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Serious Funnies

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By Michael Miner

Serious Funnies

Long before Funky Winker-bean introduced its current story line, in which a principal character discovers she has breast cancer, King Features had compiled the upcoming strips into a booklet and sent it to editors. The Hazelton Standard-Speaker, a small Pennsylvania paper, decided the trials of Lisa and Les Moore would be too intense for its comics page. "We were very concerned about kids turning to that page and being confused by it," says editor Jeff Cox. "Notwithstanding, if it had been done in, say, a couple of weeks instead of six months, we might have found it a little more palatable."

The Standard-Speaker published an article explaining why it was dropping Funky Winkerbean, heard from a couple of women who'd had breast cancer and wanted the strip to run, and this week was considering whether to restore it in another part of the paper.

Other papers reacted much more enthusiastically. For example, the Times Herald of Port Huron, Michigan, which had carried the strip only on Sundays, began running the daily strip as well. "Breast cancer--and prevention of it--needs to be discussed," editor Patrick Rice explained in a letter to his paper's readers. "I have seen advance copies of the strip, and believe it deftly handles the subject with thoughtfulness and, yes, good humor."

The Eagle and the Times, sister papers in Reading, Pennsylvania, hadn't carried the strip at all, but they picked it up for the sake of the breast-cancer story. The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Cleveland's Plain Dealer, and several other papers interviewed cartoonist Tom Batiuk and introduced the new story line with a feature article.

Batiuk says four years of research went into the story of Lisa's cancer, which he began telling on January 18. Now the American Cancer Society has proposed a breast-cancer-awareness poster based on Batiuk's strip. The Comprehensive Cancer Center of Duke University has invited him to be a guest of honor at its annual awards luncheon in May. The executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund, in a statement to King Features, said, "Tom Batiuk has brought breast cancer into the unique venue of the comic strip with sensitivity, realism and wit."

In short, the negative reaction of the Hazelton Standard-Speaker was very much the exception. Batiuk tells me that of the 400 papers that carry Funky Winkerbean, only one other dropped the strip because of its subject matter.

That was the Chicago Sun-Times. Unlike the Standard-Speaker, the Sun-Times didn't print a word saying why. But some contributors to the chi.media news group who were quick to notice it had disappeared began asking questions on-line, and editor Nigel Wade stepped in to post an explanation:

"The thing about the breast cancer thread in Funky W. is that it was going to go on for about six months, without contributing any new insights to the subject. We pay a lot of attention in our news columns and health features to the topic of women's health, notably cancer in its many forms, and we thought we didn't need Funky's help in that area. There's been a trend among some cartoonists to tackle social, political and religious issues: very earnest but seldom original. We prefer cartoonists who stick to the task of trying to be funny. Funky's story lines meandered all over the place and, in the end, he lost his way."

Wade tells me that when he set up a computer at home three years ago, "I had the idealistic idea that E-mail makes possible wonderful discourse. I've been sadly disabused." News groups specialize in anonymous hostility, he's discovered, and in this case Wade drew these reactions:

"Oh, I see. If it's not laff-a-day, it's not a proper comic strip. So, under these rules, THE DUPLEX is in, and something akin to FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE is out. Y'know, it always irritated me when I had to buy two papers to get all of the comics. Now, that's not necessary, and I'll stick to the Trib. Thanks, Dude. Saved me some cash, which I'll use for the New York Times--no comics, but something you can read."

"Listen Mr. Wade, I've been reading the Sun-Times for decades--even stuck with it through the awful Murdoch era. Your explanation, to be blunt, stinks. You could have simply suspended the strip for 6 months, but in any event YOU OWED FOLLOWERS AN EXPLANATION IN THE PAPER rather than let them open the paper one Monday and find a longtime friend has disappeared....You show contempt for your readers."

About 75 readers protested directly to the Sun-Times, and the paper crafted a reply. It's a page-long letter that's gone out over the name of features editor John Barron, but its argument is Wade's. The breast-cancer series "was extremely subpar," says the letter. "It added nothing new or incisive to the subject and succeeded only in inflicting the disease on a cartoon character....The bottom-line...is that the execution in general--and on this topic in particular--was not up to our standards."

"It's the Sun-Times's call," Batiuk says. "It's their newspaper. It's their editorial decision." But after reading the letter from Barron, he says, "I've never seen anything quite like that in terms of characterizing the work. And it's a very one-sided case, in that readers never get to see the material. It's like they really feel a need to justify their position."

"You touch the comic pages at your peril," says Wade. But peril is not something he shrinks from. He's right about the trend among the creators of our funny pages to take on big issues. He's right about some of these creators being more deft with big issues than others--Garry Trudeau is unmatched at mixing wit, anger, and poignancy. And he's right if he thinks that since Batiuk jumped his characters forward in their lives from teenagers to young adults, his strip has been not as silly, not as whimsical, and not as entertaining.

But I've read the Lisa Moore story line, and it's not the work of a cartoonist who has lost his way. There is humor in disease--the diseased themselves see to that--and Batiuk has captured it. But you can decide for yourself: Funky Winkerbean is on-line at the San Jose Mercury News (www.sjmercury.com/svlife/) and Philadelphia Inquirer (www.phillynews.com/comics/) Web sites.

Wade says he's not certain that Funky Winkerbean is gone for good from the Sun-Times. "Never say never," he tells me. So he must be advised that six months from now the strip won't conveniently forget that Lisa Moore ever had a problem. "This forces a basic change," said Batiuk. The current story line sees Lisa through her mastectomy into chemotherapy and leaves her bald but vamping in a perky new wig. Somewhere in the yet unwritten future she faces the end of chemotherapy--"There's a fear of leaving chemotherapy because that's what was protecting you in some way," says Batiuk--and reconstructive surgery.

There's no going back. On April 10 Lisa asks her volunteer counselor, "So tell me, Holly. After cancer, do things ever return to normal?" And Holly, who's been there herself, replies, "More or less. But eventually you'll come to realize normal isn't as normal as it once was."

News Bites

"The process did work. Sure it took 17 years, but it also took 17 years for that journalism professor to sic his kids on that case." Dave Urbanek, spokesman for Governor Ryan, quoted in the New York Times, February 6.

I've had my differences with David Protess, but it wouldn't have occurred to me that the reason Andrew Porter spent 17 years in prison for a double murder he didn't commit is that Protess dragged his heels as a teacher.

"Ryan contends that Porter's release 'indicates the system does work and that the checks and balances are there.'" The Chicago Sun-Times, February 7.

Eric Zorn properly excoriated purveyors of this pigheaded illogic in the Tribune this week: "'The system' had its thumb poised on the plunger for the lethal injection." But in the world as viewed from a million windows--if not by the cynics in the governor's office--journalists and perhaps even journalism teachers and students are indeed part of the system. They get their First Amendment protections, they get their free cold cuts at Cubs games--and when government screws up, their job is to step in and blow the whistle.

Journalists have a different view of it. They see their calling as standing wholly outside the system, a splendid if capricious court of last resort to whom the desperate can turn when the process has failed them. Their motto is: We sometimes do wondrous things, but don't count on it. If Porter had been executed on schedule, he would have died cursing the state, not all the reporters who didn't get interested in his case. Presumably.

Another name has surfaced as a bidder for the Chicago Defender and the other three papers owned by Sengstacke Enterprises. It's Pluria Marshall Jr., who owns black papers in Texas and WLTH AM radio in Gary, Indiana. Marshall acknowledges his interest but won't discuss his offer, which reportedly was $15 million. "It's getting pricey," says Kurt Cherry, a Chicago investment banker who has offered $12.5 million but says he's willing to go 15. "If Sengstacke Enterprises is opened to auction, there's no telling how high it will go."

Marshall's foremost credential might be his name. His father is founder and president of the National Black Media Coalition, which he established in 1973 to raise the number of black professionals and owners in American journalism. "We take Pluria seriously," says Cherry. "His old man knows people."

Sengstacke Enterprises is controlled by the trust established by John Sengstacke, who died in 1997. Now that James Lowry--the choice of John Sengstacke's grandchildren--finally has been named interim trustee, with the power to take bids and the obligation to pay off estate taxes of $3.5 million, the fate of the family business may soon be decided.

Sengstacke's daughter Myiti is leading the fight to avoid liquidation and keep the papers, particularly the Defender, in the family. "We checked them out," she told me, meaning Marshall's group. "They don't have the capital that we thought. I am not interested in anyone who's interested in buying the paper outright. I can put together an excellent management team like anyone else."

Marshall, like Cherry and, for that matter, Myiti Sengstacke, is drawn to the Defender by its name and history, and he believes that proper management could rejuvenate it. "Chicago is a $2 billion media market," he told me, "and print is probably $800 or $900 million, with a large population of black people."

Aldermen used to get their names in the paper when they were born, when they died, and when they were indicted. It's barely true anymore. Percy Giles got tabbed with federal racketeering, extortion, and fraud charges last week. Ho hum. The Sun-Times ran its story on page 18.

Joseph Aaron, editor and publisher of the Chicago Jewish News, is a journalist I admire. But the other day his passion for his faith and his passion for the Bulls sent him way over the top.

"One of the most important concepts in Judaism is that of hakaros hatov, acknowledging the good someone has done for you," Aaron mused in his weekly column. "The two Jerrys [Reinsdorf and Krause] are Jews, like it or not....But instead of acting like menschen, they have behaved like ingrates. Instead of expressing hakaros hatov, they have been the very embodiment of pettiness, ugliness.

"When Michael was in Reinsdorf's office signing the big $30 million contract he had so long waited for and so much deserved, Reinsdorf, after securing Michael's signature, said, 'I know I'm going to regret this.' Take in those words. For there is no clearer window into the soul of this pathetic man, this miserable excuse for a Jew. 'I know I'm going to regret this.'...Without the cover of the wonder of Michael, Scottie and Phil, we will clearly see just how pathetic these two Jews are. Think how different the story would be if the two Jerrys had acted differently. Think if they had acted as Jews should....On behalf of all Jews, especially the Jews of Chicago, my apologies to Michael and Scottie and Phil. Don't judge all Jews by the two Jerrys. Indeed, don't judge any Jews by them. Except them."

I would no more judge other Jews by the Jerrys than I would judge the Jerrys as Jews. It's both hubristic and strangely fearful of Aaron to think he needs to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tom Batiuk photo uncredited; cartoon frame copyright 1999 Batom Inc, Distributed by North America Syndicate reprinted by special permission of King Features..

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