Focus on Comics With Shirley Carswell

Friday, May 15, 1998

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Todd Cross/TWP)
Good afternoon and welcome to a special edition of "Levey Live." I’m Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. We normally concern ourselves with major news events and major newsmakers.

Today, we take a look at the comics that are in -- or no longer in -- The Washington Post.

Our guest is Shirley Carswell, assistant managing editor for news administration and planning.

Part of Shirley’s domain is the comics pages. She will discuss recent changes, and the reasons behind them. Shirley will be with us until 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Your comments and questions are welcome throughout the hour.

Rockville, Md. How do you determine what comic strips come and go? Some strips, such as the Lockhorns and Gil Thorpe, were dropped some time ago. What can I do to get them back in your paper?

Shirley Carswell: There really is no formula for deciding. We generally drop a strip when we find a new one we'd like to make room for or if we think a strip has lost its steam, as in the case of Liberty Meadows. Occasionally, readers disagree with our assessment.

Bob Levey: I don't see how you can possibly win when it comes to comics choices. People like what they like and hate what they hate. Do you therefore make your choices with some other agenda in mind -- for example, choosing a strip that will attract younger readers to The Post as a whole?

Shirley Carswell: You're right. It's pretty subjective. But we do try to get a mix of strips that will appeal to all our readers. Sometimes people complain we have too many family and kids strips, but we do try to appeal to young readers, and comics are one way to do that.

Westminster, Md.: How about putting Doonesbury back on the comics page? Isn't it time to bury the hatchet?

Shirley Carswell: Doonesbury has made a home for itself in Style now. Once all the new printing presses are up and running, the comics will all appear in Style, so then Doonesbury will be reunited with the other comics, in a way.

Seattle, Wash.: Can you tell us anything about the guy who draws and writes Mutts? Where is he from?

Shirley Carswell: You can find out information about Mutts creator Patrick McDonell from King Features Web site.

Springfield, Va.: I remember a high school journalism teacher telling me the most popular strips are at the top of the page, the least at the bottom.

If that's true, what have you been basing your decisions on?
Unsolicited feedback?

Shirley Carswell: The top stories appear at the top of pages in a newspaper, but the comics don't follow that rule. During our redesign, the order of the strips was rejiggered mainly for space considerations.

Fairfax, Va.: Dennis, Garfield, Cathy, BC, and other humor strips in The Post seem to be there simply due to momentum. They were funny once upon a time, but now they just rehash old ideas, without even producing a smile. Yet they seem to stay forever.

Is momentum an issue when evaluating strips?

Shirley Carswell: Good question. No doubt we think harder about dropping the strips that have been around forever. Newer strips, we theorize, won't have built up as much of a following, and so are less painful to lose.

Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't The Post run Curtis on Sundays? I suggest using it to replace Sherman's Lagoon.

Shirley Carswell: Sometimes we take on new strips as daily only or Sunday only to offer a wider variety. It comes down to trying to fit in the most strips in a limited space.

Richmond, Va.: Why can't Sherman's Lagoon become a daily feature?

Shirley Carswell: Do you see the problem I face?

Washington, D.C.: How exactly is it determined which comics stay and which go? Apparently, this thing Friday will take a sweeping look at the comics. But in "normal" times, are decisions made based on the vocal minorities who write in favor or opposition to a particular strip? How do you go [ab]out seeking the opinions of the masses who enjoy the comics but are not moved to write about them? (As an aside, please register my vote to kick out Rugrats-- cool cartoon, poor strip IMO.)

Shirley Carswell: There is a committee of about 20 people -- different ages, backgrounds -- who vet new strips and rate ones we're considering dropping. The managing and executive editors also weigh in. We do keep an eye on comics surveys that other papers do, as well.

Bob Levey: Any plans to run the daily comics in color once the new presses are up and running?

Shirley Carswell: No. The daily comics will remain black and white.

Austin, Tex.: It's been a little while since I last got to blacken my hands with a print edition Post, but do the comics still require a search and rescue team to find them every day as they jump about the Post, and if so, why?

Shirley Carswell: The comics will appear in Style every day when the new presses are all up and running, sometime in early 1999.

University Hills, Md.: The thing that I want most in my comics is continuity. The Post went for years with the same comic lineup, and I was happy with it. It disrupts my comic reading every time that you make a change.

Why insist on fixing something that isn't broken? Why the insistence on continually changing the comics? It's as bad as trying to watch television with someone else using the remote to "surf."

Jonathan Goldblatt

Shirley Carswell: Everything must change. Cartoonists stop drawing strips; new and better strips come along. If we kept everything the same, we'd miss the chance to improve.

Annandale, Va.: BC's Sunday strip often has an overtly Christian message (which I like to see). Did that factor into your decision to remove it from the Sunday funnies?

Shirley Carswell: The "overtly Christian message" you like has offended others. The complaints about BC were a factor in the decision.

Silver Spring, Md.: Have you heard whether Bill Watterson might bring back a Calvin & Hobbs replacement or start drawing the strip again?

Shirley Carswell: I have heard nothing about that.

Washington, D.C.: Why don't you just add two more pages to the comics? I bet I am like a lot (if not most) people, in that the only reason I really get the paper is to read the comics, so I would be happier with two more pages of comics and two less pages of what is happening in Khazakstan!

Shirley Carswell: The Post runs more comics than just about any newspaper in the country. But we also pride ourselves on being a complete newspaper, with something for everyone, including in-depth foreign coverage.

Alexandria, Va.: Are you going to release the results of your Comics poll?

Shirley Carswell: Yes, the results will be published once we've tallied them.

Washington, D.C.: Why did you let Doug Marlette get away with advertising his Ford's Theatre show in his awful strip "Kudzu?"

Shirley Carswell: That one slipped by us.

Burke, Va.: Which comics are generally disliked by readers? For instance, I strongly dislike "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith." Is there a similar reaction in this specific case, or are all comics disliked by small groups of people?

Shirley Carswell: No one likes everything (at least I haven't heard from that reader yet). Some people who write us say they just don't read the ones they don't like.

Bob Levey: Less than half an hour remaining with our guest, assistant managing editor Shirley Carswell, the overlord of the comics pages.

Delmar, N.Y.: How often do you seriously consider new comic strips? If a new strip is submitted, do you automatically consider it, or do you first look to see whether there exists space for it?

Shirley Carswell: The syndicate sales reps are constantly offering up new strips, about three or four a month. We only consider ones that the committee finds appealing, keeping in mind the mix of strips we have.

Rockville, Md.: Has anyone at The Post considered a "beta comic section," where new strips could be tested by the readers?

Shirley Carswell: We've thought about that. As usual, we'd have to find the space to do it by dropping a strip.

Washington, D.C.: Are you going to do another comic crossover, where writers write each other's strips?

Shirley Carswell: That was something the syndicates cooked up.

Oakton, Va.: Do you read the comics yourself, and if so which ones are your favorites? Do you intend on keeping your favorites?

Shirley Carswell: I do read the comics every day. I enjoy a variety, and never let on what my favorites are so I can't be accused of favoritism.

Washington, D.C.: Why is Zippy the Pinhead still so popular? I thought he was funny 30 years ago when he was culturally relevant, but I don't find the current topics faintly humorous, and can't WAIT to see him go AWAY!!

Shirley Carswell: Last we heard, Zippy still had a strong following among Post readers.

Germantown, Md.: How about putting all the soap opera strips together? And the kids strips?

Shirley Carswell: The soap opera strips do run together. The term "kids strips" is relative. Is Mutts a kids strip?

Wheaton, Md.: In the Sunday comics, it is bad enough to have to look at (makes me want to) "Ralph," but why, oh why, oh WHY, did you have to shrink the most excellent cartooning of "Sherman's Lagoon" down to a size where I need my OED magnifying glass to read it?!

Why can't you shrink Ralph and make Sherman full sized?

Shirley Carswell: We try to run strips as large as possible given the space we have.

Bob Levey: So often, I hear (and think) that the comics just aren't funny. Do you agree? Does making a reader laugh enter into your decision to start or keep a particular panel or strip?

Shirley Carswell: Some strips aren't funny to me, but humor is so subjective. I think we should have funnies that are funny, but others make you think. Both kinds have a place in the paper.

Bethesda, Md.: I'm a teen, and I know tons of other teens and children who love to read the comics. How come such an overwhelming amount of the comics (including Ann Landers, Judy Mann and Bridge) are aimed for the adults?

P.S. -- Please tell Bob Levey (how do you say your last name?) that I love his column.

Shirley Carswell: Good question. You'd be surprised at how many readers tell us the comics should be for adults. We try to appeal to all ages, but frankly, we don't hear much from teens about their likes and dislikes. I'd love to run more features for your age group.(Did you complete the survey?)

Detroit, Mich.: Is Bob Levey really as handsome as he sounds?

Shirley Carswell: Even more so!!

McLean, Va.: Why don't you learn from your past mistakes (Mark Trail) and leave the comics alone? Substituting "Rugrats" for "BC" is ludicrous. How many small children do you know that shell out $1.50 for a paper each Sunday? What is this continual purge of the comics all about anyway? Money?

Shirley Carswell: Some days I'd love to leave the comics alone. There is no purge, we're just trying to stay fresh.

Columbia, Md.: I suppose this is a long shot, but could we expect to see more 'offbeat' strips, such as Zippy? For instance, Zippy and Ernie are my current favorites, and I was devastated when The Fusco Brothers was dropped. But I often feel like a minority reader with these tastes in strips. How many others out there share my 'marginalized' opinions?

Shirley Carswell: That's why we don't choose strips based only on reader polls. Some strips have a small but loyal following. By the way, The Fusco Brothers is available at washingtonpost.com.

Fredericksburg, Va.: Why did you move the crossword puzzle above the fold? It's harder to work with now.

Shirley Carswell: We've heard from many puzzle fans about this matter. We'll look into it.

Fairfax, Va.: Would you consider using this wonderful technology to let the readers offer opions about the comic content before changes are made?

Shirley Carswell: Even if we had readers' opinions, I'm not sure there'd be any agreement on new strips.

Takoma Park, Md.: Do you ever edit or censor comics? For instance, today's Mother Goose and Grimm would be hard to explain to a 5-year-old! By the way, I think Barney Goodle and Snuffy Smith is great!

Shirley Carswell: We try to edit the strips for issues of taste. Occasionally, questionable ones slip by.

Bob Levey: That's it for today's special edition of "Levey Live." Many thanks to assistant managing editor Shirley Carswell. Be sure to join us Tuesday, May 19, at noon Eastern time for our next regular show. Our guest will be Geneva Overholser, ombudsman (readers' representative) of The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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