RINA PICCOLO recently went on a thoughtful and impassioned rant. The cartoonist, who has created the King Features strip “Tina’s Groove” since 2002, needed to vent after yet another case of the comics page playing it too safe for her sensibility.
“I’m all for safe. I think safe is a good policy,” Piccolo wrote online. “What I have a problem with is too safe. Too safe is what gets me. It’s having the comics page get so circumspect that, often, all the best humor is washed away and scrubbed clean, or replaced entirely with something less spicy. I think readers will agree that, at least in some cases, ‘too safe’ often means boring.”
Indeed, of course, that’s a common complaint, among creators and readers. But where to rest the blame then? Piccolo writes that “newspaper editors are a pretty normal bunch of people who laugh at the same jokes that we all laugh at. It’s not them we should be looking at. What we should shift our focus to is a very small percentage of people who write letters, and call newspaper offices threatening to cancel their subscription because Marmaduke
crapped doo-dooed on the floor that day. (Apologies to Brad Anderson.)”
And how do so few wield so much power over what we all see on the comics pages? Well, many editors move from swaggering to skittish, of course, because of the decline of the traditional business model in newspapering. When numbers decline, sensitivity spikes.
“Are newspaper editors this afraid of losing subscriptions? Yes. And I don’t blame them,” Piccolo wrote. “In fact, I can relate. I myself agreed to red-light the above strip because I, too, am afraid of losing newspapers. Do you see the wild cycle? Do you see the rock and the hard place?”
When I asked Piccolo whether she now self-censors herself as a result, she replies: “Yes, I think 15 years in syndication — with both “Tina’s Groove” and “Six Chix” — has trained me to be ‘good.’
“If I come up with something that I think is too spicy, I put it aside to use in my other work — I do gag cartoons for mags — or I try to push it through, like the strip in question,” she continues. “Sometimes I’ll revise the wording so it’s more ‘PG.’ Yes, I definitely have become better at packaging gag ideas to get them to slide past the limits!”
Similarly, “Pearls Before Swine” creator Stephan Pastis is a cartoonist who broke into syndication on this side of the millennium, and he has railed against the degree to which the newspaper comics pages seem stuck in another era, to their own detriment.
“There are a number of reasons comics remain in a long-ago conservative era,” says Pastis, who will appear in conversation with Comic Riffs this Saturday night at the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival, at the Washington Convention Center.
“First off, a number of them are from a long-ago conservative era,” Pastis emphasizes. “Literally. They are repeated strips from decades ago. And that should never happen. What other part of the paper recycles content?”
Then there is the matter that so many features become “legacy strips” or long-terms reruns. On The Post’s comics pages, for example, such features as “Blondie,” “Hagar the Horrible” and “Family Circus” continue well after their creators died, often continued by relatives and new hires.
“A huge number of them are not done by the original creator,” Pastis says. “Somebody should go through The Post’s comic section and count the number of strips where the original creator is deceased. Seriously. …
“So in those strips where the original creator is no longer alive or is retired, in most instances [not all], the successor to the strip doesn’t want to risk messing things up by changing direction or taking chances,” Pastis points out. “Because that could lose papers for them. And that would mean a loss of income. So you have a strip that is a tame shadow of its original self — a bland echo of its groundbreaking creator. Elvis replaced by an Elvis impersonator.
“And to take my Elvis analogy one step further, Elvis had a seemingly endless series of stages to perform on. Cartoonists don’t,” continues Pastis, a multiple finalist for the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year. “There are only so many precious slots in a newspaper. So that Elvis impersonator the paper is clinging to is preventing the next rock superstar from even taking the stage.”
Pastis, like Piccolo, also points to the larger economics of the business. “Newspapers have cut comics tremendously over the years. So if you’re a creator — or a syndicate — you’re acutely aware of the precarious position you are in. So you don’t take chances. Because everybody down the line — creator/syndicate/newspaper/features editor — is scared. Scared of one angry reader. One lost subscriber. So they all get tame and cautious.”
This gets back down, as Piccolo noted, to the level of language use. “Talk to some cartoonists about the ridiculous conversations they’ve had with their syndicate editors about the word ‘boobs’ or ‘sucks’ or ‘fart.’ It’s silliness.”
Lastly, Pastis reserves some of his ire for the comics poll — a tool that some critics say causes newspapers editors to abdicate their role as comics decision-makers and curators.
“Even when done fairly — very rare — the comics poll has a unique ability to negatively single out any strip that has a point-of-view,” says Pastis, who calls such polls “absurdly ridiculous. “Because readers remember that one. So the opinionated creator stands out like a chili pepper in a bowl of oatmeal. And he or she gets killed for it.”
Indeed, because instead, we sometimes get something even blander than oatmeal on the comics page. We get milquetoast.