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Mark Bennett Opinion

June 24, 2012

Mark Bennett: Funny Pages

Humor is the key to comic strip longevity

TERRE HAUTE —

The sound of my teenage daughter laughing at the newspaper comics inspires me.

Value endures in the daily artwork on paper. The sounds of pages turning, a coffee cup meeting a wooden tabletop and chuckles have not disappeared. My daughter is among those keeping that resource alive, every morning. It’s one of life’s simple joys, and it remains right there in front us, in black and white (and color on Sundays) — if we just pick it up and look at it.

Think of it: Nearly two dozen cartoonists offer to put a smile on our faces every morning, with a few sentences and wacky drawings.

It’s worth the handful of minutes it takes to read them. Anybody with a job can relate to “Dilbert” or “The Born Loser.” Any parent can connect with “Hi and Lois,” “Family Circus,” “Baby Blues,” “Dennis the Menace” or “Zits.” Married folks grin at “For Better or For Worse,” “Blondie” or “The Lockhorns.” Others remind us of the world’s absurdities, especially “Non Sequitur” and “Garfield.” They get clipped and stuck on computer terminals, office doors and refrigerators.

For me, “The Far Side” fit my sense of humor like a scuba suit. That Gary Larson gem ran in more than 1,900 daily newspapers from 1980 to 1995. It made me laugh almost every single time. In one classic entry, a line of people are greeted by an angel who says, “Welcome to heaven … here’s your harp,” while in the cartoon’s bottom panel another line of people are greeted by a devil who says, “Welcome to hell … here’s your accordion.”

I felt sad when Larson announced the comic strip would end on New Year’s Day 1995. Comics build such attachment.

“People are passionate about them,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center.

Understanding that bond was a prerequisite for Jurkowitz when he became ombudsman at the Boston Globe in 1995. “My predecessor told me, the thing that will generate the most outrage, the most complaints to the office, the most backlash,  is any change in the comics page,” Jurkowitz said.

In the rocky, survival-of-the-fittest, 21st-century, lean economic era, some cost-cutting newspapers have tested readers’ affection for cartoons. The Newark Star-Ledger drew more than 1,200 reader complaints in 2010 when it downsized its comics section.

The Tribune-Star publishes 18 cartoons in its daily sections and 23 on Sundays, and that lineup has remained steady for more than a decade, Editor Max Jones said.

The “funny pages” began in the 19th century, and flourished in the 20th, before experiencing the struggles of the 21st. The ups and downs of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy turned “Peanuts” into a pop culture phenomenon. Charles Schulz created more than 18,000 of those strips for more than a half-century. They appeared in more than 2,200 newspapers in dozens of countries and languages. Since Schulz’s death in 2000, “Peanuts” reruns have graced the funny sections of hundreds of papers, including the Tribune-Star.

Its lingering appeal is a testament to the staying power of comics.

Schulz did not want another cartoonist drawing “Peanuts” after his passing, but several long-running comics are now the work of the creators’ sons or daughters, or teams of artists. “Hi and Lois,” created by Mort Walker and Dik Browne in 1954, is produced today by sons Brian and Greg Walker, and Robert “Chance” Browne. Mort Walker, 88, still draws his “Beetle Bailey,” just as he has since 1950.

“I’m stunned as to how many ageless strips are still there,” Jurkowitz said Thursday by phone from the Pew offices in Washington, D.C.

On the flipside, comic strip historian Allan Holtz said newspapers need edgier cartoon offerings — beyond reruns and non-controversial characters — to satisfy a demographic that relies on online news sources instead of print products.

“If newspaper editors would welcome comic strips with a snarky viewpoint, an off-center attitude, or a willingness to attack controversial subjects, they might just win back some of their younger readers, who have forsaken the daily paper in favor of Google News,” Holtz told the Tribune-Star. “Those readers need irresistible reasons for including print media in their daily time budget.”

Whatever the topic, the key to comic strip longevity is humor.

“It’s hard not to like cartoons, if they’re funny,” said Polly Keener, chairman of the Great Lakes Chapter of the National Cartoonists Society.

Keener is both a practitioner and teacher of the craft. Her cartoon strip “Hamster Alley” and puzzle “Mystery Mosaic” are nationally syndicated to nearly 450 newspapers. She’s also taught cartooning at the University of Akron, the city where she lives. Her 1992 book “Cartooning,” with a forward by Hoosier “Garfield” artist Jim Davis, remains well-known in the field.

With that vast background, Keener sees fellow cartoonists working hard to adapt their once-stable print strips to fit varying newspaper space demands and new, less financially certain online formats. “Most of us still, at heart, would like to see our work in print,” she said.

Many cartoonists use computers to color part or all of their creations. Keener does hers in black-and-white. “So I’m really old-fashioned,” she said, chuckling. “I even draw in ink.”

Such fresh pieces of art, on their own newsprint canvas, with original storylines, arriving at our homes, day after day, represent a precious commodity. If those comics fade or vanish, people would say goodbye to a piece of their culture. “They would lose America’s most popular art form,” Keener said.

The Great Lakes Chapter of the NCS includes 40 cartoonists, while the national society roster totals more than 600, Keener said. “All of my friends love their jobs and are going to keep on drawing their strips even if nobody buys them,” she said, “but we hope they do.”

Their appeal is their biggest advantage in the face of economic adversity — a slice of everyday life, with irreverent commentaries on coffeeshop topics that might not make the cable news channels. “So I think you would miss that” if daily newspaper comics ended, Keener said.

The drawing will never stop, though.

“It’s sort of like being on the ground with the people of the times,” Keener said, “and you may not get that elsewhere. What you may get is graffiti. You may get more people drawing on the wall, if you take away newspapers.”

Imagine trying to clip a chunk of drywall to a fridge.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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