For nearly 125 years, people have turned to newspapers’ daily comics for a quick laugh. But sometimes those same comics anger readers. That’s also been the case for more than a century.
The most important comics consider that mix of emotions to be a feature, not a flaw.
There’s Charlie Brown’s new black friend Franklin, whose father fought in the Vietnam War, showing up in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Dilbert making fun of America’s new corporate reality by pointing out the absurdity of life in cubicle hell.
Or Doonesbury. The comic’s longtime focus on the politics of the day was once complimented by a target of the strip, President Gerald Ford. Ford once said, “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media and Doonesbury, not necessarily in that order.”
Because Doonesbury ran in newspapers, it seems that Ford really meant that two of the three best ways to understand politics was by subscribing to your local paper. Of course, he was two-thirds correct.
Then there’s Non Sequitur. It’s typically witty. Often irreverent. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. And nearly always a little weird.
Or a lot weird.
Its creator, Wiley Miller, has never been afraid of using his obscure humor to poke fun at presidents representing both sides of the aisle. But many felt Miller went too far back in February, when the strip hid a message in it telling President Trump to do something pretty naughty to himself that rhymes with “snuck” – which is exactly how the words made it into the comic in the first place.
Comics rarely get canceled from newspapers for their message … even when controversial. Non Sequitur had done something much different: hidden words so well that even the strip’s syndicated editors didn’t notice them.
Something unprecedented in newspaper history then happened: an extremely popular comic was canceled en masse. And in very quick fashion.
Non Sequitur was one of the most-read comics in the United States, running in more than 700 newspapers. Within a matter of weeks, nearly half of those papers had canceled the strip.
Wiley had snucked himself good. He knows this.
He not only lost a substantial amount of readers, he literally lost things he owned. Like his house.
It was actually more than just a house, it was the dream home that he and his wife picked to eventually retire in together.
Comic creators aren’t paid a flat fee or salary. They’re paid by the number of publications that run their work – meaning Wiley’s paychecks got a lot smaller really quickly.
Last month, Wiley and his wife piled into the family’s 2010 Prius, including their four dogs, and moved from the suburbs of Atlanta to a small town in western Maryland.
When you look at some of the most stressful moments in peoples’ lives, problems at work, financial upheaval and moving into a new house are all near the top.
Layer onto all of those the stress of being the writer and artist for a newspaper comic strip. Your work runs every day … meaning no days off. You typically work at least a few weeks in advance. Deadlines are constant.
Even when you’re moving across country.
Hurry up and write something creative. Be funny on demand. Doesn’t matter if you’re in a Prius loaded with dogs heading north on Interstate 85.
Non Sequitur is one of Andrews McMeel Universal’s top five comics of all time, putting it in elite company. Think of newspaper comics like Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side. Even Garfield.
That’s what Miller had built over the last 27 years.
And that’s what he lost just six months ago.
Slowly, some newspapers are coming back. The Spokesman-Review will begin running Non Sequitur again, after an outpouring from our subscribers, on Sunday.
Counting us, fewer than 10 newspapers have returned, though some that have started publishing the comic again are biggies like the Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Newark Star-Ledger.
Another half-dozen new papers have picked up the comic strip for the first time – mostly weeklies – and in markets like Eugene, where the daily Register-Guard dropped it and the Eugene Weekly picked it up.
A quick internet search shows folks across the country miss Non Sequitur, especially those in cities where the local newspaper canceled it. Remarkably, many of the supporters for the comic are those who don’t agree with Wiley’s politics.
“Remorse is an understatement. I’m gutted by my own poor judgment,” Miller wrote in a recent letter to newspaper editors, as well as in a column that will appear in The Spokesman-Review on Sunday.
For someone who has to work so quickly, his words are now measured. They’re thoughtful. He also truly means them.
Having readers rally around him, like they have in Spokane, means more to him now than it possibly could have even just a year ago.
That’s why he’s coming here to meet our subscribers next week. It’s why he drew a special Non Sequitur comic for this Sunday’s paper specifically for The Spokesman-Review.
If you’re a longtime reader of the strip, you’re going to love this special Non Sequitur just for us.
It’s witty and weird. It works on several levels. Of course, it’s a little irreverent. It even has the Monroe Street Bridge in it.
But mostly, it’s just funny.
Miller knows when you make people laugh, you’ve affected them. You’ve helped make their day better. If you’ve done that to help start their day, even better.
That’s a part of the centurylong legacy of newspaper comics that Miller truly understands. It’s also when he’s at his best.