Funny Business

When kids play cards they lay one down and if you look like you’re about to pick it up they’re apt to cry, “I haven’t taken my hand off it yet!” But of course it isn’t just kids who play that way, and it isn’t just cards.

Two months ago the Sun-Times stopped running Sylvia, the comic strip by Nicole Hollander that we will not attempt to describe to anyone who’s not familiar with it.

Last spring the paper had asked its readers to rate the Sun-Times comics. “Sylvia came in next to last,” features editor Steve Duke told us. “Wee Pals came in last.”

And Wee Pals is history, we said.

“And also a number of strips that ranked higher than Sylvia. Let’s see if I can remember–Robotman, Rex Morgan, Andy Capp. So I’d taken out others first.”

But mistakes are easy to make on the comics page. “Right before I got this job,” Duke told us, “we dropped Crankshaft in order to put in another new strip and got in an overwhelming number of phone calls and letters–about 150 phone calls a day every day as much as three weeks after the strip was dropped. So we restored it.”

And several years ago–before Duke’s time–the Sun-Times also tried to drop Sylvia. The reaction was impassioned and the strip soon reappeared.

This is why the Sun-Times moved Sylvia to the discard pile this time without taking its hand off the card.

“What happened,” says Nicole Hollander, “is one day I woke up and someone called me and said, you’re out of the paper. I mean a friend, not the Sun-Times, which is their style–they did it before. So [later that day] I got a call from the Tribune and they said, what’s happening? I said, I believe I have been dumped.”

The call was from John Lux, assistant features editor of the Tribune. Lux told Hollander Sylvia belonged in the Tribune. Hollander agreed. She called Duke.

“So I had a contract for two months’ notice on either side,” Hollander told us, “and I called them and said, since you dumped me perhaps you could let me go early. But they refused to do that.”

How come? we asked Duke. “I wanted to keep my options open as long as possible,” he said. “There was a possibility we would get an overwhelming number of letters or phone calls and they’d all come in the second week or the third week.”

“First he said he wanted to see how many telephone calls came in,” Hollander said. “I said, I don’t care. I’m not coming back.”

How many did come in? we asked Duke. “I got 30-something phone calls the first day, 20-some the second day, in the low teens the third day. They trickled off real fast to a grand total of a hundred and a quarter phone calls and a score of letters or so. The people who wrote were very passionate about their interest, very articulate about why they liked it. But in the larger scheme of things they weren’t a large number.”

In Hollander’s scheme of things, the Sun-Times was screwing her, burying the strip for two months in her hometown. Free me, she asked Duke again. No, he answered. “I said I was terribly disappointed and I thought it was unfair,” says Hollander. “He said we thought about whether we should be nice guys and we decided not to.”

Duke replaced Sylvia in the Sun-Times with Batman. This Wednesday Sylvia finally reemerged in the Tribune. Unfortunately, the strip that made way for her was Pogo.

Walt Kelly’s late creation was resurrected a year ago by two gifted Chicagoans we’ve told you about before, Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky. The task before them was to produce a Pogo that would be true to Kelly while expressing their own contemporary sensibilities, and a year into this formidable challenge they are still feeling their way. And perhaps a third of the 300 papers that signed one-year contracts to carry the strip are now dropping it.

“I think we made a lot of mistakes,” Doyle, the writer, told us. “There’s a certain type of expectations readers have with regard to political humor these days and allegories are lost on them. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do allegories, but I should make sure the allegories are awfully funny all by themselves . . .

“Another mistake is historical. We forgot that Pogo was never hugely popular. In the 50s there was a time when it was very popular on college campuses, but otherwise it was a strip that appealed to a small number of people and it was always being canceled. [Then] newspaper editors would have to bring it back because those readers would crawl out of the woodwork.”

Sylvia is like Pogo in reaching an audience that’s small, smart, and fervent. And John Lux, whose judgment is admittedly impressionistic, largely based on talks with “dedicated comics readers” who call in, thinks Sylvia has more of them.

“I was a fan of the old Walt Kelly Pogo,” Lux said. “I thought the current one is very true to the feeling of the old Pogo. The problem is the comics have passed Pogo by. Thirty years ago you had Walt Kelly and Al Capp as social consciences. Now you have Berke Breathed, and Doonesbury, and Gary Larson and some Gary Larson rip-offs. It’s a very different world. But I must admit [the new Pogo] has its charms. I think Neal and Larry did a fine job. I’m really quite fond of it. They were really skilled craftsmen.

“I may well be wrong,” Lux said. “We’ll see. We may get a lot of mail next week.”

Trial by Georgie

As much as we hate to grind one ax two weeks in a row, we feel compelled to respond to last Sunday’s column by Clarence Page.

We weren’t surprised to see a Republican party-liner like Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York (in a guest piece for the New York Times) scoff at the idea that General Noriega might be in for tainted justice in Miami.

“Recent experience is to the contrary,” said D’Amato. “Despite lengthy, televised hearings and intense press scrutiny, Oliver North received a fair trial . . .”

But now the estimable Page has made the same inane comparison in the Tribune.

“Similar doubts were voiced before the trial of Oliver North . . .” Page wrote last Sunday. “Yet a jury was gathered, and in the end . . . North’s jury came to the same conclusion most Americans seem to share, that North served himself up as the fall guy for someone higher up.”

When a jury that’s considered all the evidence winds up agreeing with 200 million people who haven’t, justice hasn’t necessarily been demonstrated. What’s been demonstrated is that the defendant could as well have been tried by offering the public a pair of 900 numbers. And Page doesn’t seem to remember that although North was worked over pretty good in the media and at those hearings D’Amato mentioned, he cut a dashing figure nonetheless, and at one point President Reagan called him a “national hero.”

President Bush has never called Manuel Noriega a national hero. Once we invaded Panama, federal officials from the president on down began vilifying Noriega in the rabid terms with which wartime leaders historically whip the people into a frenzy of loathing for the enemy. When Noriega surrendered, President Bush shut up, but we’d say the damage had been done. Asking a jury not to presuppose Noriega’s guilt simply means asking it to accept that some 25,000 American troops might have invaded Panama and toppled a government at a cost of several hundred deaths in order to seize an innocent man. Trust us, there are Americans willing to accept that, but they aren’t the ones Bush thinks should be trying Noriega. Maybe we’re wrong. We ran into a couple of alumni of the Weather Underground over the holidays, and if the government wants us to we can ask them if they have time to be on a jury.

Our problem with this whole episode is that invading a country to arrest someone in it showed a certain contempt for international law, and trundling him back to Miami for a “fair” trial shows a certain contempt for our own. The president is sworn to uphold the nation’s laws, not to see how far they can stretch. “Noriega,” writes Page, “undoubtedly has a better chance of getting a fair trial under an administration led by George Bush than Bush would have had under the government of Manuel Noriega. But that’s not saying enough.” Actually, of course, that’s not saying anything at all.

Which Page surely realized. He went on, “[Noriega’s] ability to receive a fair trial in this country in spite of the prejudices pretrial publicity has built against him is as much a test of American moral authority as the invasion of Panama was a test of our military might. . . . We have to show that we’re also big enough to give him a fair shake.”

It wasn’t a faceless, amorphous circumstance like “pretrial publicity” that set us against Noriega. It was the president of the United States, who accused Noriega of “poisoning children and people around the world”; the secretary of defense, who called him “a common criminal.” It was the invasion itself, an act of war.

But thank God for American “moral authority,” which merely has to rise to the occasion to set everything right. Unfortunately, some matters lie beyond settlement even by so great a power as this, despite Americans’ enormous capacity not to think so. However punctiliously all the legal niceties are observed, Noriega’s trial will be regarded by the rest of the world and not a few Americans as a show trial, with the verdict preordained. The only way to change the world’s mind will be to acquit Noriega, in which case the world won’t be marveling at our moral authority but at out embarrassment.

If the new government of Panama doesn’t want Noriega, what’s so wrong with shipping him off to some third country? That’s where most deposed dictators go, and what mischief has Baby Doc been up to lately? But Washington seems convinced that the only way to keep Noriega from pulling strings inside Panama is to lock him up in an American cell.

Tell that to Jeff Fort.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.