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THE OMBUDSMAN

'Edgy' language invading the comics

CALL IT a reluctant nod to popular culture or the evolution -- some might say devolution -- of our language.There on the Aug. 7 comics page, in the Fox Trot strip, was a word that has in recent years been carefully edited out of the Globe's comics because it was considered inappropriate. (Stop reading here if you wish to avoid words of questionable taste.)

In the relevant bit of Fox Trot text, young Jason explains that the movie he is making about leeches will be called " `Finding Hemo' [and] . . . If a critic says it sucks, people will just assume they are talking about my accurate portrayal of the lead characters."

Yes, "suck" has won the seal of, well, if not approval at least grudging acceptance on the comics page. And the lack of protest at its appearance Aug. 7 is perhaps a sign that readers have come to see the word as more slang than vulgarity.

Certainly it is being used with increasing frequency by the artists whose strips run in the Globe. Having to edit it out has required some interesting contortions recently. For example, the June 20 "Zits" strip originally featured its main character, 15-year-old Jeremy, expressing his disgust at having to mow the lawn by cutting the letters "T-h-i-s s-u-c . . . " into the grass. At the request of newspapers who didn't want "suck" on their comics page, the creators of the strip reluctantly drafted a substitute version in which Jeremy's lawn mower was inscribing "T-h-i-s s-t-i-n . . ." in the grass.

Just a few weeks later, on Aug. 1, the Globe was faced with a Doonesbury strip in which one character, on a tour of duty in Iraq, refers to the death of another soldier as "sucking." The Globe changed it to "wacked."

To continue making such changes had the feeling of trying to hold back the tide.

"Unfortunately, language that was once considered grossly offensive has now been widely adopted and is frequently heard on widely watched television programs and seen on T-shirts sold at Fenway," said Globe editor Martin Baron when asked about the change in practice. "While we seek to maintain high standards in the use of language, a few cartoonists use raw language on rare occasion. Theirs is a creative enterprise, and we feel that we have to give them some license."

While the s-word can now appear in comics, it will continue to be highly discouraged in news text, allowed only in quotes, and even then edited out whenever possible. And the Globe still bans certain other words from the comics. For example, the Doonesbury strip submitted for Friday was substituted because the original contained a three letter word for rear end.

The Globe is not alone in its acquiescence on the s-word. The Chicago Tribune just reversed course and allowed the word on the comics page, but not elsewhere in the paper.

So what's the ombud view on the Globe's change in policy? Reluctant acceptance. I wish that comics creators didn't use "sucks," just as I wish kids didn't (my own are not allowed to). The word's crude origin cheapens the language and the user.

But I understand that to many in the under-20 crowd the word has shed its sexual connotation and become a simple, if slightly more edgy, synonym for stinks. To ban it from the comics robs the characters of an authentic voice, and hews to a standard that much of the world has left behind. To ignore the popular vote on "sucks" seems worse than letting it into the comics. Another sign of the timesA more visible change in the Globe began on July 20, with the addition of so-called sky boxes across the top of Page 1, above the masthead. The blurbs promote inside stories of particular interest, often (but not always) the lighter fare.

As readers have realized that the sky boxes are here to stay, complaints have dribbled in. The boxes detract from the seriousness of the front page, some say, and give the paper a frivolous look. "I beseech you to consider your loyal readers' aesthetic sensibilities!" pleaded one reader from South Deerfield. "Please get rid of them!"

I can see the point, but I can't argue with the boxes' value in telegraphing diversity of content, especially when the paper is displayed on the newsstand. Sky boxes acknowledge that not all people read the paper for the same things. They highlight stories that are, as Baron puts it, "populist and practical in nature" and might "appeal to potential readers who aren't always drawn to newspapers."

My informal survey of four dozen papers from across the country found that about half have sky box-type devices.

In these days of declining newspaper circulation nationally, it's understandable that papers are trying new approaches. Many of us may not be wild about how the boxes look, but they are among the more benign circulation-boosting options, and they do serve a useful function. What's more, like certain changes in our language, they are here to stay, like it or not.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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