Get Nice or Get Mean?

There is a deal among syndicated cartoonists, it seems, that no one cartoonist will slander another cartoonist’s comic strip. I doubt there is a written statement you sign when you get syndicated that says you have to be nice to Bil Keane and The Family Circus. However, there appears to be a tenuous truce among those people hard-working and lucky enough to make a living off drawing funny pictures. I was having a conversation recently when I was trying to explain this “deal.” The people I was explaining it to (my parents) thought it was ludicrous.


“Do you think people in other professions follow that code?” asked my dad. Then he laughed, a lot, to indicate the silliness of the statement.

This is true. You’d never see this among those in other entertainment industries. Fashion? Come on. Designers thrive on gossip and speculation. I happen to know that architects are a fickle bunch, as well (ask an architect what she thinks of Frank Gehry if you want an entertaining conversation). Why is it that cartoonists hold back?

Maybe cartoonists (especially the editorial cartoonist) are so used to cutting down politicians and celebrities that they’re afraid they will alienate the only people who really understand them. Turn that sharp wit on your ally and see where it gets you. Cartoonists are few in number (compared to, say, firefighters or accountants). Why engage in back-biting in a small pool? It will invariably come right back to you. Going back to the career comparisons, cartoonists are viewed as much less essential than either firefighters or accountants, so why should they make each other’s lives even harder?

Okay, I think I rationalized my point. However, it is really funny to read cartoonists bending over backward complimenting fellows who they obviously have an active distaste for. Here’s a great example: if you don’t like a comic, cite it’s popularity. “30 million Garfield books in print. Jim Davis must be doing something right.” Good compliment. You certainly dodged that bullet. This reminds me of my college English classes. If a book is considered Great, scholars will make the case that every single part of that book is infallible. You could argue these points either way: was Shakespeare anti-Semitic, or was he playing with stereotypes when he wrote The Merchant of Venice? If you listen to the scholars, Shakespeare, never having met a Jew and living in a wholly anti-Semitic world, was the latter. Had Shakespeare been John Rocker (remember him?), his remarks would have been torn down by every critic in the land.

My point is, if you don’t like a comic, even if you yourself draw a comic, you should be allowed to criticize it. Personal attacks are unnecessary (that’s what Fox News is for), but a little honest critiquing might even be helpful. Spice up the ol’ comics page. Every good artist wants to know that his work is being discussed, that it is relevant. Sliding into mediocrity may be okay for some, but it sure doesn’t help the art form in general when people keep mentioning the words “comic strips” and “retirement home” in the same sentence.

Full disclosure: this post is coming from a guy whose comic would be better if, as I was told by one newspaper editor, I worked on my drawings AND my jokes. Ouch.
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Discussion (4)¬

  1. Nate and Jeff Bowler, Co-Captains says:

    Case in point: every cartoon character making a cameo during Blondie’s 75th anniversary. Such reverence for what? Blondie!?! Please.

  2. charlotte says:

    What about “Pearls Before Swine?” http://comics.com/comics/pearls/archive/pearls-20070901.html
    http://comics.com/comics/pearls/archive/pearls-20070903.html
    He’s always making fun of other comics. I’m not sure it really counts as critique, but it’s certainly referencing other artists… not always in a totally positive way.

    I remember in school trying to convince people that we should hold critiques of shows after they closed, get to talk to the director and designer about the choices they made and why. No one was interested. I guess unless people are really smack-talking, no one wants to put other people down, even if it would challenge another person to reach greater heights.

  3. Kid Shay says:

    Great points Nate and Charlotte!

    This is why I love an ongoing feature on the Onion AV Club, “My Year of Flops”.
    http://www.avclub.com/content/blog/my_year_of_flops_case_file_67

    He writes about movies that did horribly at the box office. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes overly ambitious, and sometimes they’re just bad. But it’s so much more interesting to hear about a movie considered a failure than to sing the praises of Citizen Kane over and over.

    I think there should be more reviews of comic strips…not only would it generate more interest, but it would give creators some badly-needed feedback.

  4. Ian says:

    This phenomenon is alive and well with musicians, too, J. It seems like the only people who are allowed to stray from the Uber-Positive-It’s-So-Awesome school of music criticism are professional music journalists, who would be out of a job if they weren’t putting albums down and pissing people off. The rest of us need to make sure we’re not burning any bridges with people who may, at any point, become the next big thing on MySpace.

    For instance, I still regret that time I punched J-Lo in the face. Had no idea she was going to get so popular. Bad move.

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