Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's Rectangular to Be Square

As its part of the 2008 newspaper meltdown the Philadelphia Inquirer decided to cut back on space for Sunday comics. A memo went out, which of course within seconds had found its way out of the building to Philadelphia Weekly, which posted it and noted with the usual alt-weekly snark: "Okay, get this: The Inquirer only has two comics pages. (I guess she could be writing about Sunday's comics section.) If I can't get my Dennis the Menace and Ziggy fix there, where the hell will I get it?"

All right, it's a blog, so let's ignore that a simple e-mail could have discovered that yes, the note was talking about Sunday comics pages. Never let a fact stand in the way of a good punch line. Of note is the attitude: "Ohmigod, can you believe anyone still READS those comics? Dennis the freaking Menace? He hasn't been funny since 1956."

One of our local dailies ran a Gannett News Service story about how a Nigerian named Siku has written? drawn? adapted? the Bible into "The Manga Bible," not the whole Bible -- one tries hard to imagine the genealogy lists being read by a talking penguin, perhaps -- but "an overview with stories selected that basically provide an understanding of what the whole bible includes." A good copy editor could help that sentence a lot, but you get the point. The story originated in Springfield, Mo., the home town of John Ashcroft, and so possibly the local Borders does not have shelves of manga books, as ours does; but our paper nevertheless conveniently provided the sidebar trying to explain what manga is. I can see the Philadelphia Weekly blogger falling off his chair, convulsed in laughter, while reading "Manga publications are generally done in black and white, but some are in color." Yet if you were to throw the word "manga" out in a room with a cross-section of your community, how many hands would be raised?

When I was in my early 20s I read "Heavy Metal" -- I loved "Tex Arcana" -- and I probably read a manga book for the first time 15 years ago. So I could have laughed too. When I was at my first paper, my mother asked me if it ran "The Family Circus" and how she loved that comic because it was "so true to life." Gawd, not true to my life, I said to myself -- ignoring that if she was my mother, and it was about a family, perhaps I was missing something. All I could think of was those oval heads and the occasional angel and the all-suffusing banal good will of the thing. I don't remember if my paper ran Bil Keane's circular panel, but if it did, I probably got out my resume that night.

I still find "The Family Circus" to be treacle but it no longer bothers me to be in the same room with it. At age 55, with my son grown, I think our lives didn't resemble Bill and Thel and Jeffy's. Or maybe they did and I'm in denial. At 23, I didn't know what my life would be. Without diligent effort I would be sucked into the maw of PJdom. I wanted to be hip, intellectual, knowing. I wanted to be able to say, with a look of forced agony, "God, how WILL I live without my Dennis the Menace fix." I had my own equivalent, which I used often: "For 3,812 consecutive days, Nancy has failed to be funny." Of course, Nancy wasn't aimed at me any more than Tic-Tac-Toe was. Nancy was Candy Land, a strip 8-year-olds would find funny and thus they would want to read the paper. We had Nancy, we had Doonesbury, we had Mary Worth. Something for everyone. Buy it!

A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can't be hip. It can't be the counterculture. It is the culture. It has been part of how new ideas are absorbed into the mainstream. Sometimes journalists guess wrong at the speed of that absorption. Part of the fun in the 1960s and 1970s was watching mainstream journalists try to fit the counterculture into their frame of reference. (The first two verses of "Ballad of a Thin Man" say it all.) But it was fun while being a counterculture youth who could sneer at the clueless. My father, who was a smart and worldly man, could not figure out what "Penny Lane" really MEANT, but he knew it MEANT something. The barber shaves another customer? Is that an LSD reference? Yes, I sneered at him, too.

Then, somehow, I and most of us became part of the culture. But it can be hard to find one's place in the culture, which grows more complicated by the day; the Internet, with its social networking and postings and chat, provides a new counterculture, or multiple ones, ones that make the mainstream look even lamer than "The Family Circus" did to me in the 1970s. The argument about the future of news is partly about whether the mainstream ends with the baby boomers, like the parents left behind in "Childhood's End" as the children join the ubermind. Of course, the mainstream didn't end with "The Ed Sullivan Show," either.

Journalists are often too cool for the room, which is why alt-weekly journalists can have such fun with those on the dailies; freed of the responsibility to serve an audience that found "The Facts of Life" funny, for years they could take shots while floating on a bubble of concert ads and "SWF seeks MBM with versatile poodle" listings. (In which they're being killed just as we are by online classifieds.) This is part of why many newspaper people spend a good bit of time trying to deny or avoid what it is their readers want from them, which is, in ways large and small, journalistic and non, "The Family Circus." Along this road we will make further stops.


Anonymous said...

I rolled my eyes at the Philadelphia Weekly post when I saw it. I think your comment that "A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can't be hip. It can't be the counterculture. It is the culture." is especially apt.

I think that bad attitude about newspapers (and part of the problem of declining readership) comes from people getting used to not being exposed to a broad range of things, be it subjects they aren't interested in, comics they don't read or opinions they don't agree with. So it's "The newspaper isn't all about things I am interested in/is too liberal/too conservative/too old/too whatever." The Web has specialized sites for people who just want to read about technology, or the election, or lolcats, or whatever, and probably one that caters to their brand of politics or philosophy or level of snark. Plus it's free. I'm not sure what the newspaper response to that should be, other than to do the broad-based thing well enough that everyone still fells like there is something there for them, and to do it really really well.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of Family Circus, Dylan, and Childhood's End in a single blog entry! I'm a non-newspaper copy editor and have been a regular visitor here for 3 or 4 months now. I used to live in Philly during some good years for the Inquirer, 1978 to '82 - still have a lot of clippings.

With respect to department store chains, please give some attention (if you haven't already) to Two Guys, which was well known in the Lehigh Valley when I was growing up there - long since defunct, but its real estate became the seed of the huge Vornado Realty Trust.