The Washington Post

OF BEN BRADLEE AND ‘MARK TRAIL’: How Comic Riffs celebrates its 4th birthday

IN THE SUMMER OF 2008, as I ruminated on whom to interview to mark the launch of Comic Riffs, some of the usual suspects’ names sprang to mind — Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson and Aaron McGruder, Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi, of course, among them.

What I didn’t remotely anticipate, though, was that my first blog interview about comics would be with...Ben Bradlee.

Yet as the launch neared that year, numerous colleagues, including former Post media critic Howard Kurtz, urged me with the same line of advice:

Ask Ben about Mark Trail.

After gauging their sly smiles and vaguely nostalgic gazes, my piqued curiosity wouldn’t let me say no. Several days later, as I emerged from about 45 gracious minutes in Ben’s office, I was awfully glad my colleagues and curiosity had been equally on the money.

To celebrate Comic Riffs’ fourth anniversary this month, we’re republishing an excerpt from the blog’s Day One — about how one of journalism’s legendary editors helped topple a president, yet couldn’t quite oust a fictional forest-dweller.

Without further ado:



“BRADLEE v. TRAIL”: How two prominent newspaper figures stack up. (Michael Cavna/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Reprinted from July 2008:

MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of people who vote with their eyes take comics extremely seriously.

Which is precisely why today, we are launching this daily comics blog. Because from the funny pages to “Wall*E” and Batman at the cineplex to graphic novels to this month's San Diego Comic-Con, we take cartooning in its many forms seriously.

Comics matter to people, and move people, like few forces in the international publishing world. They are Starbucks, Su-Do-Ku and Oprah all rolled into one.

Even that, however, doesn't fully, forcefully illustrate the power of comics. For that, I need to call on a Higher Authority. So I get on the elevator at The Post and punch "9." Within minutes I am face-to-face with a teenhood hero, former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. I am before Bradlee to check on a famed anecdote concerning the comics; I want to hear it from the source's mouth.

In 1991, months before he stepped down as editor, Bradlee decided to ax a handful of comics from the Post's funny pages, including a nature-themed strip that had been around for 45 years.

“Arbitrarily, I decided to drop 'Mark Trail.' It was so old," Bradlee says with a glint in his eye, deliciously engaged, as if neither day nor decade has since passed.

“A day or two after," Bradlee continues, he looked across a parking lot from his North Wall office. There, on a neighboring building, officeworkers for a design firm had hung a sign with a simple four-word demand: "BRING BACK MARK TRAIL."

Bradlee picks up the story: “So we put a sign out that said: 'OKAY.'

“Then they hung out a sign that said: 'WHEN?' ” Bradlee's reply: “SOON.”

The last-panel resolution of this anecdote is that Bradlee — true to his word and signage — restored the strip to the pages of The Post, where the strip still lives to this day. The moral of this storyline? The man who helped bring down Richard Nixon couldn't topple Mark Trail.

This is a real dynamic that all features editors face. Adam Sandler's recent comedy is titled “You Don't Mess With the Zohan”; but for newspaper editors, the caveat is: “You Don't Mess With the Comics Fan” — or if you do, at least at your own peril.


Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.


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