In days after bombing, a cartoon dog is mourned

April 30, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

You think the Oklahoma City bombing was a tragedy?

You think the murder of all those people, all those little children, was sad?

Well, it was. But a cartoon dog dying, that's a real tragedy. That's really sad.

Allow me to explain:

"For Better or for Worse" is a comic strip that runs in about 1,500 newspapers around the world, including The Sun. I like it a lot.

It is drawn by Lynn Johnston and portrays the life of an imaginary family, the Pattersons.

There's a mother, father, three children and two dogs.

The dogs are Farley, an English sheep dog, and his puppy son, Edgar.

Farley has been in the strip since 1981 and because the strip is one of the few in which the characters age, Farley was pretty old for a sheep dog.

In real life, they rarely live more than 12 or 13 years.

Which Lynn Johnston's sister, a veterinarian, pointed out to her. So Johnston, in a dramatic, yet tasteful, way killed the dog off:

Farley rescues the family's little girl from drowning in a raging stream and then expires.

"I wanted him to go out with courage and dignity," Johnston said. "If the strip is true to life, I can't very well have the oldest dog in the world. I really didn't have a choice."

Johnston is no stranger to controversy. She has dealt with subjects such as child abuse and shoplifting, and 40 papers canceled her when she introduced a gay character.

But she never expected what followed the death of Farley:

Even though the real deaths in Oklahoma City were dominating the news, thousands of people called to complain.

"I am really upset!" one woman raged. "I think it's pathetic!"

Another caller offered to make a donation to an animal sanctuary in Farley's name if only Johnston would change her mind and let Farley live.

The calls start at 7 a.m. and they go all day.

"I think part of the problem is that the story ran at a time when everyone is in tears, everyone is mourning," Johnston told a reporter. "I have no way of knowing what the headlines are going to be.

"I have to work six to eight weeks ahead of publication. The coincidence that it would happen at this time is out of my control."

But think about it: People who have real, actual victims to grieve over are grieving over a cartoon dog.

A dog that never really lived, so could not have really died.

But wait, there's more:

Johnston said an unusual group of people is calling her to complain, people who have not called her before:

Newspaper editors.

"I didn't expect to get calls from editors," she said. "A lot of them don't contact you personally because they don't like you to know their personal thoughts.

"But I've been getting calls like, 'We've lost our collie two years ago and we still think of him every day.' "

I am trying to imagine the newspaper editor, who presumably is not only up to date on the deaths in Oklahoma, but also those in Rwanda, making that call.

(In case you missed it, soldiers recently killed anywhere from 300 to 2,000 refugees in Rwanda. The bodies are stacked up like cordwood. I'm not going to attempt the argument that you should care about those people as much as the people in Oklahoma, but if you have been offering up prayers for the souls of the dead recently, you might want to include them.)

OK, so here is an editor dealing with real tragedy in the real world, and he calls a cartoonist to complain about the imaginary death of an imaginary dog?

Let me make clear that I stand second to none in my awe of and admiration for newspaper editors.

If, by the way, you are wondering about the difference between editors and reporters, here it is:

Reporters are not supposed to put their own opinions in stories but rather report on the opinions of others. They are not supposed to inject their own ideas into stories, but report on the ideas of others.

If a reporter gets so good at this that he has no opinions and no ideas whatsoever, they make him an editor.

I do not know which editors are taking time out of their busy days to call Lynn Johnston to complain about the death of Farley.

But I do know this:

At one time or another, I am sure I have worked for them.

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