Monday, August 08, 2005

Funnies Business

Warning: Subject about to be taken way too seriously for far too long.

My local newspaper is having a week-long debate about the funny pages. The editors are considering changes to funny page content, and are soliciting input. It's a good idea:

The usual technique is for the newspaper to cancel the strip most disliked by the editors. Readers get up in arms, complain bitterly, and the comic is either restored or not.

We'd like to avoid that seemingly inevitable two-step. It doesn't work for us, and more importantly, it doesn't work for you. It's nothing but an exercise in aggravation for nearly everyone.

That's where you come in. Over the next few weeks, we'd like your help in guiding us in our upcoming evaluation. We'd like you to tell us who in your house reads the comics, and what you expect from those pages.

- from the Newark Star-Ledger, August 7 2005

Reader comments have been all over the map and fairly predictable, ranging from "keep the funny pages funny - put politics elsewhere!" to "I appreciate a thought-provoking comic aimed at my generation." I've been up and down that continuum myself, finally arriving at a comfortable place thanks to comments from my wife and Penn Jillette.

Critical point #1: After listening to me spew how "even though I've loved Peanuts for 35 years but shouldn't we let the strip go with Sparky's memory", my wife asked me a simple question: Who are the funnies for? Simple question. I'll come back to the answer.

Critical point #2: Studio 360 interviewed Penn on The Aristocrats movie. It's a brilliant idea and I can't wait to see it, but that's another issue. He made a simple point about the language: The movie's tagline is "No sex. No violence. Unfathomable obscenity." If you're surprised by the cussin', you either walked into the wrong theater, or you're looking for a fight. You're not being set up - you knew what you were getting into.

Back to #1: My daughter has fallen in love with the comics. We sometimes sit down and read them together, and she winds up asking me - repeatedly - "what's funny about this one?" Well, nothing. Often it's "nothing I can explain", sometimes it's just plain "nothing." But the things she does find funny, like the strips of Peanuts I read when I was her age (often literally the same ones) do reach her. Now here's my problem:

The juxtaposition of Peanuts and Garfield and Family Circus, and Rose is Rose with, for example, Wally Winkerbean's excursion into Afghanistan, creates a problem for me. I read Funky Winkerbean, but I'm not ready to introduce my children to the good and bad about Wally's minesweeping expedition. So I have to actively exclude (cover up) some material to have access to what I want, rather then simply opting into the content I choose.

I think that's the problem with people's gut reactions about the funny pages. The "think of the children" argument is ignorant and narrow. There's a place for Stephan Pastis's often brilliant and sometimes psychotically vulgar Pearls Before Swine. I just think that that place is not directly below Baby Blues.

Is it reasonable to ask the Comics Editor to consider consistency of target audience within a single presentation? For example, put Ziggy, Heathcliff, (yes, and Peanuts reruns, since so few artists are writing for that audience anymore) and such on one page, and strips with more adult content and targets somewhere else - not above them, not below them, and not on the facing page. In discussing The Aristocrats, Penn argued that vulgarity that surprises you, that prevents you from being prepared for it, can reasonably be considered unfair - that as a customer of an art product (TV, movie, etc.), you should not be assaulted with what you do not choose to see, and what you do not choose to permit your children to see. That's the argument for permitting more operating freedom on cable channels, isn't it? Doonesbury is already on the op-ed pages of many newspapers because of its content, no?. But by the same token, the market should provide what the customer wants - if that's grown-up content, political primers, and the occasional impaling of a criminally stupid crocodile, so be it.

I think Penn's got an excellent point. I wonder if the same argument applies to the comics. And I wonder what editors of other forms think.

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