My grandmother used to call them "the funnies." The diminutive term suggested both that everyone agreed on the mission of the comics and that that mission was more frivolous than the mission of other parts of the paper.
The drawings weren't meant to change the world. They weren't intended to promote a sociology or a political ideology. They were just intended to give you a moment's mirth in the midst of all the other dramatic and weighty events of the day chronicled in the paper. They were just "the funnies."
Ah, but like so many other components of the newspaper, reality is not nearly so simple. The fact is, as I learned reading the classic panel "Pogo," occasionally at my grandmother's kitchen table, many "funnies" aim for something more than a light chuckle and some aspire to a depth compatible with any item sharing their print space.
Enter "Stone Soup," a comic strip about contemporary family life carried by the Daily Herald and about 200 other newspapers in six countries.
"Stone Soup," of course, is no "Pogo." It does not pretend to explore the deepest mysteries of life through the musings of an odd menagerie of talking wildlife. But it does, as its author Jan Eliot explained to me in a telephone conversation this week, seek to reflect on life issues that people care about and that almost anyone can identify with.
In general, it does that without being overtly political. But last month, it followed a two-week plotline that supported universal health care, criticized U.S. policy in the Middle East and, at one point, made the unflattering specific link of former Vice President Dick Cheney to "backroom dudes who profit from our ignorance and complacency." It was an avenue of exploration that Eliot, who grew up in St. Charles, admits was "a stretch" for her, both a digression from the strip's usual political neutrality and a rare experiment personally in doing something different with her characters.
The storyline bothered some Daily Herald readers -- at least one of whom asked why we didn't run the political panels on the editorial page -- and many of Eliot's usual fans, though she noted that her mail carried "about equal amounts" of complaint and praise. But it emphasized a couple of worthwhile observations about cartoons on the Comics page.
For one, they all reflect certain subjective philosophical or sociological underpinnings of their authors. That's where they find their humor. "Dilbert," to consider a very different example, clearly builds its jokes around a certain image of the typical workplace and the characters who inhabit it that Scott Adams and his audience share.
For another, cartoon fans can be thrown off guard when a favorite strip takes an unexpected turn, and they can be especially put off when broad social criticism transforms into very specific political commentary, On that point, Eliot stressed that her overall objective was more the former than the latter. She pointed to a panel in which the main character's teenage daughter scolds, "You know watching Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow does not mean you are actually participating in the political process," and said her ultimate goal was to encourage political participation, whatever one's ideology.
Eliot said she doesn't envision any similar political forays anytime soon. If she does, it will be out of a belief, she said, that "it's good to spark discussion and debate." Discussion and debate are not always what everyone wants to see on "the funny pages," I know. But even my grandmother would admit that the famous Pogo line "We have met the enemy and he is us," wasn't exactly meant to set off a laugh riot.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.