Real world slips into comics strips

September 11, 1992|By Boston Globe

Will Garfield become an animal-rights activist? Will the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles form a third political party? Will Nancy become a radical feminist and accuse Sluggo of sexual harassment?

If there is little in the world that successfully resists change, the comics pages, it seems, are no exception. Reality increasingly colors the multi-paneled worlds of the imagination stuck inside hundreds of daily newspapers. King Features Syndicate, which distributes the Blondie comic strip, last week prepared its readers for the latest capitulation to modern custom: Dagwood Bumstead is not only giving notice to his tantrum-prone boss, Mr. Dithers, but is going to work for his wife, Blondie.

DC Comics also announced last week that the comic-book Superman will die, but for newspaper readers he died years ago.

Blondie's only work was her homemaking responsibilities until about a year ago, when she broke comic tradition and started a catering business, joining the majority of American women, who work. Amanda Hass, a spokeswoman for King Features, fielded a phone call last week from a reader irate about the latest development. "I told him he was probably also distressed when Dagwood quit using garters to hold up his socks," says Ms. Hass. "He said yes, he was."

It used to be the exceptional comic strip that echoed front-page headlines or society's dilemmas. Walt Kelly's "Pogo" -- now being drawn by his son and daughter -- was famous for political satire, and Al Capp used "Li'l Abner's" rural characters to to crucify folk singer Joan Baez for her antiwar activism by creating a character named Joanie Phoanie. The other odd characters were on the page mostly to entertain, to provide a chuckle, to amuse readers amid the news of natural disaster, political scandal and fiscal drought.

Increasingly, comic strips are not only sources of entertainment, theirmost obvious function, but forums for presenting social commentary or at least raising serious questions. A storyline concerning whether Dagwood, who has a long-celebrated tendency to pig out, can be trusted around all the food that Blondie and Tootsie are preparing for their customers will amuse some longtime Blondie strip readers. His unconventional role as an employee in his own household, however, is already proving disturbing to the tradition-minded.

"Rex Morgan M.D." is wrapping up a story now in which an emergency-room doctor discovers that she is HIV-positive.

Curtis, the main character in one of very few strips focusing on minorities, will be approached by a drug dealer next week, and not long ago Curtis' little brother found the baby of a crack-addicted mother in a dumpster.

Sally Forth's husband recently became upset that the couple was not making love frequently enough. "Some people raised some eyebrows on that one," says Ms. Hass, "and a lot of people thought it was just wonderful. So you never know."

What we do know is that the unconventional is becoming more conventional. "Doonesbury," by Garry Trudeau, is credited in recent times for blurring the lines between the playful and the political. His contemporary characters are trapped not only in comic-strip style but also in modern situations. And now the four-panel-strip style has even infected what used to be a single-panel world, that of the political cartoon. Tom Toles of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News, the Boston Globe's Dan Wasserman and others are finding dialogue among characters in multiple boxes a more efficient way of making a political point.

Forty years ago or so, with the comics dominated by "Donald Duck," "Mutt and Jeff," "Life's Like That," and "Jack Armstrong The All American Boy," about the only politics hinted at in the comics pages was sexual politics, and, boy, was it backward. Amid a funhouse of more than 30 cartoon panels and strips in the Sunday, June 8, 1947, Boston Globe, there were: "The Ladies" ("Women! Talking, talking, talking all the time. . . ."), "Mopsy" ("Of course, you're the only one I love, darling!" she purrs into two telephone receivers), "Chlorine" ("Champion of the Working Girl"), and "Teen-age Triumphs" ("Yes, chicks are into everything these days. . . .").

Nutty ("The Far Side") or existential ("Zippy") humor was undreamed of then. Bill Griffith, the creator of "Zippy" (known as "Zippy the Pinhead" in politically incorrect newspapers), says there is not enough bite to the comics even today. "You can only tell diet jokes so many times, and then they're not funny anymore," says Mr. Griffith.

Gary G. Groth, executive editor of the Comics Journal, doesn't care who is writing and drawing the cartoons these days. He thinks daily cartooning is dead. "The daily newspaper strip is so circumscribed by demographics and the need not to offend anybody," says Mr. Groth, who sees the real cartooning talent today in editorial cartoons, comic books and alternative publications. His heroes are Jules Feiffer (Feiffer) and Mark Alan Stamaty (Washingtoon), both wicked satirists whose work now does appear in some daily newspapers.

By and large, he says, "Newspaper strips are based upon an abstracted reality based on surveys based on what syndicate heads get from reading People magazine. . . . One of the laws of newspaper strips is they have to be absolutely innocuous. They can't have a point of view."

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