Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apologetics and Comics: Separated at Birth?

I consider myself a moderately capable amateur when it comes to cartooning. Early on some suggested I ought to pursue it as a career, but I didn’t. To this day it’s just a diversionary hobby.

The reasons why have some poignant parallels to the current situation with apologetics, and I want to note two in particular.

The intended audience frequently doesn’t want anything new, unusual, or insightful to disturb their peace of mind. You might notice that when a major cartoonist dies – someone like Charles Schulz (Peanuts) or Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible), their comic strip doesn’t always disappear. Instead it’s either continued as “Classics” (Peanuts) or someone else takes over (Hagar).

The companies that broker the publishing of comic strips – they’re called, appropriately, “syndicates” – will often, rather than use new talent, find some way to keep the old stuff alive. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly money, but the reason keeping the old stuff alive makes money is because average readers are too uncomfortable with anything that is new or different.

As an illustration, some years ago my local paper here in Orlando dropped Snuffy Smith – a comic that had even then long outlived its usefulness as a source of humor and hadn't had a fresh idea since the Kennedy administration. The outcry from readers was astonishing, and illustrated by one benighted soul who said, “What’s a newspaper without ‘Snuffy Smith’?”

Um…how about, “a better newspaper”?

That any person would suggest to any serious extent the lack of Snuffy Smith ought to have some bearing on the quality of a product mainly intended to inform the public of current news affecting their daily lives is tragic in and of itself – reflecting a shallowness of mind that is pitiable.

In contrast, I think our comics should challenge people – and the success of those like The Far Side and Mother Goose and Grimm that do break the status quo show that this is the case. So likewise, I think we’d succeed in presenting apologetics if we just challenged our pew sitters a little more.

Relatedly, what’s with the survival of absolutely horrible comics like Hi and Lois which are only slightly funnier than a hotel fire? Why is it that so many comics are just the same thing placed in different settings? There’s no difference at all between atrocious comics like The Wizard of Id and Beetle Bailey except that one is in a supposed autocratic kingdom and the other is in the modern military. The gags from one could virtually be transplanted to the other. The reason: It’s again because too many people don’t want to be challenged with the unfamiliar. They want a situation they can “relate to” instead (so forget an apologetics teaching, instead we’ll have a night of alluring personal testimonies). This is bad enough that, as I recall seeing, there was a new comic offered to papers back in the 80s that featured a family of bears. The syndicate “sold” the strip on the premise that this bear family acted “just like humans.”

Not much point in having bears as characters, then, is there?

I could come up with more, but I’ll just close with a second reason.

The whole business is brokered by people of average ignorance. Ever wonder who decides what new comic strips get to see the light of day? Syndicate editors do. And most of them have no idea what they’re doing, only vaguely thinking of the factors in reason one above.

Their decisions are frequently far from rational. One editor decided that he would add a comic to his syndicate’s roster because he had brought some samples of it home, and his wife had woken him up in the middle of the night to say how much she liked it. Can you imagine if Bill Gates made policy decisions based on something Melinda said during a bout of insomnia?

That comic, as it turned out, did become a moderate success. But that’s nothing compared to the fact that some highly successful comics – such as Garfield – were originally turned down by syndicates other than the ones that took them, as noted by this article from TIME magazine:

Garfield was rejected by two syndicates (King Features and Chicago Tribune-New York News) before United Feature signed Davis to a contract in 1978.

You think maybe King Features and CT-NYN are kicking themselves a little over that?

Obviously, the selection of comics by these guys is more touch and go than it is a matter of being able to read the public pulse accurately. I’ll be the first to admit that the syndicates get a lot of junk submissions, by the way. In that respect the field is also a lot like that current commercial for a job hunting website that shows the whole crowd getting on a tennis court to play the match.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t take the route of cartoonist as a career, because it’s clear that too often, getting somewhere in that field isn’t a matter of skill, or of talent – it’s a matter of trying to appease minds that are not very quick on the uptake and would rather curl up in a ball in some corner than go for a walk down the street.

Which, all too often, is also a description of apologetics ministry.


  1. Hear, hear! Scott Kurtz (of the webcomic "PvP") has pointed out many times that the syndicate system is a fossil, and that newspaper comics will eventually die because A) the syndicates don't really *do* anything for the artists and their strips aside from put them in the paper in the first place, then just sit back and collect profits; and B) because they're so behind in terms of webcomics-related technology that they can't adapt to the changing arena.

    But drawing the analogy to apologetics is quite insightful. I'll have to mull over that a bit.

  2. Thanks, Devin! I'll have to mull that over myself, from the other direction. Obviously I'm someone who has taken advantage of the freedom producing a webcomic has offered; in that sense, part of me anticipates that the Internet has been and will be a great equalizer that will not only fossilize, but also eventually kill, the syndicates.

    The best situation to hope for is that the destruction of the syndicate gatekeepers will allow more cream to rise to the top rather than just being skimmed by whatever mystical factor affects an editor some morning, such as getting heartburn from last night's chili dog.