Phill Casaus: Comics: You can check out anytime you like; you can never leave
Mar. 18—You can write a story that's punch-in-the-mouth accurate — and does wonders for the public good.
You can — well, I can't, but we have people who can — take an evocative, beautifully composed photo that makes "Moonrise over Hernandez" look like a cellphone snap of a family picnic.
You can unleash a headline that says more in five words than the thousand words below it.
They are hashmarks of honor in a daily news platform — or as a lot of us still like to call it, the newspaper.
And yet, all bow to the power of the comics strip.
Want to engage the public? You don't need a Pulitzer. You need Pickles. Or Pearls Before Swine. Or Peanuts.
I've been doing this since the mid-'70s. I've covered the bombing in Oklahoma City, a Final Four, NFL special teams players, FBI special agents, the springing of a family pig from animal control, and enough basketball games, public meetings, "information sessions" and hearings to kill a couple old-growth forests. None has had the impact on readers of a decision to change a comic.
Comics are "Hotel California" for a newspaper editor. You can check out anytime you like. You can never leave.
If comics are your thing, you know what I'm talking about. Dilbert creator Scott Adams forced most newspapers' hand, including The New Mexican's, a few weeks ago when he pulled a pin on himself and detonated all over the internet — spewing a grenade of racist garbage that made dropping the strip a no-brainer.
As we announced following the controversy, we replaced Dilbert with an offering called F minus, by Tony Carrillo. Its arrival has been met with a variety of feedback — some positive, some negative.
It's the negative you come to expect.
"Thanks for canceling Dilbert, but please find something better than F minus — not funny and often just puzzling," one reader wrote.
Though predictable, readers' comments are not forgettable. They matter.
Still, there is a certain kind of math to this thing. At every newspaper I've been at, new comics strips are the freshmen at a fraternity mixer. They get hazed. They get panned. They're awkward and badly dressed and soooo uncool.
But time goes by, and they become sophomores and juniors, even seniors — blending in, becoming more popular. Occasionally, some are even beloved by the time they graduate.
And yes, some just drop out of sight.
I'd say we're sort of in Rush Week with F minus. I know some readers aren't in love with it, either because of the artwork or the theme or because, well, it just doesn't work for them. But if we dumped every new cartoon after a mixed-review debut, our page would be Peanuts, Without Reservations and a whole lot of white space for people to draw their own comics.
Trust me: Some people don't like our most popular strips, either. Comics are the hologram of newspapers: You can see what you want to see and love what you want to love.
I'll let you in on a secret. Comics are not my favorite part of the paper. It's not that I don't like them, but I was always drawn elsewhere.
When I got into newspaper management, I was always lucky enough to work with someone who either loved the comics or studied them — or even more bravely, visited with the comics syndicate salespeople who have new and "great" strips hanging from their trenchcoats, like those fake-Rolex hustlers on New York City street corners.
I worked for a woman in Albuquerque who patted me on the wrist when I complained about readers' fixation with the comics. Why on earth would they love Pearls Before Swine, I complained, more than our 20-day, front-page, award-winning series?
"Pearls Before Swine is funnier," she replied, nonplussed.
It was. It is.
At The New Mexican, our comics expert is Deputy Managing Editor Brian Barker. He's forgotten more about comics than I will ever know. He's also got the scars to prove it, because I forward the comics complaints to him. He remembers when there were reservations about Without Reservations. He kindly stuck with me when I dropped Non Sequitur for awhile after its creator pulled a bonehead move in a strip.
He also didn't bat an eye when I came up with this idea: Since comics are the public square of the newspaper, we're going to give readers a chance to sound off about what they like or don't like about our strips. It's by no means a Ph.D. idea, but we're going to give you a chance to let us know what you think about all our offerings, not just F minus.
Specifically, I'd like to know what your three favorite and three least favorite strips are. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll use your responses as food for thought as we go forward. It might mean new strips. It might not. But at least you'll be able to vent.
And I'll be humming "Hotel California."
Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.