Are some comic strip artists drawing tired and insensitive stereotypes in the daily search for laughs? Are some turning into editorialists rather than humorists?
Based on recent reader complaints, I could find support for both of these theses -- and some editors have one of their own: Are some Post readers losing their sense of humor?
As one who gave up regularly reading the comics well before Little Orphan Annie deserted the funny pages for the footlights of Broadway, I have hesitated to intrude on the newspaper fantasy land. But since two-thirds of The Post's readers reportedly turn to the strips on an average day, duty forces me to deal with them.
In recent months some readers have confessed unhappiness about occasional caricatures of Chinese, Arabs or Jews, for example. Others have complained that since youngsters pay more attention to comics than sermons, strips that illustrate unsocial behavior -- drug use or heavy drinking -- are harmful.
A recent Mary Worth sequence drew the wrath of several readers by having a woman saying, "When a girl doesn't want to be kissed . . . She really wants to be kissed . . . But she doesn't want the boy who wants to kiss her to know she wants to be kissed." One indignant reader wrote, "This perpetuates rape. Many of these so-called comics are concealed incitements to crime/violence," and signed the note, "A Person (not a woman)."
Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who hasn't given up reading comics, said he would have been troubled if the words had come from a man, but with a woman doing the talking, "it was acceptable."
Mr. Bradlee has some frustrations of his own, however. How can a paper provide comics if the governing criteria is, "Does this offend anybody?" He pointed out that back to the Katzenjammer Kids making fun of Germans and Fred Allen teasing southern legislators with his Senator Claghorn routine, poking fun at various parts of society has been an American tradition. "Some bite is fine. It's a matter of degree."
(I think there have been some excesses, but pulling a strip is a lot harder than editing out an offending phrase in a story.)
"What's happened to our sense of humor?" Mr. Bradlee asked.
Some readers have complained about a lack of humor in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," labeling it more an editorial than a comic strip. Mr. Bradlee has equally strong views: "From time to time, he's hilarious, really good; other times, like the rest of us, he's 0 for 4."
Why isn't the satirical strip on the editorial page? Mr. Bradlee said the comic, like other strips, had been shrunk to about 12 square inches, and when Mr. Trudeau this year insisted on full size -- about 18 inches -- or no contract, The Post shifted the strip to page 3 of the Style section. Mr. Bradlee acknowledged it was hard to maintain artistic and literary integrity in the smaller space, but also saw the shift as a way to lure more readers to Style.
Meg Greenfield, editor of the editorial pages, said she hadn't been offered "Doonesbury" nor had she sought it. So many comics now deal with public figures she saw no special need to place the strip inside her territory.
While Mr. Trudeau's lampooning has been featured in about 800 newspapers, several books, art exhibits and even a Broadway musical, I believe it is more appropriate to the editorial page than Style. With presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan, House Speaker Tip O'Neill and several members of Congress often featured in his rolling cast of characters, it seems more comment than comic.
Mr. Trudeau did submit the strip in the "Editorial Cartooning" category of the Pulitzer prizes and won one in that category in 1975.
One member of Congress, Millicent Fenwick, was reputedly the model for the "Doonesbury" character "Lacey Davenport." Ambassador Fenwick, now U.S. representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said at the time that while she didn't read the comics, "I think it's marvelous. After all we have to be able to laugh at ourselves a little in this business."
But public figures should laugh at their caricatures on the editorial page.