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On Friday, May 15, on the bottom of page E4, the Washington Post offered its readers an opportunity to help decide whether or not a woman would live.

OK, fine, the woman is only Broom Hilda, and the life is only that of a comic strip on the Post’s comics pages, but nonetheless, readers were urged to rate all 55 comic strips the Post offers, both daily and Sunday, from Apartment 3-G to Zits.

In introducing the poll, the Post editors bluntly acknowledged that, since “such in-paper surveys often reflect only the preferences of the most fervent comics readers, we won’t promise that future decisions will be based solely on the results.” But still, the editors maintained, “your responses will provide another gauge.”

Shirley Carswell, the Post’s assistant managing editor for planning and administration, has been tabulating the thousands of responses that arrived by the May 25 deadline. Carswell says she’s unsure what, if any, impact the survey will have. The last comics survey the Post conducted, a phone poll in the mid-’80s, brought back the soporific Mark Trail. Since then, the comics lineup has changed in fits—Andy Capp dumped for Zits, local boy Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows dropped, then returned after 500 angry calls. “There was a period of time when nothing changed for a very long time,” Carswell says. “After that last big phone survey, everybody was a little bit weary.”

Weary is the word that comes to mind almost any time I pick up a comics section. Schooled on the genius of golden- age comic strips like Li’l Abner, Pogo, and Captain Easy, I feel little but disdain for many of today’s comic strippers. I know I am not alone. Few of my friends or colleagues even bother to flip to the funnies.

(Full disclosure: I draw a weekly strip for

Roll Call.)

“I’m a person who spends up to $100 month on comics and cartoons,” says 32-year-old Ben Schwartz, an L.A. screenwriter and contributor to the online humor ‘zine suck.com. “And yet the idea of actually reading newspaper strips, which I could do for next to free, never crosses my mind. Newspaper strips today offer, by and large, two choices: cold and sterile gags or treacly-sweet family scenes.”

“I’ve been checked out from comics since the day Bloom County died,” says 29-year-old Washingtonian Bob Kearney. “Blondie? No. Cathy? No….The more out-there ones are the only ones that cause me to laugh. And as long as I have this platform, I’d like to say that I don’t want to see any more dead grandparents in The Family Circus.”

Speaking of grandparents, I knew comics had taken a wrong turn when my cartoonophile grandfather—who to this day regales my grandmother with memorable ’50s Pogo-isms—recently voiced his disappointment with the six pages of comics in the Sunday Raleigh News & Observer. “I’m repelled a little bit by the [new characters],” Grampie says. “I don’t think that the comic strips of today are in touch with life the way that comic strips were, say, in Pogo’s days….I don’t think they are as funny as they used to be.”

Professional cartoonists are no less dismayed. Tony Auth, the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer—who has drawn two short-lived comic strips himself—praises the Post for the vast number of strips it publishes and its willingness to experiment with new efforts. But he is worried about the field.

“The medium is in trouble,” Auth says, “because a medium that can’t allow publication of new, innovative, exciting, weird, wacky, idiosyncratic material is just going to get stuck in its rut, which is what’s happening.”

“There’s pretty god-awful art in the art form,” says Tom Spurgeon, executive editor of The Comics Journal, a Seattle-based monthly covering the cartooning industry. “And it’s become…the easiest humor in the world, which is the recognition joke. It’s almost a race [to see] who can do the first Viagra joke.”

Creators Syndicate Executive Vice President Michael Santiago reports that his syndicate receives 10,000 submissions a year, out of which he and his small committee select three or four to submit to newspapers. In all, most newspapers see 20 or so new strips a year—out of which, Santiago estimates, one will make it. “It’s like winning the lottery,” he says.

The strips syndicates select are safe, comfortable, familiar, and bland. There have been times when Creators had a great, cutting-edge strip, Santiago says, “but newspapers were afraid to run it.”

The Post makes its comics decisions by committee. Carswell leads the group of approximately 20 Posties—and a few Posties’ children—who periodically review the 25 or so new strips proffered by the “Big Five” comics syndicates: Universal Press, United Media, Tribune, King Features, and Creators. Carswell says that suggestions are made by the committee—which anyone from the Post can join—and then editors at the top make the final decision.

As newspapers have folded and been subsumed by Gannett—and as the world has become so many focus groups—newspaper publishers tend to favor benign comics over insightful ones, cutesy cartoons over mordant wit. Long-established strips with built-in readerships—like Doonesbury—can tackle sensitive issues; but newspapers seldom try a daring new strip without a built-in audience. Such timidity is sad for comics readers, and it’s also been bad for business. Think of all the missed opportunities for plug-in marketing—the billions of dollars’ worth of books, T-shirts, and dolls that won’t be sold.

The last three major comic strip success stories—The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dilbert—were flukes. All three cartoonists—Gary Larson, Bill Watterson, and Scott Adams—spent years in obscurity, amassing mountains of rejection letters before they finally got their big breaks.

“It’s a miracle that The Far Side ever materialized,” says Auth. Larson met rejection time and again from syndicates until he found one fan in an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper started publishing his bizarre one-panel cartoons and offering them through the Chronicle’s small, now-defunct syndicate. “I doubt very much that any [major] syndicate seeing The Far Side would think it would be successful,” says Auth. After five years, it had amassed a clientele of slightly more than a hundred papers, and Universal Press Syndicate added Larson’s dementia to its lineup. “The sales accelerated very quickly after that,” says Lee Salem, Universal’s vice president and editorial director. “Pretty soon all syndicates were looking for Far Side look-alikes,” Auth says.

Bill Watterson, too, had been struggling to sell a strip for years, to no avail. Calvin and Hobbes was born only after an editor at United Media rejected a Watterson submission but noted that he liked two bit players in the dissed strip: a little boy and his talking tiger doll. United signed Watterson to a development contract, under which he came up with Calvin and Hobbes, but the syndicate ultimately passed on it. So did another syndicate. Universal picked it up with modest hopes—it originally appeared in only about 35 papers, and Watterson’s hometown newspaper didn’t even carry it.

Watterson finally got his big break when Andrews and McMeel, Universal’s parent company, published the first Calvin and Hobbes book, which became a best seller. Soon after, so did

the strip.

Dilbert first built its following on the World Wide Web—long before newspapers took a chance on its modestly subversive humor and atrocious art. “It was the popularity of Dilbert on the Internet that drove a lot of newspapers to pick it up,” Santiago says.

All three of these breakthrough strips emerged despite—not because of—the current system for choosing new comics. Yet no one seems to learn. Syndicate and newspaper editors, Auth notes, are still pursuing “the tempting solution, [which] is not finding the next Dilbert, but re-creating the last Dilbert.”

“[I]t seems to me that good comics are in the interest of readers, newspapers, syndicates, and cartoonists,” Watterson once wrote. “Yet the best strips of the past would have a tough time in newspapers today….I think it’s a mistake to underestimate readers’ appetite for quality.”

Maybe the wrong people are in charge of comics decisions at newspapers. Front-page editors are revered for their news sense. Editorial pages are run by champion debaters. Book editors are, of course, widely read. You would think, then, that a comics editor needs a well-developed sense of humor.

Carswell disagrees. “I don’t necessarily think they have to be funny to be on the committee,” she replies. “Humor is subjective.” Which is like declining to discern between a Chagall and a photo collage on the cover of the phone book.

Santiago, too, says that not everybody on Creators’ five-person committee is funny. “Some of them have some very good feelers,” he observes. “Others are more in tune with character development and the potential of the strip; others are more in tune with the artwork.” Still others, of course, are on hand to rate a strip’s commercial potential, Santiago says. After all, he is quick to affirm, comics is a business.CP