Despite what you may have seen on the comics pages in the newspapers over the last several decades, comics have a long history of using humor to create social commentary. As I noted in this column not that long ago, use of the word cartoon to refer to humorous illustrations was a direct result of Punch magazine satirizing what was going on in British Parliament at the time. Early favorite strips like Hogan’s Alley spoke to working class issues of the day, and later classics like Pogo often spoke very directly to social concerns held by the creators. The famous “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” line from the strip was specifically from a piece on the issues of generating garbage and waste.
But since the 1970s, comic syndicates (as well as many other large corporations) have become increasingly risk averse. That is, they really don’t want to take a chance if they can avoid it and they’d rather play things as safely as possible. That’s one of the reasons they like to keep legacy strips like Popeye or Blondie going after their original creators have passed away; they know the basic set-up of the strip and there’s less of a risk having a new creator work on established characters than there is with a new creators working on new characters.
But that also means that they like strips to be as inoffensive as possible. Just this week, newspaper editors opted to run an alternate version of Zits because one of the characters had a comedically disfiguring shaving accident. There was no blood and the character suffered no pain, so the comedy worked but the Washington Post was nervous about offending its readers nonetheless. If the newspapers are that skittish, it’s no wonder the syndicates are too!
So it largely falls to webcomics to address social issues of the day. Naturally, with creators reflecting aspects of their own lives in their strips, contemporary culture seeps in. But it’s not at all uncommon for webcomic creators to take unequivocal stands on various issues.
Some, as in the case of The Adventures of Gyno-Star, tackle social issues as an inherent theme of the series.
It sends an unadulterated and unapologetic feminist message, and speaks to current events using very thinly veiled analogies. Each installment, while continuing part of an overall story, still holds up as a stand-alone commentary. I’m not sure if this outcome was intentional or not, but it does mean that short strips can be easily shared among friends and the broader context isn’t necessary to understand the point of any given day’s topic.
Other comics remain more focused on the entertainment aspect, but still address social concerns thematically. The relatively recent Reptilis Rex, for example, is about two lizard-like aliens trying to cope with being on Earth. It’s largely treated as a fish-out-water comedy, but there are undercurrents in it focusing the absurdities of racism.
Here again, the analogy is thin by design. By making the comparisons too obtuse, a creator’s message can go unnoticed by those who might stand to learn the most from it. (That’s not to say a creator’s message is necessarily the right one, of course. Merely that readers who might have an opposing view might not even see the analogy and be able to process it as a different perspective. Those who might share the creator’s view would be as likely to miss the analogy as well, but if they share the same types of ideas, they’ve probably considered many of the same angles the creators has and, thus, wouldn’t learn as much.)
Take a look at this recent Sinfest to see if you can spot the social commentary here.
In this case, it’s actually a holdover commentary from the Trayvon Martin killing back in February. After the event gained some national attention, Pebbles there was given a hoodie which she’s continued to innocently enjoy since then. Out of context and a couple months removed from the source of the event, however, it holds minimal socially relevant commentary. This comic from earlier in the week, for example, couldn’t be forwarded on to Geraldo Rivera as a way to say how stupid his March comment about Martin’s hoodie was. It only really works if you happened to have been reading the strip regularly when the Martin killing was making headlines and continued to recall that connection in the intervening time. While the humor here still works without the context, the commentary is obscured enough that most people would likely miss it.
There are, naturally, many more examples that could be brought in showing a wide range of approaches, concerns and subtlety. Examples could easily be found highlighting two sides of the same issue. Many you could easily parse for yourself, especially when you’re thinking to look for it. And while it’s great to be able to read and appreciate what the creators are trying to tell you, consider, too, how well that same message might go over with somebody else.