Not Your Parents’ Lineup of Comics?

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By: Dave Astor

Comics pages have seemingly bulged with envelope-pushing content during the past several months. Pointed satire aimed at the Bush administration (“The Boondocks”), mention of masturbation (“Doonesbury”), pigs waiting to be slaughtered into deli meat (“Pearls Before Swine”), and so on.

“There’s a trend towards comics being more edgy,” said Chris Browne, who does “Hagar the Horrible” for King Features Syndicate and “Raising Duncan” for United Feature Syndicate.

“We’re living in a more cynical, ironic age,” added “Mutts” creator

Patrick McDonnell of King. “Entertainment reflects that.”

McDonnell and Browne are fine with some edginess on comics pages, but feel kinder, gentler content is also important. Indeed, observers say there’s still plenty of that content in the funnies ? which they describe as one of America’s last remaining sources for mostly uncontroversial humor.

“There’s some kind of inertia built into the comics world,” said “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams of United, noting a number of strips still sport a 1950s sensibility. Why? Hilary Price, creator of the edgy “Rhymes With Orange,” said many newspapers don’t want to deal with reader complaints ? even though edgy comics might be enjoyed by many readers not contacting the paper.

Price, whose 1995-launched strip has 100 clients via King, said another reason for relatively few edgy comics is that some use a “Far Side”-like shape. Most papers have fewer slots for panels than strips.

Depending on the observer, edgy comics can be a shot in the arm or an unwelcome presence in a mostly “safe” medium.

Adams, who places his 1989-launched, 2,000-plus-client comic “on the borderline between mainstream and edgy,” said some cartoonists aren’t skilled enough social critics “to put their opinions in front of millions of readers.” He added that it makes sense for many strips to be uncontroversial because that style of humor is preferred by many comics readers ? who include lots of kids and even more older people, but not as many teens and young adults.

“La Cucaracha” creator Lalo Alcaraz of Universal Press Syndicate said an edgier lineup of comics would attract more young adults to newspapers. “Young people don’t come pre-programmed with the Leave it to Beaver mentality. Life is edgy, and newspaper comics should reflect that,” he said.

“For years, friends my age have told me they no longer read the comics because the safe, generic humor that predominates did not appeal to them,” added Stephan Pastis, 35, whose “Pearls Before Swine” strip has built a list of 150 papers since entering syndication with United in early 2002.

Alcaraz, whose late-2002-launched strip has about 65 subscribers, said outlets such as TV are way ahead of newspaper comics in offering edgy humor. Pastis did say this kind of humor “finally seems to be spilling” into newspaper comics sections ? which he calls “a good thing” and “long overdue.”

Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator of Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library, said syndicates are trying to find new features attractive to younger people while not alienating readers and newspaper editors who want more traditional content. But the OSU professor hasn’t seen a big rise in envelope-pushing comics. “Some strips have used the same formulaic humor for years,” she commented. “It’s tired.”

Caswell did say edgy comics have to be accessible to enough readers. “It’s OK if not everyone gets every joke, but you can’t lose too many people,” she said.

What makes a comic edgy? People said it can be ironic, offbeat, angry, political, satirical, sarcastic, and/or crude. Among the edgy ones cited were “The Boondocks” by Aaron McGruder, “Doonesbury” by Garry Trudeau, “Non Sequitur” by Wiley Miller, and “The Duplex” by Glenn McCoy (all with Universal); “Bizarro” by Dan Piraro and “Zippy the Pinhead” by Bill Griffith (both with King); “Opus” by Berkeley Breathed (Washington Post Writers Group/WPWG); “Sylvia” by Nicole Hollander (Tribune Media Services); and “Ballard Street” by Jerry Van Amerongen (Creators Syndicate).

“The edgy comic is Alice looking at her reflection in the looking glass and seeing the world she lives in,” said Price. “The ‘fuzzy’ comic is Alice falling into the looking glass and entering a made-up world.”

Browne’s “Raising Duncan” ? like comics such as “Red and Rover” (Brian Basset/WPWG) and “Jump Start” (Robb Armstrong/United) ? rest in syndication’s kinder, gentler spectrum. “It’s warm and, dare I say, wholesome,” said Browne, whose semi-autobiographical strip, co-written with his wife Carroll, stars a loving couple bringing up a dog as if it were the child they never had. The 2000-launched comic runs in fewer than 50 papers (some large), but gets a lot of fan mail and is very popular among users of United’s site.

Browne has done edgy work for National Lampoon magazine and likes some strips in that genre, but doesn’t want that style of humor to dominate. “The newspaper comics section is one of the last bastions in entertainment that’s so free of violence, sex, and vulgarity ? and that champions the family, love, and virtue,” he said. “After you read about all the horrors of the world, it’s a little island where you can escape for a few seconds. I think that’s great.”

Even his “Hagar the Horrible” strip has warmth, said Browne, noting that its “barbarian” star is also a family man. “Sort of the Tony Soprano of his age,” he joked.

Warm comics can still address painful realities. For instance, the Dec. 7 “Red and Rover” featured a poignant line about how “many a dog lost their boy forever” at Pearl Harbor. Dozens of e-mailers thanked Basset, with one woman writing: “Your endearing comic has been special to me since its inception. The gentleness with which you portray the little guy and his dog makes me smile. I was especially moved by your Pearl Harbor strip, and, yes, I did tear up.”

Edgy comics aren’t always more intelligent and interesting than gentler ones. Browne said strips such as “Mutts,” “Rose is Rose” (Pat Brady/United), and “For Better or For Worse” (Lynn Johnston/United) are warm and smart ? as well as funny. “For Better” runs in more than 2,000 papers.

And edgy vs. warm isn’t always an either-or proposition. “The best strips have a combination of both qualities,” said McDonnell, citing “Peanuts” as one example. A current comic in this category is “Get Fuzzy” by United’s Darby Conley, whose characters include an abrasive cat and gentle dog.

McDonnell, whose 1994-founded “Mutts” runs in more than 500 papers, said “one-note” comics aren’t as appealing to him. Some warm comics can be “sappy,” he said, while some edgy ones are too “cynical and mean-spirited.” McDonnell added that it’s easier for a cartoonist “to tear things down than to be vulnerable.”

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