Cartoonist Garry Trudeau has been no stranger to controversy--even before The Times and four other newspapers refused to run a recent series of "Doonesbury" strips that caustically satirized the Reagan Administration.
"Doonesbury" remains the most controversial strip in the history of the comics. Many papers have refused to run such previous lampoons of Ronald Reagan as a spoof of a TV news special, "Inside Reagan's Brain," and a series from 1984 in which God endorsed the President's bid for re-election.
But "Doonesbury" stands out as a rare example of a comic strip that takes a strong stand on political and moral issues. Although the media have dealt increasingly during the last 15 years with such issues as child exploitation, abortion, women's rights and now AIDS, comic strips have not. Newspaper strips remain wholesome, innocuous and almost exclusively white, more in keeping with the ethos of "Ozzie and Harriet" and "My Little Margie" than of "Dallas," "Miami Vice" and "Something About Amelia."
Most comic strips do little more than recycle old vaudeville gags with minor topical updating. Eyebrows are raised when one of the characters in "Bloom County" says, "My fanny." In serial strips like "Apartment 3-G" and "Mary Worth," the characters remain primly chaste until the inevitable wedding takes place--while prime-time soap operas vie to show the most skin and flagrant adultery.
"The comics have been the most sanitized pages of the newspapers for decades," said Al Leeds, special projects manager of the Washington Post Writers' Group Syndicate. "There's been a myth that it's a children's page. And editors have to deal with controversy in other parts of the paper; they may be loathe to deal with it in the funnies."
Everyone involved in the production of comic strips has ideas about why the content stays so blandly proper and lily-white. But the responsibility always seems to lie with someone else--like Thomas Nast's famous cartoon of the Tweed Ring, where each man in the circle pointed to the one next to him as the guilty party.
Until World War II, cartoonists used blacks and other minority characters as servants, the butt of ethnic jokes and to provide atmosphere for episodes set in Africa or Asia. When racial humor passed from the mass media, minority characters all but vanished from the comics. Very few strips have focused on ethnic characters, although attempts were made to develop black-oriented strips, such as "Friday Foster" (1967) into print counterparts of the blaxploitation films of the late '60s and early '70s.
Charles Schulz received considerable media attention in 1968 when he added Franklin, a black child, to "Peanuts." But Franklin never became much more than a straight man, and he rarely appears now.
Trudeau seems to have dropped his black characters--Malcolm, the timid elementary school child, and his calmer friend, Rufus. Trudeau recently re-introduced '80s versions of Ginny, the feminist law student, and her boyfriend, Clyde, now the owner of a chain of cookie stores. Phred, the irrepressible Viet Cong terrorist and one of the few Asians in the strips, has disappeared, leaving only Honey, Duke's Chinese factotum.
Aside from Lt. Flap in "Beetle Bailey," Oliver Wendell Jones, the diminutive computer wizard of Berke Breathed's "Bloom County," is one of the few regular black characters in a major strip today. Refreshingly, his race is rarely at issue--he doesn't preach brotherhood like the self-conscious, moralizing children in "Wee Pals"--he's just a member of the cast.
One reason often cited for the dearth of blacks, Latinos and Asians in the strips is the apparently widespread practice of marketing comics by demographics. Editors and cartoonists condemn the idea as engendering mindless strips that pander to the latest trends.
"I don't know that targeting audiences is such a smart idea," said Bill Yates, comics editor of King Features. "Editors want to please every segment of their readership, which is fine, but it gets so ridiculous. A salesman can go out with any sort of demographic pitch and sell an editor an inferior product."
"Some topical strips are just cashing in on a trend; it's the focus of the whole strip," said Bill Watterson, creator of "Calvin and Hobbes." "As soon as the trend dies, the strip will die, and with good reason."
He noted in a recent issue of Cartoonist Profiles that "no doubt some hack is at this moment polishing up a strip about a Vietnam vet rock star with a computer."
"Demographics was a good idea that went too far and has gotten out of hand," said Sarah Gillespie, comics editor of United Media. "A strip or cartoonist who can't change with the times is not a good choice for a syndicate. They need someone who can react to what happens in the world, as the great cartoonists do."
If comic strips are being targeted to specific audiences, those audiences are not only white but middle-class, heterosexual and ambulatory.
In the mid-'70s, Trudeau introduced Andy Lippincott, the only gay character in the comics, but his appearances have been infrequent. The one handicapped character in a major strip is Cutter John, the paraplegic Vietnam War veteran in "Bloom County." Like Oliver Jones, Cutter John is strong and self-possessed: He rejects pity and plays "Star Trek" in his motorized wheelchair with Opus and the other inhabitants of Bloom's Meadow.
"I think the lack of minority characters is partially due to the submissions from cartoonists," United Media's Gillespie said. "We get very few strips with black characters or other minorities or handicapped characters: It's not a conscious choice by the syndicates. We look for the best strips we can find, regardless of content; to do it any other way is a disservice."
Although Lee Salem of Universal maintains that "the successful strips violate the rules," cartoonists complain that the syndicates insist on bland homogeneity and discourage originality. Breathed said he spent two years convincing his syndicate to accept the Cutter John character.
"In my limited experience, the syndicates put so many constraints on the artists as to what's acceptable and what's not," said Matt Groening, who started his own syndicate rather than soften the caustic humor of "Life in Hell."
"I'd just as soon take my chances on the marketplace. I like to deal with stuff that keeps people awake at night. That's why I write mostly about love, sex, work and death--and I write about the dark sides of those topics. I have problems in those areas myself. Although my problems are tragic and noble, I find other people's hilarious."
"I think the biggest criticism I have of the average strip today is that the gags are interchangeable," said "Peanuts" creator Schulz. "They're all using the same type of ideas, which are supposed to be a meaningful comment on our society. Most of them are boring and obvious: You could take one idea, transfer it to another strip and no one would notice."
In the past few years, there have been a few examples of cartoonists using more sophisticated material in their strips. Spiderman recently confessed to having been molested as a child, and one of Rex Morgan's patients had a problem with cocaine addiction.
Almost 200 comic-strip artists drew strips about world hunger last Thanksgiving at the behest of Trudeau. (Tim Downs even devoted an entire week to a devastating satire, "The Beverly Fullbellies," in "Downstown.")
But major changes in the content of the comics seem unlikely in the foreseeable future. No consensus exists among editors and cartoonists about trends in the medium. Yates and Groening represent the extreme positions.
"The reader of a newspaper gets all the relevance he needs from the headlines through the editorials to the obituaries," said Yates. "When he gets to the comics page, maybe he should just be able to relax and be entertained."
"I think the daily newspapers might start picking up some of the wilder strips like mine," said Groening. "I didn't think any daily in the country had the nerve to print a strip called 'Life in Hell,' but it just got picked up by the San Francisco Examiner. I'm against blandness and de-flavorization of all aspects of journalism, and cartoons in particular. If you've got all this gruesome stuff happening on the front pages of the paper, there's no reason for the cartoon pages to be so sanitized and goofy: It should be gruesome and goofy."