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Laughing at the Left
Harry Stein
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Bruce Tinsley, creator of the conservative comic strip Mallard Fillmore, remembers feeling stunned when the fan letter showed up in February 1998. After all, his strip— featuring a right-leaning TV newsman or, more accurately, newsduck—was still in its relative infancy. Yet here was George Herbert Walker Bush declaring that he and Barbara turned to Mallard, “sage duck that he is,” first thing every morning. Even more gratifying, the former president thanked Tinsley for taking on “that horrible Doonesbury” and its creator, liberal icon Garry Trudeau, “a guy that tore me up in a vicious, personal way strip after strip.”

By all accounts, Bush 41 is a pretty mild-mannered guy, but in this case it’s easy to understand his feelings, since Trudeau really did regularly savage him politically and personally—perhaps most famously in portraying him as having “placed his manhood in a blind trust.” Not that such nastiness was anything but par for the course for Doonesbury. For all the complexity of its characters and its sometimes engaging story lines, the strip has been relentless over the decades in its unbridled hostility to those on the other side of the ideological fence.

The Mallard strips that prompted Bush’s letter had been a response to a series of Doonesbury strips that disdainfully characterized conservative talk radio as “hate radio.”

Mallard Presents: Learning the Liberal Lexicon!” reads the opening panel of one of the strips. “ ‘Hate Radio,’ a common liberal word made from 2 ordinary words.” In the second panel, a bespectacled professor type explains: “ ‘Radio’—the thing we use to listen to N.P.R. in our Volvos.” “ ‘Hate,’ ” adds a dowdy aging hippie in panel three—“the word we use to describe any opinion that DISAGREES with OURS!”

“That was really terrific,” says Tinsley today of the ex-president’s appreciative letter, noting that from the start he intended Mallard to be, among other things, an antidote to Doonesbury. “It was for all those people, and I guess that included even him, who never get a fair shake from the liberal media and cultural establishment.”

In the years since, with even mainstream papers increasingly recognizing the vastness of that underserved community, the sharply observed, take-no-squishy-leftist-prisoners Mallard has thrived. Distributed by King Features, it now runs in about 450 papers nationwide. What’s more, joining Mallard since 2004 has been another unabashedly conservative strip, Universal Press Syndicate’s fast-rising Prickly City, one or both now appearing not only in right-leaning papers like the New York Post but in such pillars of establishment liberalism as the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times. Further, right-of-center cartoons have begun to turn up on the web, appealing to a broad younger demographic. In short, without any of the fanfare that has accompanied conservative triumphs in talk radio, book publishing, and cable television, the Right has been making a successful incursion into that other formerly all-liberal bastion of popular culture: the funnies.

Readers’ readiness to welcome right-of-center strips should come as no surprise, since, in a key sense, the comics page was once a repository of traditional values. Hagar the Horrible artist Chris Browne observes that it was the one section of the newspaper “free of violence, sex, and vulgarity and that champions the family, love, and virtue. After you read about all the horrors of the world, it’s a little island where you can escape for a few seconds.” Through the first half of the twentieth century, those few strips that occasionally did engage in political commentary generally tilted right. Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, for instance, was a long-running paean to the conservative virtues of industry and self-reliance. (Daddy Warbucks’s embrace of FDR and the New Deal, both detested by Gray, in the Broadway and film versions of the strip doubtless had the cartoonist spinning in his grave.)

Then you had Al Capp of Li’l Abner fame, a former liberal so distressed by the excesses of the sixties that he took time off from chronicling Dogpatch’s amiable swindling and social climbing to lampoon “Joanie Phoanie,” a Joan Baez look-alike in bare feet and love beads, with flies constantly circling her head. Capp also came up with Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything (SWINE). In one representative entry, SWINE, having determined that America should be returned to its rightful Native American owners, induces wimpy Harvard administrators to hand over the university to the only Indian they can find—a shady character named Lonesome Polecat.

Even Lonesome Polecat—who soon trades the school to mobsters—can hardly believe the administrators’ lack of spine. Coming upon a bunch of students hitting a dean over the head with protest signs, he demands, “Why enemy no fight back?” “Because we’re students!” replies one of the kids. “If we commit assault, arson, and vandalism . . . ”

“ . . . they’re not crimes . . . ” chimes in another.

“ . . . they’re simply proofs of our idealism!” adds a third.

In explaining his political shift, Capp described an ideological journey that countless other liberals would make in the decades to follow. “What began to bother me, privately, was that, as things grew better, the empire of the needy seemed to grow larger. Somehow they became entitled to government gifts other people couldn’t get, such as people who worked,” Capp explained. “Yet I remained a loyal liberal,” he continued. “I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of liberalism. I spoke at liberal banquets in New York, Los Angeles, Washington. One day a lady photographer came to my studio and showed me a collection of Boston photographs. A publisher would publish them if only I would rattle off the captions. . . . Well, one doesn’t turn down a lady liberal. . . . This one, she said, will break your heart. She showed me a picture of a city street. It was mid-afternoon, the sun was shining. Garbage cans were tipped on the sidewalk. Bottles lined the gutters. On a porch sprawled a half dozen teenagers, drinking and smoking. The caption, I said, should be, ‘Get up off your asses and clean the street!’ The lady stormed out. I guess that was when I began leaving what liberalism had become.”

By the late sixties, however, critics routinely derided Capp as bitter and out of touch; the antinomian values of the generation that he mocked were ascendant. In the years to come, even some of the most traditional-minded strips faced pressure to conform to the fashionable ideological dictates of the time. In its early days, for example, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey risked offending only one group—military officers—in its gentle, tongue-in-cheek depiction of army life. By the eighties, though, Walker says, he was getting angry mail from feminists who “thought I was promoting sexism.” As a result, “I dress Miss Buxley more modestly now. The general doesn’t leer at her anymore, and he always gets the axe.”

The Number One example of the funnies’ leftward shift was Doonesbury. Launched in 1970, with Trudeau fresh out of Yale, the liberal strip became an instant hit, lauded by established media and academic types who shared Trudeau’s bemused view of his generation’s mix of (purported) moral clarity and life confusion. By 1975, Trudeau could boast a Pulitzer, the first ever for a comic strip.

Over the nearly two generations since, Doonesbury has played godfather to a number of other high-profile strips with leftist politics. Lalo Alcaraz refers to La Cucaracha, his Latin-themed strip that acidly attacks the current Bush administration, as “Doonesbarrio.” Aaron McGruder, who recently presented Trudeau with the Freedom of Speech Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival—previous recipients include Michael Moore and Bill Maher—draws The Boondocks, featuring two black kids infatuated with hip-hop and contemptuous of middle-class culture and values. In one especially notorious strip, one calls the FBI’s terrorism tip line, claiming to know of “several Americans who have helped train and finance Osama bin Laden.” Asked for names, he replies: “Well, let’s see. First one is Reagan. That’s R-E-A-G . . . . Hello? Hello?”

While liberal commentators unfailingly describe this kind of humor as “courageous” and “cutting-edge,” Mallard’s Tinsley rightly points out that liberal elites, even as they continue to rail against the Establishment, have been the Establishment for 30 years now, culturally if not always politically. Those who are truly rebellious these days, he believes, are usually on the Right.

Now 46, Tinsley claims that his right-of-center political views began to take shape back in the early 1970s at his Kentucky middle school, where almost all the teachers were “around 22 years old and right out of the sixties.” Says Tinsley: “Everything was relativist; to them it was the ultimate sacrilege to suggest that Shakespeare was any better than Bob Dylan, or that anything was better than anything else.” His response to his teachers’ heavy-handed insistence on the party line was only to move further right. He recalls a particularly galling incident. “One time, a girl sheepishly admitted that she wanted to be a homemaker—and she was ridiculed not only by most of the other girls in the class, but by the teacher. These were the people who talked about ‘totalitarians’ and ‘thought police’!”

Tinsley created the Mallard character while working for a Charlottesville, Virginia, paper in the early nineties. In the strip, the duck landed his job in a fictional Washington newsroom only because he was “Amphibious-American.” But when a new management team took over Tinsley’s real-life newsroom, he soon found himself out of work. The last straw for the new bosses was a strip that had Mallard musing about what might have happened if Michelangelo had applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant. While the NEA would surely like all the naked people, the duck concluded, they’d also object to the depiction of God as male, worrying about its disheartening influence over little girls. The new publisher, it turned out, was on NEA’s board. Happily for Tinsley, the Washington Times swiftly picked up Mallard Fillmore, followed by King Features, which recognized that the strip could fill a gaping hole in the funnies version of the political marketplace.

Mallard Fillmore has gone after liberals and their worldview with every bit as much relish as Trudeau has exhibited in attacking conservatives. Constantly playing off the headlines, it has satirically exposed the inequities of affirmative action, the absence of intellectual diversity on the nation’s campuses, and the intolerance of leftist activists endlessly preaching tolerance. But Tinsley has reserved his deadliest fire for the biased yet utterly self-satisfied liberal mainstream press. The strip’s particular foil in this regard is Mallard’s smug, bow-tied news director, Mr. Noseworthy (based in part on the publisher who fired Tinsley), who proclaims himself “the most liberal, progressive, sensitive person in North America.”

One series on the media this spring proved particularly acid. Clearly provoked by Harvard president Larry Summers’s shameless groveling before the school’s forces of political correctness, the strip depicts a Noseworthy horrified to discover that he has “inadvertently made a remark that could possibly be offensive to some racial, ethnic, gender, or other community with the word ‘community’ after its name. . . . And now I could get FIRED.” Noseworthy frets aloud: “Should I grovel, blubber and then apologize. . . . or apologize, grovel and then blubber?”

True to form, the desperate-to-please liberal journalist goes even further. “How,” a disgusted Mallard demands in the next day’s strip, “is apologizing on one foot, in a tutu, wearing underpants on your head, going to help anything?” “It’s going to make me more sensitive to the needs of the Habitually Offended Community in the future,” replies Noseworthy. The last frame shows him in close-up, a pair of Jockeys stretched over his bald pate, as he elaborates: “Primarily by making me want to avoid future apologies on one foot, in a tutu, with underpants on my head.”

The very next week, Tinsley again slammed the mainstream press, in a series playing off the phony reports of Koranflushing at Guantánamo. Noseworthy rushes to air with a story, based on “an anonymous source close to the State Department,” that “prisoners at Guantánamo are being forced to look at naked pictures of Donald Rumsfeld!” “Well,” Noseworthy piously explains to his colleagues, “the cab was close to the State Department when the driver told me this stuff.” As the series continues the next day, Mallard challenges his boss: “I can’t believe you’re not going to get a second source for such an inflammatory allegation!” Noseworthy assures him that he’s already got one: a toy fortune-telling Magic Eight Ball. “The Associated Press stylebook clearly states,” he loftily informs Mallard, “that when you have a story that makes a Republican administration look bad, the ‘Magic Eight Ball’ counts as a second source! . . . If you’d gone to journalism school, you’d know this stuff.”

Tinsley also has continued to accord Garry Trudeau the same level of respect that Trudeau shows conservatives. Whereas Doonesbury portrays George W. Bush as a dim-witted, bellicose asterisk, Mallard has portrayed Trudeau as a Hostess Twinkie with a complete disregard for the facts.

The reaction to Mallard Fillmore has been predictable: conservatives love it—and liberals loathe it. The strip is “usually hateful, nasty, ill-informed, or mean-spirited,” growls one correspondent to the Boston Globe. “Remove this stupid comic from the paper!!” thunders another. Tinsley even gets death threats. “These liberals are so sweet and gentle, they wouldn’t harm a baby seal,” he laughs. “But I guess I’m fair game.”

Irate liberals succeeded in getting one prestige paper, the Chicago Tribune, to drop Mallard Fillmore. Liberal complaints moved the Oregonian to run a reader poll deciding the strip’s future; respondents voted 4,720 to 3,547 to keep it. If it weren’t for the vehement support of his readers, Tinsley acknowledged in a “Mallentine” Day message, “Mallard wouldn’t last an hour.”

Soon after that message appeared, Boston Globe ombudsman Christine Chinlund—who clearly sides with the anti-Mallardians—suggested in a column that the paper replace Mallard Fillmore with the year-old Prickly City, since it “has a lighter touch, a story line, and a recognition that the growing political divide in this country is not necessarily something to encourage.” Chinlund should be careful about what she wishes for. Though Prickly City’s main characters are cuddlier than the Mallard crew—creator Scott Stantis claims Charles Schulz’s Peanuts as a key inspiration—there’s nothing soft about the strip’s politics or in the obvious delight it takes in thumbing its nose at politically correct norms.

In fact, having replaced Mallard as the resident conservative strip at the Chicago Tribune, Stantis soon watched the paper kill one of his entries, which derided Senator Ted Kennedy’s moral high-handedness at Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation hearings by making a none-too-subtle Chappaquiddick reference. Not long after, the Seattle Times refused to run a hard-hitting Prickly City series inspired by the Terri Schiavo saga. In it, the strip’s conservative protagonist, a spunky little girl named Carmen, announces that she’s depressed because her favorite team has lost in the NCAA Basketball Tournament; her best pal, a talking coyote named Winslow, decides that he’ll relieve her of her agony by starving her to death.

The editorial cartoonist for the Birmingham News, Stantis, like Tinsley, got a stiff dose of liberal hypocrisy growing up—in his case, in Madison, Wisconsin, less than a mile from one of the nation’s most radical campuses. At 13 (he’s 46 today, again like Tinsley), he worked on the Nixon campaign, and “on several occasions,” he recalls, “the peace-loving McGovern types threw bricks through the window.

After all, you can only be so tolerant.”

Stantis’s aim with Prickly City, now running in 75 papers, is to “turn against liberals the tools they’ve been using to batter conservatives for decades—irony, sarcasm, humor, and belittlement.” He adds: “It’s wonderful how much it pisses them off; they just go nuts—I get hundreds of vicious e-mails a week. I mean, the crudity and intolerance of the Left these days is unbelievable; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called a Nazi. But that’s what happens when you don’t have any ideas and the only thing left is anger.”

Among other Prickly City strips that have aroused ire—and delight—were the following:

  • Winslow, the coyote, comes across some exciting legal news from the Massachusetts Supreme Court and, running over to Carmen, exclaims: “Hot dog, we can get married!”
  • Following the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the more liberal (and sweetly muddled) Winslow rages incredulously that the new pontiff “doesn’t believe in moral relativism AT ALL!!!” “So, essentially, you’re surprised that the Catholic Church elected a Catholic pope?” asks Carmen. “Well, yeah,” comes the reply, “it’s not like Bill Clinton wasn’t available!”
  • Carmen, assigned to write a report on a famous woman, winds up in the principal’s office after she chooses to profile Ann Coulter. Told by the principal that she must follow the required curriculum, Carmen shoots back: “So what you’re saying is, you’re all for diversity as long as it’s not too diverse.” “And they say we’re not teaching you kids anything,” exults the principal.

One theme Stantis hits especially hard is the corruption of childhood via the ruthless marketing of youthful sexuality—what he calls “the pornoization of our kids.” Perhaps his most poignant series to date has little Carmen going to the Prickly City Mall to replace a torn pair of pants. “Low-rise?” asks the salesman. “No,” she replies, “just regular.” “Hip-huggers?” he presses. “Ultralows?” “NO!” she screams. “I’M A KID! I WANT A PAIR OF KID PANTS!”

Stantis worries about the nation’s moral condition. (Having once studied to be an Episcopalian priest, he says he’s “now looking seriously at Catholicism.”) “It’s not just Howard Stern anymore,” he complains. “It’s smack in the middle of popular culture. When you get a survey that says the majority of 13-year-old girls have either performed oral sex or were looking forward to doing so in the next six months, how can we think this is okay? I mean, you look at the stuff on the Internet and it’s mind-boggling. How does an eight- or nine-year-old even begin to process that information?”

Even as Mallard Fillmore and Prickly City alter the balance of power on the comics page, at least one right-of-center cartoonist is starting to make an impact on the web. Without the benefit of syndication or any other traditional form of promotion, Day by Day, by Chris Muir, has become a daily stop for many bloggers— a sign of how the Right remains ahead of the curve in the blogosphere. Knowing how few newspaper editors share his conservative politics, Muir flatly declares dailies are “the antithesis of what I want to get involved with.”

Heading Muir’s cast of youngish hipsters is Damon, a young, self-made black software entrepreneur, with zero patience for the standard liberal truisms about race, economics, foreign policy, or much anything else (the strip reflects Muir’s real-world experience as a Florida-based industrial designer). “Funny,” as one of Damon’s white pals remarks to him in one recent strip, “Dean says you white Christian Republican boys all look the same.” Sardonic as ever, Damon replies: “He’s just worried Rove’ll take the medical stash he’s been smokin’.”

Since the strip is computer-generated—Muir simply pastes the heads and facial expressions on pre-drawn figures— it benefits from a remarkable timeliness. Where traditional newspaper strips involve a lag time of about ten days, Muir generally has his up within two hours. When Newspaper Guild president Linda Foley recently claimed that the U.S. was deliberately targeting journalists in Iraq, for instance, Muir’s scathing strip was the first many readers had even heard of the appalling charge. “I was careful of not saying ‘troops,’ ” the strip quotes Foley’s lame self-defense. “I said, ‘the U.S. military.’ ” Muir follows this with a panel showing a pair of American soldiers on patrol in Iraq. “Great news,” one says. “Linda Foley’s got our back.”

But the tenor of the strip tends more to be gentle than angry, reflecting none of the bitterness so common today on the Left. Indeed, Muir’s girlfriend, the primary model for one of his characters, “is a total liberal.” As it happens, the same holds true for Mallard creator Tinsley, whose wife is a civil rights lawyer. There’s perhaps a lesson here. “It’s a funny thing,” Tinsley says. “All her liberal friends are incredulous that our marriage works, but none of my conservative friends have any trouble with it at all. They understand you can think differently about things and still be civil to one another.”

Almost immediately, this observation leads Tinsley to reflect on something else. “You ever notice how often liberals seem to think that, because they hold these lofty social views, it excuses them from having to be civil to bellboys and cabdrivers? I really think that by and large conservatives are just much nicer.” He pauses, thinking it over. “One of these days, I’ve gotta do a cartoon about that.”

 

 


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