Editor's Note: When political satire goes bad

By Richard Wiens, The Triplicate March 22, 2012 01:00 am

Whenever someone mentions the comic strip Doonesbury to me — and that’s not very often — it seems to come in the form of a complaint.

Some folks feel political satire has no place on the comics page, especially if it’s satire they disagree with.

I frankly have no strong feelings about it one way or the other. The viewpoints of the comic strips we publish are pretty diverse, and I see no reason why the spectrum can’t include political satire. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau elicits a chuckle now and then, and that’s the best I hope for from a comic strip. Plus, Doonesbury is something of a well-established tradition on comics pages around the country, as are the other strips you see in the Triplicate.

Last week, however, I felt the Doonesbury story line crossed into bad taste. My decision to publish an alternative set of old strips led to — you guessed it — complaints. And even though this whole issue kind of snuck up on me (the comics pages generally being on auto-pilot), the one complaint that resonated was that I didn’t explain my action to readers in advance.

It dealt with a new Texas law that requires women requesting an abortion to submit to a transvaginal ultrasound. While performing the ultrasound, abortion providers must play the sounds of the fetal heartbeat and show and describe the images.

Trudeau, predictably, finds the law inappropriately invasive. In the strip, a young woman is ushered into a “shaming room” where “a middle-aged male state legislator will be with you shortly.” Ultimately a doctor says he’ll now perform the ultrasound with a “shaming wand” and adds, “By the authority vested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

Say what you will about the issues at play here, in my mind that goes too far for a comic strip. Of the 1,400 newspapers that carry Doonesbury, about 50 others agreed.

The Oregonian told its readers (in advance, to its credit) that it wasn’t printing last week’s storyline because it “went over the line of good taste and humor … using graphic language and images inappropriate for a comics page.”

Other newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, moved the strip to the editorial page. Over the years, some newspapers have regularly printed Doonesbury on the editorial page, sometimes pairing it with Mallard Fillmore. The latter strip features a politically conservative duck who works at a TV station in Washington, D.C.

If only Mallard Fillmore were an apt political alternative to Doonesbury! Instead, it seldom plies the waters of satirical humor. Instead, it tends to bluntly deliver policy statements. The fact that they emanate from a cartoon character doesn’t make them political satire.

That’s the problem with a lot of editorial cartoonists, whose work we do display on the opinion page. It’s not enough to be an artist with an opinion. A good editorial cartoon provides an intelligent twist – a unique take on an issue that provides a chuckle at least, an epiphany at best.

Sometimes, I find that the best editorial cartoons are ones I don’t agree with. Done right, political satire on the comics page or the opinion page can actually help bring us together, whatever our views. That is its great value.