Comic Strips: Lame Duck

Back when the world still cared about Gary Condit (which
is to say, not too long ago), the politically conservative comic-strip duck
Mallard Fillmore doled out some predictable partisan criticism: "Before the
Chandra Levy story, ABC, NBC and CBS usually referred to Congressman Condit's
party affiliation! Now 92% of the time, they don't!" Dramatic pause. And then,
"I'm not sure whether that reflects their liberal bias or if they just figure
that once you say 'intern' and 'affair,' saying 'Democrat' is sort of redundant."

Created by Bruce Tinsley in 1991, Mallard Fillmore runs in about 400
newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times, The Boston Globe,
and the New York Post--often next to Garry Trudeau's liberal strip Doonesbury.
Its mouthpiece is a duck hired as a television reporter at "WFDR" in Washington,
D.C., to fill the station's "Amphibious-American" quota. Mallard typically quacks
and moans that government is too big, tax cuts are too small, gun control is too
strict, and schools are too lenient. He complains quite specifically about the
Democratic Party.

Mallard is crisply drawn and, on occasion, he does surprise--as when, during
the 2000 presidential primary, he asked Governor George W. Bush to explain his
stance on affirmative action. The reply: "Mallard, if I answer that question, it
won't end there! Next, you'll ask about taxes, or foreign policy! It's a slippery
slope, and I'm not gonna play that game!"

But for the most part, Mallard's jokes are predictably right-wing. On
abortion: "You should probably vote Democratic if you think of your two-year-old
as being in his 'eleventh trimester.'" On affirmative action: "By Super Bowl 37,
each team will be required by law to have at least 25% ugly cheerleaders." On the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration: "The only safe business is one
that's out of business." Not surprisingly, Mallard took frequent potshots at Bill
Clinton and did not let up even as the president was about to leave office.
(Question: "Why is there a two-month gap between the election and the
inauguration?" Mallard's answer: "In this case, I'd say that's how long the Oval
Office fumigators requested.") The strip doles out its judgments without the
garnish of even minimally developed plot or character. There is no show, only
tell. There is a word for this, and that word is propaganda.

Mallard snipes most frequently at the supposed liberal media bias: "One thing
about Dan [Rather] . . . he's no Jim Jeffords. . . . Nobody has to worry about him
changin' his party affiliation." And: "Good evening. This is Peter Jennings,
reminding our viewers that whatever bad news you're about to hear, Reagan and
Bush did it too! Now for our top story." Tinsley even groused for a full week
over liberal cartoonist Trudeau, whom he protrayed as a Twinkie. (Mallard:
"Garry, did you just not bother to verify your assertion that the president's
I.Q. is half of Bill Clinton's, or were you just lying?" The Twinkie: "When you
make stuff up as often as I do, Mallard, it's not lying, it's a leitmotif!")

Bruce Tinsley's conservative politics, he told The Washington
Times,
came from attending school in the sixties, when teachers indoctrinated the
students about the evils of the Vietnam War. After having to listen to lectures
explaining "why Bob Dylan is greater than Shakespeare," Tinsley turned away from
his professors--and to the writings of William F. Buckley, whom he describes as
his "Jack Kerouac." He even kept his hair short. Tinsley argues that he created
Mallard for "the forgotten American taxpayer who's sick and tired of a liberal
media and cultural establishment that acts like he or she doesn't exist."
Fighting words, sure--but are they accurate?

Not really. The Sunday comics are actually quite conservative as a
rule. They do not change much over years, even decades. Calvin never graduated
first grade, nor did his overqualified classmate Susie Derkins; and Charlie Brown
always fell for Lucy's football prank. The strips are meant to be reassuring, not
daring; safe, not provocative; droll, not biting; Bob Saget, not Chris Rock.

Case in point: Comic-strip families are overwhelmingly nuclear in structure
(Calvin and Hobbes, Dennis the Menace, For Better or for Worse), with the father
winning the bread and the mother baking it (Hi and Lois, Hagar the Horrible) for
a family as white as the picket fence that embraces its middle-class home
(Blondie, The Family Circus). Dozens of newspapers suspended For Better or for
Worse
--and scores of readers defected--after one of its characters came out as
gay. When Blondie, wife of Dagwood Bumstead, changed careers from homemaker to
caterer (hardly a staggering metamorphosis), the prospect of the wife earning
income rocked the marriage so hard that the couple ended up seeing a counselor.

Readers apparently want the comics pages to reflect a 1950s-era status quo;
and perhaps with this in mind, comics-page editors have historically been more
responsive to criticism from the right than from the left. After the September 11
attacks, when The Boondocks showed one of the main characters calling the
terrorist hotline of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to turn in suspects
helping Afghan extremists ("All right, let's see. . . . The first one is Reagan.
That's R-E-A-G . . ."), several papers temporarily stopped publishing the strip.
And during the Watergate investigations, papers sometimes refused to run
Doonesbury if it commented on the scandals.

"Few crusades are launched on the comics page; few boundaries are breached;
few taboos are broken," wrote Jeff Shesol, creator of Thatch in The Washington
Post.
Shesol has liberal credentials--he worked for the progressive Pat
Schroeder, and Bill Clinton hired him as a speechwriter in 1998--but even his own
cartoon exemplifies the funnies' dedication to tradition and convention. Thatch
started at the peak of the "politically correct" movement, when Shesol was a
senior at Brown University (the nursery of the movement), and gained momentum by
criticizing all that is p.c. The cartoon started showing up in The Wall Street
Journal,
and the National Review invited Shesol to do a strip.

Mallard goes about 10 steps further than most Sunday strips
and makes politics its focus. It does what conservatives have traditionally been
best at doing, especially on talk radio: reducing knotty social arguments to
glib, simplistic quips. The format allows Mallard to sneak false analogies
and faulty reasoning past readers--an easy thing to accomplish, because only a
few panels are used to convey a point, and readers are unlikely to spend more
than seconds with them over breakfast. Last year, for instance, Mallard
presented "The Liberal Lexicon 2000: stupid stuff we hope they'll stop saying in
the new century." He defined terms such as syndrome ("word used to reduce
reprehensible actions to mere symptoms of some vague societal ill"),
compassion ("sorrow for the troubles of others, accompanied by a strong
desire to force somebody else to help them"), and community ("a word
liberals put at random into sentences in order to sound enlightened and
tolerant").

Doonesbury, to be fair, has long been associated with liberal
criticism of conservative politicians; Trudeau is a conservative bête
noire. (One 1980s collection of his strips was called In Search of Reagan's
Brain.
) And readers have asked their newspapers to place both Doonesbury and
Mallard on the editorial page; some publications have complied. But Doonesbury
doesn't quite fit with the columns because the strip fleshes out story lines and
delves into specific characters' struggles; the commentary is secondary, a
backdrop. Mallard, on the other hand, is more of an editorial cartoon, with
self-contained one-liners and characters that merely serve to convey political
messages. Moreover, Doonesbury is at least some of the time an equal-opportunity
satirizer: Plenty of Democrats fall victim to Trudeau's often brilliant wit.

Even as a political cartoon, Mallard is not a vigorous critique of liberal
thought but its flip dismissal. Though Jay Kennedy--editor in chief at King
Features, which syndicates the strip--has said that Mallard "helps define the
issues people are thinking about," the strip really fails in this mission. It
does not make for provocative discourse but allows its readers to decline
invitations to political debate--and to wallow in snideness. "You should probably
vote Democratic," Mallard says, "if: You think Trees can feel pain [showing a man
in a "Save the Shrubbery" shirt standing in front of a tree], but unborn babies
can't." This fails as substantive criticism--which would be fine, if only it were
also funny. But it's simply not. For a cartoon strip that eschews both narrative
drive and character development, to fail at both criticism and at humor is
deadly. It's time for Mallard to go the way of the dodo.

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