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Rina Piccolo: Writing for comic strips “sucks” sometimes

Tina’s Groove creator Rina Piccolo on why writing for syndicated comics sucks sometimes:

This brings to mind the notion that comics – especially the ones in newspapers – are for kids. That is a crazy idea that only two types of people can entertain: those who are ignorant of comics, and those who are just plain ignorant. I think most kids aren’t bothering with tame newspaper comic humor – they’re watching TV and YouTube where they can find stuff that’s edgier. (I swear I’ve seen billboards say things that would be a no-no on the comics page.) The truth is a large portion of comic strip readers are adults, and a large portion of comic strips are written for adults, and so I find it unfortunate that these strips can’t seem to get out of the “Father Knows Best” realm and keep up with the rest of the entertainment world. I’m not saying that comic strips ought to be as racy as the raciest thing on TV. Not at all. I’m saying that there’s room enough on the page to push the envelope just enough to allow the comics to better compete with other popular forms of entertainment. I’m saying that Tina, Carlos and Suzanne – to use my own characters as an example – should be able to use accepted forms of speech, like “Oh my God”, “this sucks”, and “What the hell?”

I think you can see why writing for syndicated comic strips is extra hard. It’s challenging to get the attention of an HBO audience with “Leave It To Beaver” humor. But here’s the flip side (and isn’t there always a flip side?): constraint nurtures discipline. Creators of syndicated strips are often forced to find novel and creative ways around these restrictions, with sometimes wonderful results. Even without the fairness of a level playing field, I believe quite a bit of newspaper comic strips are better written, sharper, and more entertaining than most of what’s offered on Television. I think you’ll agree.

Reminds me of a story Amy Lago told me. Scott Adams tried to use the word “crap” in Dilbert. Of course that wasn’t going to fly, so his creative solution was to have his character use the word “carp” instead. Got it through the censors. Since then I’ve tested out the word “carp” a few times when I had to watch my language. Not sure how it played out on the funny pages, but I just got blank stares.

Community Comments

#1 Peter Davis
February/22/2013
@ 2:33 pm

Got past the sensors? Did it also get past the censors?

#2 Donald Rex Jr.
February/22/2013
@ 3:06 pm

Breathe in kindly to
respect the form one chose to
love. Thought varies Art.

#3 Bron Smith
February/22/2013
@ 3:15 pm

I have the same situation as you. I have a comic feature with Universal UClick. A few times I’ve tried a controversial topic, only to get it kicked back to me.

I’m also a childrens’ book author, illustrator and entertainer. So my world is “G” rated. I have to be very careful with everything that goes onto my web site since it may be seen my an elementary school principal. So there’s no room for riske’ things in anything I create. But I can’t complain because I’m constantly booked.

#4 Rina Piccolo
February/22/2013
@ 4:32 pm

Hi, everyone
Alan, thanks for posting this, I appreciate it.
I just wan’t to clarify that I absolutely love writing my strip, and for the comics page. I just think we could push the envelope just a teeny bit so that we could better compete with other popular forms of entertainment.

#5 Stephen Beals
February/22/2013
@ 4:54 pm

For me, this is what started the long separation of newspaper comics with potential readers. As TV, movies and radio became edgier and more realistic, newspaper comics (not the articles in the newspapers…just the comics) remained untouched by time.

I remember that the evening edition of the L.A. Times had Dr. Ruth’s column next to the comics. Explain that thought process. Apparently the eyes that would be burned out by blunt language never wandered over to read what the good doctor was writing about.

I have no desire to start illustrating a wacky Sopranos strip, but it would be nice to approach a level of dialog that was used in Seinfeld.

I will also never stop being surprised that “crap” is considered a bad word. I say “crap” when I need to avoid a so-called bad word.

#6 Keith Brown
February/22/2013
@ 7:16 pm

Scary Gary, which I love btw, has a gay couple that are Frankenstein’s monsters. Maybe the censors don’t get it?

#7 Naus
February/22/2013
@ 8:49 pm

I can understand that it would make you a better writer being as restricted as newspaper comics are but on the other hand most comics in the news papers are not even funny. it’s more smile humor, it makes you smile maybe, but it rarely makes one laugh out loud.
I say down with the censors!! let the comic world breathe for a change!!!
And maybe just maybe, it can survive.

#8 Justin Riley
February/22/2013
@ 11:14 pm

I love CRAP! It’s funny and inoffensive.
Can they at least give us CRAP?
How come they allow *#!@$ and not CRAP?
*#!@$ is instantly translated into much worse words.

#9 Tom Stemmle
February/23/2013
@ 12:59 pm

As always, Rina, your points are right on target. How great it would be to read an already clever comic strip that has a few well thought out words that takes it to an even edgier and extra humorous level!

#10 Pete McDonnell
February/23/2013
@ 4:32 pm

I don’t want to come off as a craphead bu tI doubt if having a character say “this sucks” would make a comic strip funnier, or more relevant, or anything else. It’s just kind of juvenile. Does dumbing language down make things funnier?

#11 Mike Peterson
February/23/2013
@ 4:57 pm

People say “crap” and “sucks” and “up yours” and “bite me” and all sorts of vulgar things. The question is, would you use them at Thanksgiving dinner, or in a panel discussion at a public meeting?

Web comics are a gathering of like-minded people. The comics page of the paper is a public meeting.

#12 Donald Rex Jr.
February/23/2013
@ 7:02 pm

What does ‘edgy’ mean? Does it improve humor? In the context I typically see it used it seems akin to ‘sophisticated’ which of course may be defined as ‘full of sh*t’ or ‘what the inexperienced derive from complex experience.’

Quality is the only thing that carries a strip. If one of any age has access to a newspaper she will read the strips she likes. Declining access to a newspaper subscriptions is the villain, and I don’t see a remedy for that. As I always say “artists today have to make their own path.” Do we not strive to live by our wits?

#13 Stephen Beals
February/24/2013
@ 1:34 am

I always go to public meetings for some solid comedy and leave disappointed.

So we’re limiting ourselves to language and topics only appropriate for grandma’s Thanksgiving table in a publication that will cut a heartwarming story the instant somebody is pushed onto subway tracks? And let’s not forget that today’s grandma might have been at Woodstock, so the conversation could be a tad more interesting than it used to be.

As I type this, my stepdaughter has a friend spending the night. They’re both 13. I think a lot of their conversation couldn’t make the newspaper comics page, which is just weird because they’re not vulgar. They’re probably using some words that I’m unaware of being considered bad by newspapers and discussing topics that, although real and valid, are just too darn edgy. Judging by the comics page, they should only be making comments about hair and hair care products.

So the girls will turn to the ever-booming YA book market or a TV show and not a newspaper. Fine. Newspapers imposed these odd rules and did this to themselves.

#14 Dave Stephens
February/24/2013
@ 4:19 am

Good point – odd rules are the norm in newspapers, same as real life though, of course, in real life we have a very different set of odd rules… Oddly, I’m not supposed to be able to earn a living drawing funny pictures, but I must admit I never followed that rule as I found it somewhat restricting… Heh.

When newspapers that are online have a selection of excellent web comics as well as their traditional comics, the odds will be in the cartoonist’s favor…

#15 Rina Piccolo
February/24/2013
@ 5:56 pm

Pete M says:

“I don?t want to come off as a craphead bu tI doubt if having a character say ?this sucks? would make a comic strip funnier, or more relevant, or anything else. It?s just kind of juvenile. Does dumbing language down make things funnier?”

Pete, it’s not a matter of making it funnier, or having relevance. It’s only a matter of authenticity. You want your characters to sound like people in real life. Therefore the dialogue should be as close to how everyday people talk. I have Tina say “This stinks” and that’s okay most of the time, but “this sucks” has a particular punch to it, in certain situations, know what I mean? I think it’s an accepted way of talking in real life, and so the comics page should allow it, that’s all.

I wrote an earlier post about characters sounding “real” — here it is: http://tinasgroove.com/2013/01/09/tina-aint-no-idiot/

I hadn’t realized this was such a hot topic. It’s so great to hear what everybody thinks!

#16 Jim Lavery
February/25/2013
@ 8:12 am

Should I even bother to submit my new strip, “That Sucks!”, to the syndicates?

#17 Mike Lester
February/25/2013
@ 8:44 am

Dead women, sexual conquests, rabbit pellets, Jesus jokes, fart jokes and “spastic” are taboo in comic strips:

http://www.gocomics.com/mike-du-jour/2013/02/25

btw: This is not the first post I’ve enjoyed from Rina. Thanks.

#18 Mark Buford
February/25/2013
@ 9:15 am

I can relate. One time my editor requested that I scale back the amount of blood spurting from someone’s neck after one of my characters administered a merciless beheadding. I protested but ultimately gave in. The gag ran in all my markets with just the moderate amount of blood. It really sucked.

#19 Alex Hallatt
February/26/2013
@ 6:01 am

And depression (in a funny way) – I’ve had strips making light of that knocked back twice recently, which is a shame, as I once suffered from depression and if you can’t see the funny in it, it’s a downward spiral.

#20 Frank Mariani
February/26/2013
@ 9:46 am

@Mark Buford – you can’t NOT be funny, can you. Just like Seinfeld.

#21 Joe Vissichelli
February/26/2013
@ 11:28 pm

My own take is that there are parameters for every kind of art we may do and as professionals we have to try to sparkle within them all. So whatever the challenge is we’re stuck with, we just have to give it life anyway.

@Rina: I see your point about having characters sound real, but then how many cartoon characters LOOK real? I’d sure hate to see someone looking just like our characters walk down the street. Maybe they don’t have to sound so real after all.

Personally though, I kind of enjoy the challenge of “clean humor” as opposed to all that lousy burp, fart, barf and then-some going on in so much pop culture. Not much challenge to that and it’s usually not very funny. I’d like to see more people nailing the right word or concept instead.

But in any event, parameters ain’t so bad. Just another way of working.

#22 Dave Stephens
February/28/2013
@ 12:13 am

Parameters change. Most of the great old time comic strips of the 20’s through the 50’s would NOT be allowed in modern newspapers at all or would have huge makeovers. In particular, the old EC Segar Popeye strips would have been way too violent…

#23 Ben R.
February/28/2013
@ 12:40 am

I think it’s time for the comic strip censorship to end because a lot of the old comic strips in newspapers like “Family Circus” “Dennis the Menace” are too boring and old fashioned and outdated. I want to see more teen adult comic strips like Zits, Luann, Dustin. I want to see fighting and violence with guns, swords, wheel car chase scenes and fighting words. I want to see comic strip animals getting spanked or abused, I also want to see sexy women in swimsuits. I also want to see war going on in comic strips. I also want to see multi culture stereotype drawings. I also want religious topics and real world problems talked about in comic strips. I also want real funny comic strips. I’m ready to stand up against the restricting comic strip censorship because it’s no good for our time anymore, time for comic strips to be funny or violent again.

#24 Mike Peterson
February/28/2013
@ 5:07 am

Today (Feb 28)’s syndicated offerings include:

A kid walking in on her parents having sex (Pajama Diaries), a fart joke (Frazz), artwork in which a main character’s nipples clearly protrude under her blouse (Judge Parker), a corn dog described as having a stick up his …, (Rubes), a woman reading pornography and wishing her husband were more like that (Edge City) and a modern human having had sex with a Neanderthal he just met (Monty).

And, just a few days ago, a stripper with a crush on Rex Morgan confronted him in his livingroom in the nude.

So, sure, there are boundaries. But let’s not overstate the case.

#25 John Cole
February/28/2013
@ 9:34 am

Mike: Thanks. You made me dig through the features section for Judge Parker. I also noticed the writer’s name is “Woody.”

#26 Stephen Beals
February/28/2013
@ 9:50 am

But “sucks” and “crap” are still out. Again, odd rules. And adult content isn’t exactly nipples and farts (although I’m sure that could be a name for a successful strip).

I think Rina’s web strip Velia, Dear would be wonderful for newspapers. It could really attract a readership outside of the shrinking group that’s currently subscribing. I don’t see that happening any more than I see fart jokes paving the way for adult dialog-driven strips.

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