NEW YORK – Even the funny pages weren't funny anymore.
When the Sept. 11 attacks sent a shockwave of grief across America, cartoonists found themselves with the daunting task of making people laugh in a world where all the rules had changed.
"I had drawn probably half a dozen or so series that in any normal time would be funny, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams said. "But there was something about them that wasn't funny anymore."
Awash with fears of a global war, an anti-Muslim and anti-Arab backlash and biological, chemical and nuclear terror, Americans have begun to redefine what qualifies as humor and what is just bad taste. And there's nowhere the cultural upheaval is more evident than on the front lines of laughter — the comics page of the local newspaper.
The biggest flashpoint so far has been the brouhaha over an editorial cartoon in the college newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley
The Daily Californian printed a Sept. 18 cartoon depicting two men with long Arab-style beards, turbans and robes in a fiery hell. Next to them is a flight manual. The caption reads: "We made it to Paradise! Now we will meet Allah and be fed grapes and be serviced by 70 virgin women and …" They seem not to notice that they are about to be clutched by a giant, taloned hand.
Student groups immediately blasted the cartoon as racist and anti-Muslim, staging a sit-in at the newspaper's office in which 17 students were given summonses for trespassing. The student-body senate threatened to pass a bill that would hike up the newspaper's $8,000 monthly rent, unless the paper printed a front-page apology.
"Students were very upset about the cartoon and they wanted to see the Daily Cal take responsibility," student-body president Wally Adeyemo said.
The Daily Cal's editor-in-chief, Janny Hu, stood by the cartoon and its artist, Darrin Bell, though. And on Wednesday, the senate defanged that threat by instead passing a bill that suggested the newspaper print an apology, but removed the monetary threat.
"I don't think the cartoonist plans on issuing a public apology, and the senate can't mandate the action," Adeyemo said.
Hu could not immediately be reached for comment.
The comedy crisis popped up in nationally syndicated comics as well. The Dallas Morning News yanked Boondocks twice last week, the Associated Press reported, and the strip had already been indefinitely relocated to the "Living" section from the comics page. Comic creator Aaron McGruder had his protagonist wondering if the American public is putting "blind, unquestioning faith" in its leaders.
A note from the editor explained that the subject matter was "inappropriate" for a strip to be placed alongside Garfield and Broomhilda. It was replaced by diet-obsessed Cathy.
Boondocks, about black children living in the white suburbs, was already seen as controversial for touching on subjects such as racism.
Neither McGruder nor a Morning News spokeswoman returned calls for comment.
More mainstream comic strips have been struggling as well, and many have decided to put out special Thansgiving Day strips asking people to visit a Web site where people can buy original prints, with the money being donated to charity. But the artists still have to decide whether to acknowledge the tragedy directly in their comics.
Darby Conley, who writes Get Fuzzy, a light-hearted strip about a single man, his dog and his cat, found it tough to make light of things after Sept. 11.
"It's very surreal to sit and try to write jokes, especially when you draw a little kitty and doggie," he said from his Boston studio.
But Conley had his characters confront the issue head-on.
"I thought the best thing to do was to show how someone might react in a responsible way, which was to have the characters donate blood – including the dog," he said.
In San Diego, Luann cartoonist Greg Evans came upon a similar solution. He wrote a week of strips in which his high-school heroine talks about the disaster with her family and friends.
"It would seem wrong to ignore it," he said. "It would seem so artificial, like my characters were living in a cocoon."
Heathcliff cartoonist Peter Gallagher chose a different approach. His rascally cat dealt with the matter obliquely, like pretending to be stuck in a tree so he can meet "a real hero" – a firefighter.
"I think that it's important for people to pick up the paper and laugh a little bit," the Kearny, N.J.-based artist said. "The comics are a safe haven."
He said his uncle and Heathcliff creator George Gately, who died this month, would have agreed with him.
Dilbert's Adams won't be addressing the tragedy directly, but it has forced him to make significant changes to his strip. Like most comic artists, he writes his strips weeks in advance. But he's decided to postpone some storylines, like the one in which Dogbert starts his own airline. He may entirely cancel another plot in which the benighted country of Elbonia gets a hold of a nuclear bomb and threatens the neighboring country of Kneebonia with it.
But Adams said office malcontent Dilbert probably won't be exploring his feelings about the tragedy with the evil Catbert anytime soon.
"It seems the first impulse for artists in radio, TV and comics is to do something about it, but I'm far more Machiavellian than the average person," Adams said from his Danville, Calif., studio. "I want revenge. And the best revenge is to keep doing my job well and to contribute to the morale of the people who need some relief."