Why Were These Comics Dropped?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 16, 2007

Readers were confused and angry that "Opus" comic strips with a Muslim theme did not appear in the Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 Sunday print editions. The strips, created by Berkeley Breathed, were distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group and published on washingtonpost.com.

Most of the controversy involved the Aug. 26 strip, which showed regular character and spiritual seeker Lola Granola in her version of a burqa, declaring that she has become a "radical Islamist. Hot new fad on the planet." Her boyfriend, the piggish super-patriot Steve Dallas, is horrified. She tells him he "won't be getting a girlfriend obsessed with Western crud" or one "who resists a man's rightful place." Steve, with a leer and then a concerned look, asks: "Anything else I won't be getting?" Lola answers: "God willing."

Executive Editor Len Downie decided to kill the strip because he felt the language and depiction of Muslim female dress could be offensive. He consulted with other editors, one of whom talked to a Muslim staff member, who believed the strip was problematic.

Comics have long featured social commentary; think back to "Pogo" and "Li'l Abner." And comics have been killed before in The Post. "The Boondocks," a black-oriented strip no longer being drawn, was dropped several times. Editors killed episodes of the old comic strip "B.C." that they found anti-Semitic, Downie said. "We keep things out of the paper every day that we think are inappropriate."

Many of the 100 or so readers who complained accused The Post of being afraid of Muslims and said that it was unfair to "censor" an "Opus" strip on Muslims when a crack had been made in an earlier strip about the late Jerry Falwell, a conservative Christian leader. Falwell, however, was a public figure and fair game. Amy Lago, comics editor for the Writers Group, said at least 12 strips since "Opus" started in 2003 have dealt "in one form or another with religion, especially of the conservative flavor." None were killed.

Downie said he would have killed a Sept. 5 "The Piranha Club" strip had it been brought to his attention because he felt it contained a stereotype about Jews. In the strip, a minister wonders whether putting slot machines in the church vestibule was "the Christian thing to do." After hearing footsteps, another character says: "It's another busload of Jewish ladies from New York." The point of the strip, however, was to make fun of the Christian minister. A recent "Mother Goose and Grimm" comic drew a few complaints from Jewish readers. It showed a vampire couple wondering why they get so many invitations to bat mitzvahs.

The Sept. 2 "Opus" strip featured Steve Dallas wanting Lola Granola to go to the beach in a bikini. He thinks that ordering her to wear it will work; "America rocks," he says, telling his son that this "is how we're gonna straighten out the world." Instead she wears a Burkini, modest Muslim swimwear designed and sold by Ahiida Ltd., a company in Sydney. Aheda Zanetti, owner and designer, wears the veil and said she "just loved" the strips. The Sept. 2 strip mentioned her Web site, which prompted some hate mail, Zanetti said.

The reasons that strip wasn't published are murky. Downie said he did not kill it. Other editors thought that the Writers Group thought it would be hard to understand without seeing the first strip. Alan Shearer, Writers Group editorial director, said he made that point but did not want either strip killed.

About 25 of the 200 "Opus" clients told Shearer they would not run the first strip. Old strips were sent as alternatives. Many ran the second strip. Most papers ran both, Shearer said, including the Chicago Tribune, the Oregonian, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. A check with editors showed that only the Sun and the Tribune got complaints -- one each.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, wasn't offended. " 'Opus' poked fun at the strip's characters, not Muslims or Islam. I see hundreds worse on the Internet every day," he said.

Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, also wasn't offended. He said there is a strong Muslim tradition of satire and self-deprecation. "I think there is a danger of us becoming so politically correct that we end up by blunting the critics' bent and the satirists' wit. Muslims need to be sensitive to the fact that in Western culture there is a healthy tradition of not taking things too seriously."

It would be an understatement to say that Breathed and Writers Group editors were not pleased that The Post didn't run the strips. Shearer was "disappointed" and argued against dropping them. Publisher Bo Jones was in the middle. The Writers Group reports to him, as does Downie. Jones worked with Shearer and Breathed on points that concerned him and approved the strips' distribution. But he let Downie decide not to publish them in the newspaper.

Breathed didn't want to talk about it, because, he wrote, "Subtlety has never been my hallmark. Cartoons only work UNPARSED. Unexamined. Un-deconstructed. Two weeks ago the 'Today Show' spent 10 minutes doing exactly that with the 'Opus' Muslim strips, and it was like watching someone try to iron wet toilet paper."

I think Post editors overreacted in killing the strips. Comics are meant to be artful, fun and provocative. The two strips were all of that and worth publishing. Let comics be comics.

P.S. Love that penguin!

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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