Jesse Walker is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
This week's installments of "Doonesbury" feature the tale of a Texas woman seeking an abortion. Before she can have the procedure, she's told, she has to go to a "shaming room" to meet with "a middle-aged, male state legislator." Once she gets there, the politician peppers her with questions like, "Do your parents know you're a slut?"
The story arc has attracted a lot of attention, but in many cities fans of Garry Trudeau's comic strip can only read it online. More than 50 papers -- including Newsday -- have refused to print the series.
It isn't the first time newspapers have been afraid to publish a controversial comic. Walt Kelly's "Pogo" alarmed editors so many times that the cartoonist learned to plan ahead: If he thought his jokes might give an editor heartburn, he prepared a second strip that cautious papers could run instead. On Oct. 12, 1964, for example, some "Pogo" readers opened their morning papers and saw a cartoon mocking faux-reluctant politicians, featuring the line: "If nominated I won't run! If elected I won't serve! If I serve I promise I won't enjoy it!" Readers of other papers encountered a comic with the satire excised and replaced with cute, uncontroversial bunnies. "With his good looks," one rabbit says of another, "he could take over this strip!" He didn't know the half of it.
Trudeau has had trouble with antsy editors many times over the years. In 1985 he found himself producing a second set of strips, just like Kelly did, but he wasn't as low-key about what he was doing. His syndicate had been wary about some strips spoofing the anti-abortion movie "Silent Scream," so Trudeau sent papers an entirely different batch of cartoons. Then he published his abortion series in The New Republic instead.
Trudeau had done some extra work on the side for magazines before. He composed an interview with his rock-star character Jimmy Thudpucker for Rolling Stone, for example, and he drew an original "Doonesbury" mocking Henry Kissinger for the libertarian outlet Inquiry. But this was the first time Trudeau had sent something to a magazine because it was deemed too hot for newsprint. Barred from one medium, he sought a substitute.
Over the years, more comics have gone missing from the funny pages when they waded too far into controversy -- when "Popeye" did its own riff on abortion in 1992, when a character came out as gay in "For Better or for Worse" in 1993, when "The Boondocks" took on the war on terror in 2001. And now "Doonesbury" is back in the same situation.
The difference is that the offending installments are easy to find. In 1964, a "Pogo" fan who subscribed to a politically cautious newspaper wasn't likely to see a suppressed strip before it was reprinted in a book. By 1985, a high-profile cartoonist like Trudeau could arrange to have his "Silent Scream" strips published in a weekly, but less popular artists didn't have that option.
Today everything is online. I don't make a daily habit of reading "Doonesbury" anymore, but I haven't been able to avoid the abortion cartoons -- it feels like half my friends on Facebook have been linking to them.
Trudeau's abortion series is far too heavy-handed for my taste. But papers run heavy-handed, unfunny comics all the time. These strips were rejected because of their subject matter, not their quality. A clever cartoon on the same topic would land in the same wastebasket.
So thank goodness for the Internet, that glorious territory where wastebaskets are scarce. Newspaper editors may still quake at the thought of offending readers, but now us readers have a livelier alternative.