Gerber: Change not easy, even in the funnies

Gerber: Change not easy, even in the funnies

November 10th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

One of the biggest challenges that newspapers face is how to attract new readers with new content without alienating longtime, loyal readers. In other words, how to introduce change.

And one of the most habit-forming parts of the paper is the comics page.

Mix those two things, change and comics, and you have a potential firestorm on your hands. Those flames have been scorching the Times Free Press this week.

On Nov. 4, the newspaper replaced "Judge Parker," a strip that's been running in American newspapers since the 1950s, with one that's brand-new to America: "WuMo," done by a duo from Denmark, writer Mikael Wulff and illustrator Anders Morgenthaler.

Universal Uclick, which distributes "WuMo," describes it as a strip that "celebrates life's absurdity and bittersweet ironies, holding up a fun-house mirror to our modern world and those who live in it."

It's one of the most popular strips in Europe and already has been picked up by 200 American newspapers and media outlets. Readers who like it compared it to "The Far Side," Gary Larson's beloved single-panel comic that ended with his retirement in 1995.

But many Times Free Press readers were sad and disappointed -- some even angry -- that "Judge Parker" was no longer available in the newspaper.

"Judge Parker" is a soap opera-style strip that first appeared in 1952. It was about Alan Parker, a widower with two children who later married a younger woman. Later, the strip started focusing on attorney Sam Driver and his family and Parker played a less prominent role.

"Parker" was created by Nicholas P. Dallis, who also created "Rex Morgan, M.D.," which also runs in the Times Free Press and will continue to do so. Dallis retired in 1990, shortly before his death, and his former assistant Woody Wilson started writing the strip. A number of artists have drawn the strip over the years.

The strip involved long storylines that took months to play out. One week in the plot could last for months. Critics of "Judge Parker" say it is too slow moving and they lost interest because of its slow pace. Others say they feel invested in the characters because the storylines take so long to develop.

That's part of why readers fall in love with comic strips. After reading them day after day, year after year, they feel like they know the characters. The comic becomes a daily habit, a friend that comes into your home every day to entertain you.

Since we switched out "Judge Parker" for "WuMo," Features Editor Shawn Ryan, who oversees the Life section, where the comics page is housed, has received about 100 calls from "Parker" fans -- and they aren't calling to congratulate the paper on the change. One burst into tears when Ryan told her "Judge Parker" was permanently gone. Another told me she doesn't want something that's edgy, she wants something that's familiar.

"WuMo" is a big change from "Parker." It isn't a continuous storyline and is anything but slow. Each strip is designed for a one-time, quick-hit laugh. It's oddball but funny. Some love the new comic; others look at it and say, "Huh?" Some who've called to complain about cutting "Judge Parker" have described "WuMo" as "stupid," "idiotic" and that it "doesn't make any sense."

Believe me, choosing what comic to remove is never an easy choice. I've never known of a newspaper that didn't anger at least some readers when making changes on the comics page. There isn't a comic on our page that wouldn't be missed by someone if we cut it.

Sometimes the balance between new and old content seems impossibly wobbly.

But one thing is for certain: If we want to progress as a newspaper, we must add new content, we must try to reach new readers. And, yes, we must offer a variety of comics that, hopefully, will appeal to a broad spectrum of people. We hope "WuMo" will do just that -- appeal to both new and longtime readers.

Since we've kept "Rex Morgan, M.D.," we hope "Parker" fans who may not care for "WuMo" will go one strip down and read about Dr. Morgan and his wife. The medical drama is similar to "Parker" in illustration style and soap-opera storylines.

We also hope fans of "Judge Parker" -- once the disappointment and anger subside -- will come to appreciate the quirky Danish comic.

But even if they don't, we know there are other comics on the page that they can continue to enjoy. And there are no plans at the moment to swap out any other comics.

Hey, we know we must make changes to progress, but we don't want to spend all our time trying to put out a firestorm.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.