Once again, "Doonesbury," the comic strip by Garry Trudeau, is in the midst of a controversy, this time through a coincidence of timing. A strip intended for publication on Sunday, May 23 -- but created weeks ago -- includes the image of a man being served his own head on a platter, unintentionally evoking the recent beheading in Iraq of American businessman Nick Berg.
Universal Press Syndicate of Kansas City, Mo., e-mailed a statement yesterday to newspaper editors alerting them to the issue. About 900 newspapers carry "Doonesbury" on Sundays. The syndicate has offered an old strip as a substitute, but for many newspapers that offer is empty because Sunday comics are usually printed well in advance.
"We're going to have to publish it because we've already printed," said Elizabeth McIntyre, the features editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who said she wished she'd heard about the issue earlier in the week. "If I'd known on Wednesday, I could have done something about it," she said. Like many editors, McIntyre is thinking of running a note to readers on May 23, explaining that the strip was drawn before Berg's execution, and printed before editors realized its potentially inflammatory content.
When the comic runs, Trudeau will release a statement on his Web site, www.doonesbury.com, saying, "I regret the poor timing, and apologize to anyone who was offended by an image that is now clearly inappropriate."
That image appears in a strip about the plight of Boopsie, who has become embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal at the university where she coaches football. In the strip, Boopsie tells her friend Joanie, a lawyer, that she has been fired by the university president and asks if she should sue. Joanie is apparently enraged at her friend's treatment. In the last box of the panel, Joanie imagines standing in front of the university president with his head on a platter.
"Doonesbury" has attracted considerable attention in recent months. Last month, Boopsie's husband, B.D., who had been sent to fight in Iraq, lost a leg. When B.D. became aware of his injury, he uttered an expletive that many papers considered unacceptable for publication. Some papers edited the strip and others didn't run it at all.
Lee Salem, editor of Universal Press Syndicate, said that Trudeau's May 23 comic was turned in, edited and sent out to printers four weeks ago, so nobody there realized the problem until a sharp-eyed client called late Thursday.
"We probably should have made the connection, but we did not," Salem said. He added that after finding out about it, he called Trudeau. "As soon as I said it, it dawned on him. . . . 'Oh my gosh, there's some people who might misconstrue that.' "
The Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Newark Star-Ledger, the Los Angeles Times, the Tampa Tribune and The Washington Post said yesterday they had already printed the strip and were planning on or considering running an editor's note.
Some newspaper editors expressed frustration that the syndicate had just alerted them yesterday to the strip's content.
"We really just wish they would stay a little bit more on top of these things," said Kim MacCormack, one of the Tampa Tribune's features editors. "Comics are one of the two things that readers do not hesitate to get up in arms about -- that and the TV book."
Other editors remarked that controversy in comics -- intentional or not -- seems to be increasing.
"Every single day I'm saying yea or nay on some comic that's problematic, and that was never the case five years ago," said Kyrie O'Connor, deputy managing editor of features for the Houston Chronicle. O'Connor managed to pull the strip at noon yesterday.
"They were literally going to press when I called," O'Connor said. "Frankly, I didn't even look at the substitute. I just knew it had to be better."