In 1990 I was an editor of the weekly college newspaper at Seattle Central Community College. Each week we printed a comic strip drawn by a student.
The strip — “Red Ruffensor,” as in red, rough, ‘n’ sore — was a liberal satire of action hero comics. It was community college student work, but pretty good for that.
We were criticized, though, for not including anyone but white men and women in the strip. The position of the cartoonist was that this was a satire of a genre that doesn’t include anyone but white men and women (mostly men), and that to include anyone else would actually be mean. (Every character in the strip was a jerk.) So he didn’t.
Until, under continuing pressure, he changed his mind.
One day, the last panel of one of the strips included a character with stereotypical and exaggerated Asian features, and a speech bubble: “Me finally get a line!”
Awful, right? It fit, though, because the whole point of the strip was that action hero comics are homophobic and racist and sexist (and yet homoerotic), and this was a liberal college that, we thought, got it.
I was 21 years old. I okayed it. It ran.
This became a huge (but localized) controversy. Seattle newspapers wrote it up, and some people (though not me) discussed it on 1090 talk radio. There were numerous discussions at school, and afterward the newspaper staff attended sensitivity training.
What my 21-year-old self didn’t get was that that last panel was mean-spirited, even if, to our young minds, it made sense. The integrity of the comic as satirical speech would not have been harmed by leaving it out — and, even if it would have been, would that have been so important? (No. Consider the context.)
I don’t remember if I apologized then or stuck to my guns. At any rate, now I say: I apologize. I’m sorry for running that. I should not have. It was wrong.
* * *
If I had the ability to send myself a message back in time, I would send myself a message to before the cartoonist wrote that panel. I would tell myself how to deal with the pressure to make the strip more inclusive.
Here’s what I’d write:
Hi. I’m 47 years old now. Life is good. You’re still sitting in front of a Mac.
I hear — actually, I remember — that you’re under a whole lot of pressure to make Red Ruffensor inclusive.
Well, thing one: you, young man, have no idea what real pressure is yet. But I remember how this felt, and you need some advice. Luckily, this isn’t that hard.
The solution is, in part, the same solution you’ve always used and always will use: start writing.
Write an editorial explaining the comic — it won’t be hurt by explaining that it’s satirical, and that everyone in the strip is awful, and it’s all about pointing out the homophobia (and latent homosexuality) of action hero comics. Let people know that Red Ruffensor actually means “red, rough, ‘n’ sore” — because I guarantee you that they don’t know.
Let people know that, in this particular comic, inclusiveness is a bad idea. Explain that the cartoonist is throwing punches — haymakers — at everybody in the strip.
Also write that the paper is committed to inclusiveness, and so you’re looking for more student cartoonists. And if anyone reading this might be that cartoonist, please get in touch!
And make a pledge: no Red Ruffensor in a given week unless there’s at least one other strip to run.
Actually find another cartoonist. Or more than one. And run their work, and write an editorial that first week introducing the new strip (or strips), and thank the people who asked that the paper be inclusive, since it’s now better for it.
That’s it. Pretty easy. Be good!
Regards, your pal,