I once worked for a daily newspaper, where there were two things guaranteed to generate letters to the editor: articles about cats and the comics section. Readers didn’t have much to say about our coverage of local elections or big trials, but we were sure to receive letters if someone disagreed with the slant of an editorial cartoon or didn’t understand the joke in today’s Family Circus.

It’s not unusual for readers to feel strongly about the comics that their local newspaper carries — feelings are sometimes so strong that editors are reluctant to add or drop strips out of fear of losing subscriptions. But while readers wanted to reach out and talk to those cartoonists, cartoonists have traditionally remained behind-the-scenes enigmas, invisible but for their work, and the best readers could do was write to the syndicate and hope that their letters got passed along.

With the advent of Web 2.0 technology, though, readers are finally getting a chance to make their voices heard — and cartoonists are getting a chance to respond.

Comic blogs

In a world where entertainment is increasingly fractured to cater to niche audiences, the newspaper comics are one of the few common experiences still shared by most Americans. The comics are one of the few things that are updated, without fail, every day. That constant exposure gives readers a lot of time to build up affection for their favorites — and outright contempt for some others.

That might account for the popularity of blogs, like Silent Penultimate Panel Watch and Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke, that follow and skewer comics. One of the best known is Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon, which has become an unofficial clearinghouse for comics-related news. Fruhlinger, who also writes Wonkette’s Cartoon Violence column, posts running commentary on the latest developments in comics ranging from Marvin to Mary Worth.

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Josh Fruhlinger

Despite his ribbing, Fruhlinger pointed out that he doesn’t generally dislike the comics he mocks — and that he’d rather just ignore comics he genuinely hates.

“Once I really start to hate a comic enough, a lot of the time I actually start to love it,” he said, “For instance, I used to not like Marmaduke at all, until I started to imagine that he was this ravenous demon and that his owner is actually Hitler. Now I actually enjoy it.”

Other comic blogs follow suit in creating bizarre backstories for the funnies. The Luck of Dennis St. Michel, Viscount Stokington reimagines Dennis the Menace as a regency-era aristocratic fop, while Reynard Noir rewrites the kid-friendly antics of detective Slylock Fox in gritty Dashiell Hammett-style.

Some cartoonists appreciate the attention. Several syndicated cartoonists have become frequent commenters on Fruhlinger’s blog — including Francesco Marciuliano of Sally Forth, Ed Powers of My Cage, and Bob Weber of Slylock Fox and Comics for Kids. Weber even went so far as to contribute art for Fruhlinger’s Cafe Press store.

Fruhlinger himself has been surprised by the blog’s reach — in several instances, he’s found himself referenced in the very comics he mocks. One running gag concerns the comic strip Archie, when Fruhlinger posited that the strip’s stilted dialogue was due to it being written by a computer, dubbed the Archie Joke Generating Unit 3000, trying to mimic human humor. Later, references to the AJGU3000 began appearing in the strip itself.

“I can’t tell you how much that frightened me,” said Fruhlinger, although he admitted to “getting a little thrill” at the nod.

Dealing with the Public

Cartoonists venturing online have found that readers are eager to make contact — but they don’t always have kind words to share.

Editorial cartoonist Daryl Cagle knows first-hand how eager people are to speak their minds to cartoonists. The resident cartoonist for MSNBC, Cagle said that the Internet has encouraged more people to respond to cartoonists more than ever before. Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index receives about three million viewers per month, making it one of the Internet’s top viewed cartoon websites. Cagle also maintains a blog on the state of political cartooning.

“The response is very different with the Internet than it was through mail,” he said, “Most responses are a product of the Internet. You get lots of angry responses, especially to hot button issues — like the confederate battle flag, religious topics, or the Middle East. When people feel insulted, they often seek retribution for insults. People want to see a cartoonist punished. They seem more thin-skinned. They’ll want apologies and try to write to whoever they think is in charge of a cartoonist.”

While comics bloggers mostly traffic in playful mockery, Cagle’s seen his share of genuinely outraged email responses. For editorial cartoonists, angry reactions are a hazard of the profession, but also a badge of honor.

“Lots of cartoonists wallpaper their offices with angry responses,” said Cagle, “In general, cartoonists have a macho, pugilistic attitude, intending to offend people.”

Cagle notices a definite change in tone between responses he received via email and via Twitter.

“People will email when they’re mad, but the response on Twitter tends to be more positive,” he said, “It’s the nature of people that they really have to be motivated to send an email, but they tend to be more comfortable Twittering — they don’t need to be angry to get them to do that. Talking on Twitter gives you more of a cross-section of people.”

“People tend to react more to complain than to compliment,” agreed Francesco Marciuliano, the writer for Sally Forth.

Marciuliano took over the reins of Sally Forth in 1999 when creator Greg Howard retired. At first, he concentrated on keeping true to the original tone of Howard’s strip, but soon found that readers were posting unhappy comments on Internet comics forums. Listening to online critics made Marciuliano realize that many of the elements that set the strip apart when it debuted in 1982 no longer spoke to a modern audience. Sally Forth had been created to show that a happy household could function with two working parents, but this once novel concept no longer impressed younger readers.

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Francesco Marciuliano

“I started contacting people on forums and I found a lot of people who were saying about Sally Forth, ‘This strip is a dinosaur,’ “ he said.

Marciuliano embarked on a campaign to reach out to the comic’s critics in online forums. Most were surprised to hear from the cartoonist himself — and even more surprised to find that many of their ideas about the strip’s writer were off-base. Most assumed that Marciuliano was a humorless retiree more concerned with playing golf than writing gags.

Older readers still occasionally send Marciuliano paper letters — besides being more formal and polite than electronic messages, these letter-writers usually introduce themselves as “retirees.”

“I kept a sense of humor about myself and realized that got people’s attention,” he said, “People were surprised to learn that 1) Sally Forth was written by a guy and 2) a guy who recognized things that happened after 1925. I just present my viewpoint and try to start a dialogue with everyone who writes in.”

Even the harshest critics tend to think twice when they receive a polite response, he found.

“Most people think that writing to a cartoonist is like yelling into a void,” he said. “They want to be heard but they don’t expect it. Writing back creates a face-to-face dialogue.”

Online Extras

Some cartoonists find the web as a useful tool for generating reader interest. Many of the older strips are so well-entrenched that there’s little incentive for them to establish a web presence. Comics like Blondie have appeared regularly in newspapers for decades, and can count on loyal readers to raise a fuss if they were to disappear from the funny pages. Other cartoonists, though, have created websites with supplemental material to pique interest in their work.

Lynn Johnston of “For Better or Worse” has an elaborate website that includes monthly letters written by the characters, explaining events that happen off-stage in the comic.

“The longest established ones can be complacent,” said Fruhlinger. “Cartoonists are kind of insulated, especially the longer established ones who don’t bother as much with the web. Beetle Bailey has always been and always will be. They might not be thinking of reaching out, but I definitely think that’s going to be important in the future.”

Fruhlinger pointed to Garfield as an example of a comic that was especially good at engaging its audience online. Already one of the most ubiquitous comics in the country, Garfield is a favorite target for online spoofs and mash-ups: Lasagna Cat (see video, below) and the Garfield Randomizer are two of the most popular.

Another, Garfield without Garfield, edits Garfield out of the comics, turning an innocuous comic about housepets into a surreal glimpse into one man’s apparent insanity. The concept amused Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis enough that he and Garfield without Garfield creator Dan Walsh put out an official book of edited Garfield strips (Walsh wrote the foreword).

“That’s the smart thing to do: Don’t suppress it,” said Fruhlinger, “Anything that gets people reading is good.”

Marciuliano has an active web presence, running his own blog as well as writing a second web-only comic called Medium Large. He had originally submitted a strip similar to Medium Large to King Features for syndication. The syndicate rejected the idea, but liked his work enough to offer him a job taking over as writer for the comic strip Sally Forth. He decided to keep drawing Medium Large as a web comic in the hopes that giving himself deadlines would help him to improve his art.

“Doing the web comic actually ended up helping me with my job,” said Marciuliano, “I got more comments on Medium Large as the strip became more my voice, and that gave me the courage to put more of myself in Sally Forth, to make it more true to the way I wanted to portray it. I’ve had people say ‘Since I’ve started reading Medium Large, I’ve decided to give Sally Forth another crack.’”

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.