As the times and culture change, so do the comic strips in newspapers

Posted: August 19, 2002

What happened to Fred Basset!?

More than 200 readers have asked that question over the last two weeks after the gentle basset hound with the subtle sense of humor disappeared from the daily comics pages.

Many of those who wrote or called said the hound was their favorite strip. One reader, Natalie Conner, signed her e-mail on behalf of herself and her four-footed pal, Clouseau, the basset.

Anne Gordon, once the steward of all things features and now the managing editor, said she pulled the strip because she didn't think it was as good as it was when it was drawn by its creator, Alex Graham. Graham, a Scotsman, died in 1991. Since then, the strip has been drawn by a successor.

"I felt that 10 years of running a comic that was not as sharp as the original author intended it to be was long enough. It was time to make some changes," Gordon said.

In Fred's place, she put Get Fuzzy, starring a cat. Get Fuzzy has been a hit with readers in the Sunday paper, and she wanted to give daily readers a chance to enjoy it, too.

Reading a newspaper often begins at a young age, with the comics, and some strips become lifelong friends.

Fred Basset, a traditional strip with sparse text and a gag in the final panel, is popular with older readers. He'll stay in the Sunday paper.

Newer comics, such as Get Fuzzy, carry more text and feature more complex characters. "When you make a change in comics, you know you're saying good-bye to an era," Gordon said.

She said she had been prompted to pull Fred Basset after hearing from readers who said they thought it wasn't as funny as it used to be.

Get Fuzzy, which is aimed at younger readers, is a rising star, she said, and had the potential to be as popular as Calvin and Hobbes.

Over two years, the paper has deleted several old standbys in order to add eight new comics. In addition to Get Fuzzy, the newcomers are Baldo, Edge City, That's Life, Shirley & Son, Pearls Before Swine, One Big Happy, and Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet.

The newer strips draw their humor from contemporary issues and reflect changes in American lifestyle - mixed-race marriages; single moms; young professionals in an urban setting; an extended Latino family, and a woman in a male-dominated Silicon Valley.

At this paper and every other, the comics czars are trying to predict which of today's nascent strips will become tomorrow's icons. Nobody wants to let the next Peanuts get away. But space is finite.

The paper announced Fred's demise in a three-paragraph story on Aug. 2, the last weekday he appeared. The story ran on Page 2 of the Daily Magazine, far from the comics pages. That's why so many readers missed the notice.

The paper needs to do a better job of telling readers when changes are about to be made. One way of doing that is to repeat the announcement. Another is to run the notice of change on the comics page. The only free spot I see is an inch of white space below Family Circus.

Losing Fred may not be the last of the changes. In June, the Chicago Tribune pulled Beetle Bailey from its pages temporarily and is considering making that permanent. Gordon said she is thinking of removing the same strip, along with Cathy, because readers have complained about sexism.

This time, though, we'll invite readers to give us their opinions. Let us know whether you'd like to see Beetle Bailey stay, or whether it's time to give him his discharge papers. Tell us, too, whether you've had enough of Cathy's traumas over buying swim suits, or whether she still makes you smile.

*

Cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who drew GIs Willie and Joe in their World War II foxhole, is in a Newport, Calif., nursing home. The staff says Mauldin, 80, is cheered by mail. Columnist Gordon Dillow of the Orange County Register is leading a campaign to ask Mauldin fans to remember him now. Send a card to Mauldin, c/o Gordon Dillow, Orange County Register, 625 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, Calif. 92701.

Lillian Swanson is the readers' advocate. Contact her at 215-854-2206 or lswanson@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|