There’s been a spirited debate in the letters section of the Hartford Courant this past week. Elaine Kaufmann from West Hartford started it off in Independence Day with this shot across the bow:
“Perhaps I do not have the necessary sense of humor that you think your comics appeal to, but honestly I am wondering if I am the only one who thinks, and has done so for a long time, that most if not all of the comics in the Courant are not at all funny.”
It’s possible that Ms. Kaufmann simply has an impaired visual sense—the other complaint in her letter to the editor was that “it definitely is not necessary to show us the newspaper’s reporters on a daily basis,” by which I presume she means the little photos of columnists that appear alongside their stories. (If she meant not showing us fewer actual reporters in person, well, that’s already been accomplished in the most recent round of Courant buy-outs and downsizings.)
Courant comics readers quickly responded. One, Tom Cruickshanks of Windsor—whose surname resembles that of one of the founders of the comics form as we know it, 19th century British caricaturist George Cruikshank—wrote that “I always get a laugh and a chuckle that starts my day in the right direction. I love the funnies -- because they are funny.” But the debate has basically remained on that basic, generalized level. Sunday’s response, from Jeff Undercoffler of East Haddam, was “I think the funnies, in a small way, keep us sane in an ever-hostile world. They may not be belly-laugh funny, but they always brighten my day.”
Because we shorthand this artform as “funnies” or “comics,” it’s easy and stylish to complain when they’re not funny or comic. But it’s also superficial and nonsensical. How would we feel if someone sent the Courant a letter like this: “I was at the movies in Hartford and am disappointed that they did not move enough.”
Simplify and mislabel as you will, but please allow this century-old craft to have some depth and self-respect. Comics have never been solely funny. We consider the 1930s the golden age of newspaper comic strips not because they were all so humorous but because they weren’t—it was the heyday of daily adventure strips such as Little Orphan Annie, Brick Bradford, Terry & the Pirates, and of ostensibly comic yet dramatic and soap operatic strips such as Li’l Abner and The Gumps. The most influential comic strip of post-WW2 America—heck, one of the most influential pop culture creations ever—was Peanuts, which often preferred poignancy to punchlines and philosophy to fun.
Today’s comics are more an empire under siege than the assured circulation-boosting necessity they were for most of the 20th century. That’s an issue for the marketing department, however, not editorial. Whether or not you find the strips funny, worthwhile, or even necessary, it’s hard to argue that the comics section provides greater variety than any other section of the newspaper, with the possible exception of the classified ads. The Courant has only a handful of op-ed columnists, yet dozens of comics.
It should also be noted that, editorially speaking, the Courant has been more diligent than a lot of other dailies regarding the comics section. When the Foxtrot daily strip was retired in 2008 and a replacement was needed, a wide variety of different strips (Agnes, Candorville, Cow & Boy, Frazz) were auditioned for a period of months until Arctic Circle was finally chosen as Foxtrot’s successor. The paper has a history of taking reader complaints about the comics seriously. (By contrast, the New Haven Register, in the habit during the 1990s of losing a strip or two, and at one point revamping the entire comics page, without notice, leading to fury and pickets and cancelled subscriptions.)
Many Courant text-based columnists have gotten into the comics-commentary act over the years—Denis Horgan was demonstrably upset when Bill Waterson pulled the plug on Calvin & Hobbes in 1995. Jim Shea and Colin McEnroe have referenced Courant comics in their columns. There have been numerous Courant features on comics creators, especially local ones such as Guy Gilchrist (who co-resuscitated Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy) and Rick Stromoski (Soup to Nutz) and Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead) and eminent comics historian Brian Walker (author of the masterful chronologies The Comics Before 1945 and The Comics Since 1945).
Back when the Courant was well-staffed enough to have an ombudswoman, Karen Hunter, she devoted space to discussions of particular comments on numerous occasions. There were alleged censorship issues, fond farewells and exasperation. In 2005, a reader complained that the first two panels were missing from a “For Better or For Worse” Sunday strip, asking “Does the Courant not think readers can handle the truth?,” only to be informed that the paper, for design purposes, always opted for the shorter version of the strip, a variant officially offered by its distributor. (Virtually all Sunday comics come in full and slightly shorter formats.) In 2004, Hunter wrote a thoughtful send-off to Aparment 3-G which had appeared in the Courant (first in the comics section, then amongst the real estate ads in the listings section) for over four decades.
(I pine for Apartment 3-G in the Courant myself, but I withstand the soul-crushing shrinkage of newspaper comics sections by subscribing to several online comics services, which deliver literally hundreds of strips daily—Apartment 3-G alphabetically first among them—to my computer and iPhone. Not worrying about missing the comics section means I can subscribe to a conscripted form of the Courant via my Kindle and not feel I’m missing much. For its online readers, the Courant links to a dozens-strong syndicated comics section, Comics Kingdom, which varies from the selection the paper offers in its print edition.)
When inundated in 2004 by requests that the Courant run Berke Breathed’s “Opus” Sunday strip (a continuation of the character from his Bloom Country and Outland endeavors), ombudswoman Hunter got in touch with Breathed himself, who contributed this tirade: “``Even if my strip isn't chosen -- and I know my space requirements make it hard -- I would encourage a great paper like The Courant to ignore the flaccid threats from often aged readers (I'm quickly becoming one of those) who threaten to cancel their subscriptions and to get on with reinventing the energy of the comics. I haven't any idea why cutting ancient, tired strips can still make so many people nuts, but I urge you: Face them down with the savage courage your reporters would show in the White House press room! They're keeping the new blood from rising!''
Requesting that old, familiar comics be made fresher is a much more potent debating point than “funnies aren’t funny.” Enlivening sections that have been diminished or are taken for granted is a primary focus of editors and publishers these days. The comics shouldn’t be excused from such scrutiny. But neither should they be reduced to the print-based equivalent of a clown nose and dismissed with “not funny.”