Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Absence Of Doonesbury

Here's Doonesbury from yesterday in case you missed it...
Not surprisingly, a number of webcomics people took a bit of umbrage at the idea that the loss of newspapers means the loss of comics. As if comics were ONLY available through newspapers. Very quickly, several people took Gary Trudeau's comic and filled that blank space with tons and tons of webcomics.

The question is, though: what is Trudeau's actual tone here? Is he saying that comics would literally cease to exist if newspapers weren't around? Or is he being more satirical, pointing out the absurdity of that same idea?

I read through some of the discussions, and there were a variety of points raised and positions taken. Doonesbury is serialized online at slate.com and is a webcomic itself in that respect. Trudeau has shown himself to be a very smart and savvy cartoonist over the past four decades; don't forget the man was the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer. He also makes a great deal of money selling books, which are distinctly not newspapers; would those books still sell -- at least enough to be profitable -- if the newspapers weren't around to subsidize the original comics? There's really no one in webcomics doing anything remotely like Doonesbury -- does Trudeau's style of humor really work online?

But here's another interesting point that was brought up. A lot of people don't read Doonesbury. Some cited his political leanings, others cited that he's past his prime, but many of the people who were complaining read the strip in isolation. That they saw it at all seems to stem from Spike Trotman running across it in an actual newspaper and posting a scan of it.

There's an editor's note on the aforementioned Slate site...
I checked with the home office, and the strip is nothing more than a simple gag about the state of newspapers. It was intended for the readers of the 1,100 daily and Sunday print editions that publish the strip. While understandably sentimental about his roots in print media, GBT was an enthusiastic, early adapter to digital platforms, creating three different CD-ROMS (1995), a web-based motion-capture video project (Duke2000), a milblog (2006), e-book editions of his anthologies, and of course, this website, launched in 1995, long before most webcomics were created. He first wrote about the social impact of computers, a favorite topic, in 1972.
I read Doonesbury daily. (Online, of course!) I've been reading it off and on for about 20 years, and pretty consistently for the past 7 or 8, I think. In the context of that, I didn't think Trudeau had any malicious intent, which is backed up by that editor's note. I think he was being deliberately satirical.

But readers need some context to get that. And the problem, I think, arose because so many webcomics people don't read newspaper strips, having dismissed them years ago as banal garbage ever since Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side left the funny pages. (Curious aside: newspapers comics have ALWAYS been seen as funnier from when people were kids. People in the 1950s thought the current comics were crap and the stuff from the 1930s was the best. People in the 1970s thought the current comics were crap and the stuff from the 1950s was the best. Small wonder that people today are looking to comics from 20-30 years ago as the best material.) Humor is inherently contextual at least at some level; if you start making fun of a friend, they might take it in fun, light-hearted manner, but a stranger trying to make the same joke comes across like a jerk. That's because you and your friend have a historical context for the comment, where the stranger does not. Can you imagine sitting through a Don Rickles show if you came to it not knowing his shtick? Humor is an acquired taste.

Trudeau's joke is, I think, successful. But only in the context of those 1,100 regular newspapers that carry it. Trudeau was speaking to a decidedly known and finite audience and, for them, the satire is recognizeable. But the comic is not successful outside of that context, as evidenced by the number of people who took it more at face value. You know, though, that's been Trudeau's M.O. for years though -- looking at his caricatures of George W. Bush or Dan Quayle outside of reading the strip regularly wouldn't even make sense!

While one could suggest Trudeau is not being inclusive enough in his comics, writing them in such a way that only a relatively small number of people appreciate the humor, isn't that what webcomics do?

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