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Changing our comics isn't a fun decision

January 16, 2005|by TERRY HEADLEE

In case you were wondering, I was the one who made the decision two weeks ago to eliminate "Shoe" and "Herman" from our comics page in The Morning Herald.

One of the more unpopular decisions any newspaper editor has to make is to replace a longtime comic from its pages.

The easy decision is to just leave things alone.

But the easy decision isn't always the right one.

I think the comics sections at most newspapers are boring and way past their prime.

One reason for that, I think, is that editors believe it's just too risky to make a switch, even though they know that the new comic strips are fresher, funnier and are likely to be of more interest to the younger and occasional readers that we constantly are trying to attract.

I don't have anything against "Shoe." In it's heyday, it was smart and hilarious. Its creator, Jeff MacNelly, won three Pulitzer prizes for his political cartoons.

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But MacNelly died of lymphoma more than four years ago, and responsibility for the 28-year-old comic strip has been picked up by several of his staff members. It still is a decent comic strip, but there are a lot of new comics being touted by various syndicates that are far better.

I replaced "Shoe" with a strip called "Pearls Before Swine," which focuses on a megalomanic rat who thinks he knows it all and a slow-witted pig who doesn't know any better.

"Herman" was replaced with a comic called "Brevity," which on most days is laugh-out-loud funny and may be the best of its kind since Gary Larson's "The Far Side."

There were no changes made to our comics page in our afternoon paper, The Daily Mail.

But readers surely will notice several significant changes to the Sunday comics beginning Jan. 30.

We will be dropping "Andy Capp," "Nancy," "Shoe" and "Magic Eye."

I doubt if I will hear much feedback from readers about "Andy Capp" or "Magic Eye" - the latter a feature where if you stare long enough at a colorized blob, a 3-dimensional image magically will appear. Many of the readers I've spoken to say they just don't get it and only a small number of papers in the country publish it anyway.

But I will admit that dropping "Nancy" (and Sluggo) does make me nervous. I thought long and hard about that one, but still think it is the right move.

We will be adding "Brevity," "Pearls Before Swine" and "Opus" to our Sunday section.

It won't be hard to miss the changes in the Sunday comics section because the front page of the section will be reconfigured.

"Garfield" and "Hager the Horrible," both of which currently are on the front page of the section, will be moved to page two to make way for "Opus," which takes up half a page. "Dilbert" and "For Better Or For Worse," which is our top-rated comic according to an informal e-mail poll, will remain on the cover.

Ever since I received 21 phone calls and e-mails in four days after moving one of our crossword puzzles from the comics page to our Lifestyle section, I don't take anything for granted - especially when moving around popular comics or syndicated features.

But change sometimes is necessary to continue to be viewed as progressive and relevant to both loyal and new readers. And sometimes that means being bold enough to mess around with the comics page.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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