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What's with the funny business?

With broader subject matter and edgier content, some newspaper comic strips are raising eyebrows

They used to call them "the funnies," remember? The stacks of comic strips that almost all newspapers carry. There were silly gag strips like "Andy Capp," "Mutt and Jeff," and "Beetle Bailey," and serial dramas like "Apartment 3G," "Rex Morgan, M.D.," and "Steve Roper and Mike Nomad."

You laughed or you didn't, you read them or ignored them. But until recently the funny pages didn't usually make you angry.

Nowadays, comic strip artists are sometimes running afoul of some people's sense of taste, moral sensibility, or political conviction.

In the past year, Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strip has given editors fits with profane dialogue and a reference to masturbation. Last year The Washington Post dropped several days' worth of Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks" strip, which features a young African-American character who often comments on racial matters, because of references to the supposedly poor love life of Condoleezza Rice. The Boston Globe dropped a different "Boondocks" panel because it had no artwork, only an essay condemning the Iraq war, and some episodes have jarred editors by using a disparaging epithet (containing asterisks) for African- Americans.

Last week, the popular "Zits" strip, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, showed a teenager putting a condom on a pencil to ward off flu germs. And the Sunday "Opus" strip by Berkeley Breathed has raised eyebrows recently with references to homosexuality -- and even cigarette smoking.

The reading public does not appear to be in a tizzy over comic strips. "On the 'Zits' strip," said Sherry Stern, a features editor for the Los Angeles Times, "we've had six e-mails, mostly saying it's inappropriate for kids to read." Said Susan Hegger, assistant managing editor for features at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "On 'Zits,' we had two dozen calls. With the 'Boondocks' strip [with the N-word], we got no more than 15 calls."

If there's grumbling about comic strips, syndicate editors say, most of it is coming from newspaper editors who wish in some cases they had been given more advance warning of a strip's content. Most of the concern is directed at a few strips -- "Zits," "Doonesbury," and "The Boondocks." The majority of strips, they say, are as mild and uncontroversial as ever.

To meet the objection that children might be shocked by the content of some of today's edgier strips, the Sunday Los Angeles Times comics section puts adult-oriented strips on one page and children's strips on another. And syndicate editors say they are trying to alert editors about sensitive content.

That such alerts would be necessary, though, highlights an indisputable fact: A larger percentage of comic strips are more on the edge -- with language, politics, and sensitive cultural subjects -- than ever.

"Comic strips have changed," said Jay Kennedy, editor in chief of King Features Syndicate, which handles "Zits." "Like any medium of art, they reflect the times, but they have changed less than television or even music. On TV in the '50s, married couples were shown sleeping in twin beds. The comics now cover topics that were never touched before. Tom Batiuk's 'Funky Winkerbean' a couple of years ago dealt with breast cancer. He did another series on capital punishment. Those things would never have been addressed 30 years ago."

Some of those closest to the medium -- the artists themselves -- are aware of new sensitivities. Breathed's "Bloom County" was hugely popular from its inception in 1980 until it ended in 1989 (a sequel, the Sunday-only "Outland," ran until 1995). In a phone interview last week, Breathed said that when he revived some of the characters in the "Opus" strip last year, he discovered "a breathtakingly different environment."

" 'Bloom County' and 'Doonesbury' helped usher in a flood of strips turning on political and pop cultural references," he said, "with everyone anxious to push that envelope farther than everyone else. I worked for 10 years without a complaint." In a recent strip, he said, "I had to find an editor-friendly euphemism for 'gay' -- 'poofta,' an Australian word that would slide past most of the complaining class."

In the last "Bloom County" strip in 1995, the rakish character Steve Dallas was revealed to be gay. Breathed drew him saying to a gay character borrowed from "Doonesbury," Mark Slackmeyer: "I'd like to have a family with you." Breathed said, "Do you think I could do that today? Absolutely not!" Breathed has encountered resistance to certain slang phrases that mean "that stinks," and has even had pressure to stop drawing Dallas smoking a cigarette.

Others in the field doubt, however, that there is a more puritanical atmosphere today than in the past. "I remember, in about 1976, when newspapers canceled 'Doonesbury' because it showed two characters in bed together," said Lee Salem, executive vice president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes "The Boondocks" and "Doonesbury." (The Boston Globe omitted the offending strips from Nov. 12-13, 1976, explaining in a box that they were "in poor taste." The omission provoked an angry demonstration by MIT students in front of the paper's offices). Salem said, "It just seems like there's more anger now, because e-mail serves as a more efficient transmitter of complaints than mail ever was."

Historians of popular culture also point out that some past strips were political in their own way. Walt Kelly's "Pogo" portrayed Senator Joseph McCarthy as a polecat named Simple J. Malarkey, and President Richard Nixon as Sam, a spider shaped like a teapot. The legendary "Little Orphan Annie," in its early days, had pointed criticism of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Mary Ann Weston, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, says there was also nonpolitical social commentary in early strips. "The first comic strip, called 'Down Hogan's Alley,' in the 1890s," Weston said, "featured the Yellow Kid. It was about children in the tenements of New York, and was supposed to be funny. But it had pointed social criticism: It showed crowded slum conditions and ragamuffin children." Much later, Weston says, the "Dick Tracy" strip, about a police detective with a conservative slant, "showed cops getting into trouble because they didn't do the right thing with their suspects under the Miranda rule."

Many older strips had racist, sexist, and ethnic stereotypes that would be as offensive today as anything in current strips. There were leering skirt-chasers, alcoholics, and wife-beaters. Irving Fang, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Minnesota, cites Al Capp's long-running "Lil' Abner," among others, for their stereotypes.

"Al Capp's Daisy Mae and Moonbeam McSwine were popping out of their skimpy clothes," Fang said. " 'Terry and the Pirates' and 'Steve Canyon,' both drawn by Milton Canniff, had stereotyped Chinese, plus the Dragon Lady, who was both sexy and a representative of the treacherous Orient, which was certainly racist. 'Smilin' Jack' had a fat Hawaiian couple."

While strips come and go, newspaper comics pages as a whole are still popular with readers. The "Zits" strip, directed mainly at a teenage audience (and their parents), started in 1997, and now appears in 1,200 newspapers. Kennedy, of King Features, calls it "the fastest-selling strip in the history of comics. No other strip has reached 1,000 newspapers in under five years."

If there is a change, Kennedy says, it is that comics are not predominantly children's entertainment, though children's strips are still numerous. "Today," Kennedy said, "all comics -- whether in film, in 'The Simpsons,' or in comic books -- are becoming increasingly accepted as an adult medium. That means that the acceptable range of subject mattered has broadened."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com

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