A Mea Culpa, and then Something Serious.

I have had occasion, on this website, to address some of life’s little issues with a casual detachment typical of smarmy writer-types and bloggers, and have made light of things that others may feel strongly about. Things that, in retrospect, perhaps deserved a deeper understanding. I have, after some pretty intense soul-searching, come to see that my poor attempts at humor have shown a complete lack of respect for both the subjects of my sophomoric rants and to my readers, assuming there are any.

Looking over at my body of work I am shocked at the carelessness of my words. For example in one posting I used a universally recognized (and deeply offensive) slur to describe the goings on in the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs. For this I am sorry. In another sorry display of insensitivity I joked openly, and without nuance, about rotating the tires on Ed Begley Jr.’s Smart Car. This, we can all agree, was just plain wrong. Once I even went so far as to question the veracity of Rachael Ray’s claim that, in her words, “EVOO is as good a personal lube as any I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many.” What was I thinking?

These things cannot be taken back, of course, but I hope that my sincere contrition, at the very least, might in some way mitigate the damage I have willfully caused.

It is in this new found spirit that I must address something of great importance. We live in a difficult world – a world where war, pain and sadness are visible on a daily basis in our newspapers, at least to the extent that they are not overshadowed by articles about cats being rescued from restaurant awnings. Yes, things look pretty grim out there, and one can find any number of issues worthy of one’s concern and perhaps even action.  For me, however, there is one subject which has so vexed me over recent months that I am forced, on principle, to address it head-on. It’s a big issue, not one that is spoken of very often, and one that has no immediate solution, but the quality of countless people’s lives depend on its resolution, and we, as a society, owe it our best efforts.

The problem I’m talking about is the state of your typical newspaper Comics Page.

Look, I know that the newspaper industry – and journalism in general – is undergoing some major shifts as of late, but by most accounts it is weathering the storm rather horribly. The content has turned to crap, actual journalists are being replaced by bloggers and celebrity reporters, and advertisers are abandoning them quicker than Hollywood talent agents have been abandoning Ethan Hawke. The point is if you’re a newspaper it’s harder and harder to get people to read your rag – and unfortunately for them fewer and fewer of us do.

Chances are, though, that if you are one of the dwindling number of subscribers or purchasers you probably go straight for the comics page. This is not, as some higher-minded types might claim, a bad thing, and nor do I mean to imply that the average person doesn’t read other sections. But starting our day with some episodic humor, starring familiar characters we’ve come to love, is universally acknowledged to be one of our human rights. If my facts are correct I think we even fought for it in Korea. People love the comics – so much so that it may be one of the few areas that newspapers can rely on to bring in, or at least retain, subscribers.

Which is why I find myself going insane – insane! – over the state of the comics page today.  It seems like editors are doing their best to screw this section up just to keep pace with the rest of their failing content. The sad reality is that there is very limited space available in any newspaper for the comics, and there are far more artists out there vying for the space, the exposure, and the subsequent paycheck than ever before.  And we’re not talking about “Blondie” here – the content is starting to get edgier as the next generation of artists – younger, more political, more ironic – comes of age. The problem is that the typical newspaper has room for about twenty-eight to thirty strips (depending on how badly they’ve been shrunken by the editors), and at least a third of them are old, irrelevant, or just plain bad. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if there was a competent and brave Comics Editor to be found in the industry, someone who could grab the newspaper in one hand, a huge red marker in the other, and just start fricken’ cutting.

Instead we get editors who rely on worthless, and probably fixed, “comics polls” in order to pretend to utilize the opinions of the readers. It’s a silly, spineless way to edit the section, and it begs the question – if all you do is rely on polls to make your editorial decisions, then why do we need a Comics Editor? Here in Los Angeles, for example, the Times was forced to struggle with the agonizing decision over whether to continue with the much-loved (and equally maligned) “For Better or For Worse” – whose creator, Lynn Johnston, was actually kind of, sort of, maybe not, retiring, for god’s sake –  or to open up the much-coveted space for something new.

Now if you’re like me, the answer is pretty simple: dump “Worse,” which had gotten tiresome and melodramatic, and start fishing through the deep pool of talented newcomers. Johnston herself was vacillating on her retirement, wavering between giving up the strip altogether (in which case newspapers could run reruns), or alternating between reruns and “redrawings”  of early, classic story lines. This rather than just quitting. Aargh. I mean, Brett Favre is having an easier time coming to terms with his retirement than this woman.

That’s where a ballsy editor needs to step in and just put an end to the nonsense. But not only did the L.A. Times struggle impotently with the issue, but the editors, who couldn’t bring themselves to just make a decision and choose a replacement strip, ultimately spent months running tryouts with Johnston’s strip up against three other wannabe’s (none of which would likely attract younger, more sophisticated readers), followed by the inevitable poll to see which comic their dear readers preferred. The result? A mildly amusing, poorly drawn strip that focuses on – big surprise – a married couple juggling their careers and their kids. I know what you’re thinking – they didn’t want to lose the “For Better or for Worse” demographic. Well, okay, but that’s the problem here. Screw the demographic. The demographic needs to accept that their strip is gone.

I feel I can say with complete modesty that someone at the Times needs to step up and hire me as Comics Editor. Really, just give me one day – no, one hour, and I’ll solve all their problems.  Here’s what I’d do: the first strips to go would be reruns. That means, unfortunately,  goodbye to “Peanuts.” Trust me, I think that Schultz’s strip was brilliant and would hate to see it go, but the guy’s dead. Dead.  It’s someone else’s turn. Then I’d get rid of the aforementioned “Blondie,” because no newspaper should complain that they haven’t enough space on their comics page if they’re still running this relic (the L.A. Times isn’t the only culprit; in other cities newspapers are still giving space to the likes of “B.C,” “Andy Capp,” “Lil’ Abner,” “Nancy,” and even classic “Tarzan.” They all need to go.)

Next up for the red pen is the old school, soap opera stuff like “Rex Morgan, MD” – not because of it’s style, but because of its outdated narrative.  The Times’ replacement for “For Bettor or for Worse,” “Home and Away,” has to go just because it annoys me that it was a choice at all. After that I’ll gleefully wipe out “Kathy”(c’mon, you know it needs to go), then move on to the single-panels like “Marmaduke,” “Argyle Sweater” (a blatant rip-off of “The Far Side”), “Dennis the Menace,” “Ballard Street” and the god-awful “Family Circus.”

That last bit bears repeating: “Family Circus” is god-awful. God. F-cking. Awful.

Well look, I’ve just freed up several square inches of prime real estate! That’s four or five new comics you can add! But why stop there – another solution would be to spread more comics out into other sections, like some papers do with “Dilbert” (Business), and “In the Bleachers” (Sports). For example editors could throw a couple of politically minded strips, like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World,” or Scott Stantis’ “Prickly City” into the U.S. and World sections, just like many of the alt-weekly papers have been doing for a while. Not only would that free up even more space in the Comics section, but it might draw some readers’ attention to other parts of the paper.

Let me be clear: I’m not against diversity of taste – I would retain many strips that make me rage, like “Frazz,” “9 Chickweed Lane” and “Rose is Rose,” and leave some older strips, like “Doonesbury” and “Crankshaft” because their story lines remain topical, fresh, and entertaining.  Others will stay because while, in my opinion, they may be derivative and mediocre, they no doubt have a following that understands the strip in a way I don’t. Hey, they can’t all be “Get Fuzzy,” “Brewster Rocket: Space Guy” and “Lio.” There would still be plenty of family oriented strips in the mix, as well as space for some new faces.

Additionally, editors would have the opportunity to add more culturally and ethnically diverse artists on the page – and no, I’m not talking about some sort of comics affirmative action; it’s pretty widely acknowledged that it’s harder to find syndication if you’re a minority, even if the population of your city has a comparatively large minority population. An example? How about, I don’t know, Los Angeles? L.A, the melting pot that it is, has only one Latino strip, two African-American themed comics, and zero – that’s  zilch – representing the Asian community. What, no one at the Times has heard of “Secret Asian Man?”

Now I understand about subjectivity, and that many, many fans will be furious. They tend to take any change to their beloved comics very seriously, and they’ll no doubt send tons of angry letters and e-mails threatening to drop their subscription. I would ignore the emails. Let them cancel. Move on. The paper may experience a temporary drop in readership, but ultimately it would develop, I think, a newer, younger following that would eventually replace, even surpass, the ones it lost.

There you have it. Comics page fixed! Now the newspaper industry just has to work on that whole journalism problem. Oh well…baby steps, as they say.

Wow. Now that I’ve decided to devote a posting to something serious, I can see what these humanitarian types are always going on about. It really does make you feel good when you attempt to solve some issue greater than yourself. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to posting innocous and catty pieces about birthday parties and home improvement. No more insulting comments about Barbara Boxer’s dry-cleaning bill, no more smart-alecky observations about the good people of Kalispel, Missouri and their inability to make good flan.

No more irony.

I think the blogoshpere will be a better place. I can feel it!

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