is simple, direct, and thought-provoking without being crude or shocking. I do lament the more frequent use of profanity and racy subject matters in newspaper strips that are accessible to children, a concern that C. M. Schulz has expressed. And I was very impressed with the artist of Cathy [I’ll not insult her by misspelling her last name.] in the tasteful way she could allow her adult characters to address the subject of romantic relationships without any hint of provocative raciness or vulgarity. This is in great contrast to 9 Chickweed Lane, which is beautifully drawn, but over the years has become increasingly vulgar with unfiltered sexual humor, taking the strip into the realm of unreadability for me. In my strip, even with its adult characters, there is no profanity, no vulgarity, no sexual humor, and no nudity. I won’t ever allow it. I personally feel that comic artists who want to be more free in how they express themselves should stick to webcomics and stay out of newspaper syndication.

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