One of the hazards of columnizing on the comics pages is that the public thinks you own them. So I probably shouldn't have been shocked when the phone rang three Monday mornings ago, my first day on these pages, and a bristling voice asked:
"What have you done with 'Moon Mullins'?"
"Honest, lady, I haven't done anything with him," I explained. "I just work here." But her call was followed by a dozen letters and other calls, all finding fault, one way or another, with how this newspaper handled that commodity precious to so many readers -- its comic strips.
"Please use your clout to have 'Moon Mullins' returned," wrote June Y. Stockham of Lorton. "Isn't there some way to get it back?" asked Kurt Friedman of Oxon Hill. And so on.
Okay, folks. You asked for it. Here, as culled from Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee, Assistant Managing Editor Mary Lou Beatty and others both responsible and knowledgeable, is an explanation of why "Moon Mullins" is gone from these pages, along with "Dallas," "Hello Carol" and "John Darling."
The plain-and-simple reason is a relative lack of readership. Surveys are routinely taken of how many people read which comics. Last month's four casualties scored at or near the bottom of the popularity list. Maybe you liked them, but a lot of other people didn't.
Why kill the four strips now? Because the paper had committed itself to repackage the comics onto two pages, rather than three, in early July. The editors felt that they might as well make the changes in the comics lineup at the same time as they were making the change in the total of comics pages.
Why did an oldie-but-goodie like "Moon Mullins" have to be one of those to go? Hadn't it earned its spurs? "People seem to like something new from time to time," says Beatty.
She emphasizes the word "seem." "No one knows for sure how to approach this. There's always going to be a 'squeal factor' if you kill a strip or a panel.
"I was at a meeting in New York a couple of years ago. Bill Sexton was handling comics for Newsday at the time. He told us, 'My publisher has a 13-year-old daughter. If she likes it, we buy it."
"It really is rolling the dice."
Footnote: If you care to compare your ire with the expressed ire of others, here is the Complaint Count for the first week that Moon Mullins and the other three strips were missing. It was compiled by Ann Dixon.
Total letters 22: "Mullins" 9, "Carol" 8, "Darling" 4, "The World of Animals" (a written feature that also died on June 26) 1.
Total calls 259: "Carol" 88, "Mullins" 76, "Animals" 52, repositioning of crossword puzzle (since repositioned again) 28, "Darling" 10 and general layout of the pages 5.
A pair of postal items, one that needs a happy ending, and one that got one:
Yvonne Pinette of Silver Spring got a letter at her home the other day that she cannot explain.
"The address is more printed than written, which makes me think a child may have sent it," Yvonne reports. "And there's something lumpy in it that rattles" -- which makes me think a child must have sent it.
Yvonne describes the envelope's color as "Baltimore Orioles orange." She says the seal has been reinforced with black electrical tape. However, the stamp (a garden-variety 18-center) and cancellation mark (Washington, D.C.) don't shed any distinctive light.
The address on the envelope? "T. Braxton, 1033 Cresthaven Dr., Silver Spring, Md., 20903." No one by that name, or anything like it, has ever lived at that address, to the best of Yvonne's knowledge.
Can anyone help get a lumpy letter into the right hands rather than the dead-letter file?
At the other end of the spectrum sits this tale, provided by Robin Bridges of Forestville.
When she was a child, Robin and her family lived at 46 New York Ave. NW. At the age of 5, Robin decided to send her mother a birthday card. As 5-year-olds will, she addressed it:
"MOMMY, 46 NY."
A week later, the card magically arrived. It was festooned with postmarks from all around New York state, and it was too late for the birthday, but it made it. Somehow. Says Robin: "Every time I hear someone criticize the post office, I think of that card."