What’s so funny about the funny pages?
By ERNIE GATES | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: March 15, 2012
For all the chuckles and chortles, the comics are notoriously treacherous newspaper content. When cartoonists venture onto religious turf, even on the borderline, watch out. Trouble is, they inevitably do, because questions of faith are part of the common human experience.
And that’s where the laughs come from.
With that in mind, the comics are fair game for readers’ comments about Stars and Stripes, like this one from Army Capt. Brian Kovacic, who is deployed in Qatar.
“I’ve noticed that pretty much every day this week in your comics section there is one disrespectful and downright offensive comic geared toward God, Christianity, etc.,” he wrote on March 2. “With the recent turn of events in Afghanistan, etc., wouldn’t you think it would be slightly irresponsible to publish a comic satire geared toward any religion?”
Kovacic’s email made it clear he likes a good laugh — and knows how to laugh at himself, too. He also counts “Jumble” as a staple of his day and is very complimentary of the work the Stripes staff does daily for servicemembers and families around the world.
In response, Assistant Managing Editor Brian Bowers reviewed two weeks of comics, found six that might have prompted the complaint and sent them to Kovacic to see if he had the culprits.
Kovacic was pleased with the response: “My sole request would be, maybe lighten up on the ‘God-oriented’ comics.”
So, which comic especially struck him that way?
The “Speed Bump” panel that showed a classic, bearded, robed God looking at a screen and asking the angel hovering nearby, “What should I do? I was answering a prayer and accidentally clicked ‘Reply All.’ ”
I thought that comic, which also appears with this column, was a funny take on the comic standard of “old meets new,” and an email gaffe we’ve all made. But, to Kovacic and no doubt others, mocking the all-knowing is off-limits. Probably mocking prayer, too.
Also on Bowers’ list were a couple of Adam and Eve gags, including the “Speed Bump” that shows the Original Couple sporting “We’re #1” supersized foam hands — another time-displacement gag.
Bowers picked out two “end of the world” cartoons, both from “Non Sequitur.” In one, God is saying to Satan: “Yes, your plan is working, but talk radio and cable news are taking too long. I think it’s time to go back to basics with a flood.” In the other, a familiar cartoon street prophet carries a sign that reads, “Have a nice last day.”
The clergy might also be a touchy subject, as in the “Non Sequitur” labeled “Divine Intervention,” in which a bartender is cutting off the miter-capped bishop who wants one more cup of wine.
In my own survey of the 270 comics in Stripes from Feb. 21 to March 2, I deliberately erred on the sensitive side and came up with 17 that might have crossed the religion line for some readers. I don’t think any of them were out of bounds for contemporary humor, but I understand Kovacic’s point.
“Pearls Before Swine” struck twice in a row. One of the crocodile characters has prayed to the “God of Crocs” to be protected from a neighbor’s blow darts, but gets stuck repeatedly anyway. “Dis why me atheist, Burt,” he tells his friend. The next day, he has decided to worship a jack-in-the-box. “Me geet new God, Burt. Yours no save us.” When the toy pops open, the startled crocs cower. “My god so vengeful,” says Burt.
In everybody’s favorite office cartoon, “Dilbert” engineers a device that discovers the Higgs boson — the elusive building block of matter known as “the God particle” — but flips the “Off” switch when he hears a voice saying, “Build an ark.”
In a very different vein, “Candorville” offered a Christian message of resurrection in a dream sequence in which the main character, Lemont, asks Whitney Houston, who had just died, whether she wishes she’d had one more big comeback. “I’m about to have the biggest comeback there is,” she says. “I was thinking more like something I could download to my iPod,” says Lemont. Far from offensive, unless somebody objects to Lemont’s wisecrack.
“Candorville” strikes another gentle religious note later, when Lemont thanks his mother for “being there when I needed to know why God lets bad things happen.” (It’s part of a running story line that she’ll talk with him about anything — except his absentee father.)
So, in itself, touching on religion or faith doesn’t make a comic offensive. When I counted 17, I included at least five that require a big stretch to make the “maybe” list.
For instance, are jokes about evolution objectionable? They were pretty frequent.
In that “Candorville” sequence after Whitney Houston’s death, Lemont comments how unfair it is that in the “hundreds of thousands of years man has been here, we’ve only heard the best singers of the last 100 or so.” “Hundreds of thousands” fits the evolution of Homo sapiens, which might offend someone who believes the biblical timeline that puts the creation of Adam and Eve about 6,000 years ago. Another evolution gag pops up in “Other Coast.” And another one in “Red and Rover.”
“Pardon my Planet” jokes about the end of the world, when a fortune teller tells a customer that her astrological chart shows the typically good sign of “Venus rising” but, unfortunately, “It continues to rise, eventually smashing into Earth, killing us all.”
And when Calvin asks the religious/philosophical question, “What’s our purpose in life?” Hobbes answers: “to devour each other.”
As I said, it’s a big stretch to find offense in those, and surely not what the very reasonable Capt. Kovacic saw as a problem.
Still, humor in every form has a way of finding dangerous ground when it comes to taste, politics — and especially religion. So, even if none of the examples I found crossed the line I would draw, it’s good to be reminded to be on guard — even on the funny pages.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.