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'Old-Fashioned' Comics Are Still Chic, Poll Finds

January 16, 1986|MICHAEL J. ROBINSON | Special to the Times

WASHINGTON — If you are interested in trends, you probably read those articles in your local paper about "what's in" and "what's out." And if you are a committed "what's in--what's out" type, you may have asked yourself, as you turned to the comic pages in your newspaper, which strips still set a pace.

Have people grown tired of "Doonesbury" since his return? If you are a hard-core Yuppie, you might even wonder if Gary Larson's "The Far Side" has lost any of its chic appeal.

The Times Mirror-Gallup Poll survey released Wednesday shows which comics are in, which are not. The survey of national tastes about mass communication included a list of nine presumably major comics. The academic point was to learn what motivates national audiences. The side benefit was that we now know more about media preferences that go beyond the news section.

Have Yet to Arrive

The poll shows that it is not so much that cartoons like "The Far Side" are out. Rather, they have yet to arrive. And so it is for "Cathy," and even "Doonesbury." Almost all the comics with sophistication and elan are not "in" yet, not for the vast bulk of the population anyway.

"Beetle Bailey" has three times as many readers as the chic "Bloom County." "Blondie" even beats "Doonesbury" by a ratio of 4 to 3.

This is supposedly the feminist era. And "Cathy" symbolizes cautious feminism. How is "Cathy" doing? Not so well. In fact, "Nancy," tired old "Nancy," beats "Cathy" by a ratio of 3 to 2. "Blondie," the unfeminist, outpaces "Cathy" by precisely 3 to 1.

If it were not for "Doonesbury," there would not be a "political" or "contemporary" comic worth mentioning. The most popular comic in the survey turned out to be "Peanuts": 43% of the public says it sometimes reads Charles Schulz's classic about life in a playground.

There was a time when "Peanuts" was "contemporary," even considered political. But to most mass media critics and theorists, "Peanuts" is to politics what Mr. Rogers is to machismo.

There is something of a class base to these comic strip loyalties. The "professional" classes, for example, follow the political and sophisticated comics more than does the general population. But even among the professionals, "Beetle Bailey" has three times the readership of "Bloom County" or "Cathy." Among the rich, "Blondie" still wallops "Cathy."

One could interpret this as proof that America maintains a fairly "classless" society--those at the top and those at the bottom of the heap read the same "funnies" after all. An elitist would probably interpret these findings to mean that the American mass audience is not so much "classless" as declasse.

A Slice of the Culture

But these rankings confirm two other truths about the American public. First, "politics" represents only a meager slice of the national culture. These same political overtones that have made a Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and a Gary Larson ("The Far Side") heroes to some, are the sort of thing that leads most Americans to label a comic or a program as boring.

The lopsided victory of a "Blondie" over a "Cathy" also proves that America does not drive the fast lane as often as mass culture buffs and pundits like to believe. Nor has mass culture made Americans into an altogether homogenized society.

Marshall McLuhan went to his death bed believing that television and the national media had, together, made America a "global village." McLuhan meant that electronic media--instantaneous, constant, vivid--would produce a singular cosmopolitan and generalized perspective. Mass television would make one culture. Glancing at comic strip readership in 1985, it looks as if McLuhan was maybe right about our being "villagers"--wrong about the global perspective.

If comics measure the size and shape of social change, we still drive pretty slowly in the village. "Nancy," "Blondie" and "Beetle Bailey" still keep hanging on.

Robinson, a professor at George Washington University, participated in the survey.

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