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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 11/12/2008

The Morning Line: Comic Language Still on a Low-Salty Diet

By Michael Cavna

Standup comic Lewis Black loves to curse the censors. Literally.

We were reminded of this the other night when chatting with Black after a performance. Black's philosophy, as he makes clear in his act: Among adults, there are no "bad" words -- there are just timid folks who cower in fear to these oh-so-scary words.

Comparatively, however, standups have much more freedom than most humorists. And toward the other end of that spectrum sits one oft-frustrated group: comics-page cartoonists.

The mainstream "family" newspaper is a fairly G-rated enterprise, of course, and there's little demand for working "blue." But even with that in mind, many comic-strippers believe they're trapped in a time-warp: Other media can use saltier language, but funnypage cartoonists must largely use language that could readily slide into any "Leave It to Beaver" episode.

So what are cartoonists to do when they want to get even mildly edgy? Well, the options are few:

A cartoon word that dares not speak its name. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

1. Resort to words that suggest a stronger word. In today's "Prickly City," for instance, Scott Stantis offers "well, crud" -- which to some adults suggests "well, crap."

2. Resort to near-spellings of the stronger word. In his new "Dilbert" collection, Scott Adams explains how in one strip, he wrote "crappus" as a form of faux-Latin. In another, he skirts the censors by writing: "Oh, carp."

3. Go ahead and use that semi-controversial word and hope clients don't drop your strip like a hot $$&* potato! I was once advised by a syndicate editor that I COULD use the word "sucks," but I risked invoking the wrath of newspaper editors. (From then on, my use of the word depended on just how much I needed to eat that month.)

4. Resort to one of the greatest inventions known to cartoonists: Dingbats -- also knows as the random punctuation when, strung together, stands in for expletives.

But can funnypage cartoonists write: "Dingbats $&*#@ suck!!" Not really?

Well, crud.


For us, Obamas on the brain this week. (KFS) Enlarge Comic

We see that "Curtis" is the only strip in The Post that references both a "Barry" and a "Michelle." In the same week that the Obamas visit the White House, we wonder whether these names will pop into other strips -- or how long till a character named "Rahm" moves into Curtis's neighborhood.

By Michael Cavna  | November 12, 2008; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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Newspapers and comic editors just don't get it. Subscriptions are dropping as are revenues. Would revenues drop if subscriptions didn't? You betcha they wouldn't (to quote Sarah). NOW let's think back on how WE became hooked on newspapers. We started with the funnies. The paper would land on the porch and we would race for the funnies. Spread out on the living room floor and just a-readin' and a-readin' and none of the funnies were too edgy for us NOT to understand. From the funnies we progressed to the rest of the paper as we aged. The funnies no longer draw in the young reader. There are not enough strips geared towards them. Therefore, they don't rush to the porch, they don't spread out on the living room floor, and they don't become newspaper readers. The internet can never take the place of a newspaper that can be scanned with eyeballs from page to page. I feel the demise of the newspaper started with too many edgy comics and not enough drawing power to the young kid. Habits are formed early.

Posted by: judyohr | November 12, 2008 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Not only does Curtis mention a Barry and Michelle, the dad smokes (just like Barack)!

Maybe the White House pup will be named Chutney. Or Gunk.

Posted by: f-squared | November 12, 2008 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Rahm? Nah. Rahim, maybe...

Posted by: Theophylact | November 12, 2008 12:16 PM | Report abuse


Where to start....

"We" didn't all start reading newspapers because of the funnies. Or the Mini Page. Or the Young readers bilge. Perhaps some did, but I hardly think the demise of the newspaper business can be attributed to 'edgy' comics.

My first 'have to read' comic was an edgy one, Doonesbury, early '70s. My son's was Liberty Meadows (also quite edgy). My daughter reads the Editorial page first and can't be bothered with 'funnies'.

But let's get back to this 'We' thing. Who are 'we'? How old are 'We'? Do 'We' speak a second language? Are 'We' rich or poor?

Posted by: JkR- | November 12, 2008 12:38 PM | Report abuse

How about suggestive drawing like the hands in Chickweed last week? Taken by itself, nothing wrong. But in the context of a week of romantic interludes...

Posted by: MSchafer | November 12, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

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