"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Strip Search



In 1997, CNN's military affairs

correspondent reported on

concerns about sexual misconduct

in Beetle Bailey. In March, a

reader-submitted Amazon review

reported that "da Beetle Dude

weave his magic subverso

laziness and take down da

military industrial complex slow

but sure." Beetle Bailey's never

seen combat, but raging

territorial disputes continue

about the mind space claimed by

newspaper comic strips. Cathy

demeans women. Luann is

homophobic. The funnies aren't.


As they careen toward

irrelevance, comic strip artists

are finding more sophisticated

audiences challenging their hold

on the popular imagination. And

this month, in a bold counter

strike, they launched

Cartoonists Day, featuring

self-congratulatory banners

between the frames of many

newspaper strips - praising the

glorious leaders who produce

Fred Bassett. A Red Square

parade of Pirates ordnance and

50-foot statue of Marmaduke

were, in the end, judged to be

too ostentatious.


But the strategy backfired when

Minister of Propaganda Bil Keane

commemorated the day with an

unexpectedly mordant and

self-deprecating caption below

his daily Family Circus icon.

"Daddy, are your glasses up

there so you can see your ideas

better?" daughter Dolly asks.

"Obviously not," a suspicious

editor's note responds,

commenting on the grotesque

poster in the background

depicting Jeffy: Then and Now.

Communications officers at

Keane's syndicator claimed the

faux editor's note was penned by

Keane himself, and editors

across the country - convinced

that the real culprit must be

either Not Me or Ida Know -

altered the caption. Heads will

surely roll....



It's not the first breach in the

chain of command. Gary Larson

tells subversive stories of the

days when Far Side captions were

erroneously switched with those

for Dennis the Menace, resulting

in a cartoon in which Dennis tells

his dad that his skull will one

day be displayed on a shelf.

Perpetually confused readers

barely noticed, and Larson

himself noted "how immensely

improved both cartoons turned

out to be." But as cultural

guerillas began to apply the

same tactic to institutions

ranging from Family Circus

to Highlights'

Goofus and Gallant ("Goofus

prepares to show Jack his

severed arm ..."), cartoonists

have launched a second wave of

copyright lawyers. The legal

counterattack on features like

the Dilbert Hole has left a

corpse-strewn field of pages

with titles like "Charles

Schulz's Attorneys Are After My

Ass." But in an age where even

the "Have a Nice Day" smiley

face can trigger a lawsuit,

legal threats are increasingly

meaningless. A shifting parade

of freedom fighters persist in

challenging the choke hold a

handful of cartoonists have on

the popular imagination. To

paraphrase Pogo: We have met the

enemy, and he isn't us.


The stakes are high. In

Understanding Comics, Scott

McCloud noted, "The cartoon is a

vacuum into which our identity

and awareness are pulled ... We

don't just observe the cartoon,

we become it." (This must be

news to late-period Zippy fans.)

B.C.'s Johnny Hart isn't the

only cartoonist leading readers

through religious themes. The

Family Circus creator attended

Catholic school, which may be

where he picked up the

inspiration for the angelic dead

grandfather haunting Billy and

Dolly as well as the "Mommy,

God's here" refrigerator

magnets. Other times, religious

conversion is a cartoonist's

actual intent, hitting with all

the subtlety of a Davey and

Goliath cartoon. This phenomenon

reached its apotheosis in the

'70s when copyright holders for

Archie and Veronica licensed the

Riverdale characters for a line

of Christian comics. What's next:

"The Born Loser Goes to Hell?"



Comic reformers forget how

conservative audiences can be.

Linus' quest for the true

meaning of Christmas offered a

more rigorous religious

commentary, which was even more

evident in scholarly books, such

as Robert L. Short's The Gospel

According to Peanuts, Parables of

Peanuts, and Short Meditations

on the Bible and Peanuts. Even

these books provoked a

predictable backlash from strict

biblical interpreters. In fact,

one Denver Post mole blames the

stodgy daily comic page fare on

a fifth column of senior

citizens, speed-dialing editors

counseling them to stay the

course. (One pictures irate Mary

Worth fans lobbying against

"that fresh young man

Dudley Ford.")


As a "children's medium," comic

books faced even stronger

bullying from other moral

guardians. (In the '50s,

psychiatrist Fredric Wertham

complained about gay subtexts in

Batman and Robin's "ward"

relationship and the all-female

culture on Wonder Woman's aptly

named Paradise Island.) DC

Comics ultimately found more

flexible audiences when it left

the newspaper pages for graphic

novels sold in comic book shops.

(Joker: "Boy Wonder started

shaving yet?" Batman: "You

filthy degenerate!") As it

stands, the privilege of

dispensing alternate

interpretations of newspaper

strips rests with the

presumed-benevolent dictatorship

of the images' official license

holders. Aging manic-depressive

Charles M. Schulz lent his

characters to Why, Charlie

Brown, Why, a half-hour program

about grade-school leukemia, and

a TV special where Linus visits

battlefields from World Wars I

and II. A lucrative series of

MetLife promotions illustrates

life crises with the Peanuts

gang (two cute little yellow

birds get divorced). Schulz's

civic-minded projects are a far

cry from the syrupy Rod McKuen

music in Charlie Brown's first

film. Maybe Marcie and

Peppermint Patty will face some

tough obstacles when they decide

they want to have a child.


Overt, old-style family values

make the strips the most

inevitable targets since "Porgie

and Mudhead." Last winter

guerilla cultural critics took

to wilding Amazon's

US$25-billion edifice, spraying

cartoon graffiti in the review

sections for Family Circus

titles while the automated

editors slept. "I'm sure you'll

enjoy as much as I did the

thrilling climax, where the

ether finally wears off," one

scoundrel posted.

"Grlphdzpppsh!" a reviewer from

Bumphuk, Egypt, noted, while

another reviewer, identified

simply as


gave the Harry Knowles-style

thumbs up: "Ga-ga, goo!




Significantly, the practice

claimed a casualty. For weeks

Amazon listed the Family Circus title

Daddy's Cap Is on Backwards as

not currently available, though

barnesandnoble.com continued to

fill orders. Eventually the

bogus reviews were cleared out,

leaving the title with a

corporate non sequitur

exhortation to "Be the first

person to review this book!"

Whether or not the culprits

belonged to the "underemployed

post-grad subculture," as some

hard-boiled detectives claim,

the prank's popularity indicates

some form of rebellion is afoot.

Matt Groening once wrote, "It's

unwise to annoy a cartoonist."

But who knows what retributions

a provoked audience is capable

of? Bring me the head of

Garfield on a pike.

courtesy of Destiny



[Purchase the Suck Book here]