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Originally published Monday, August 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Are comics for kids or adults?

The editor had a problem: His comic strips seemed designed to attract children; after all, most offerings included little boys. Yet looking closely, he...

Newhouse News Service

The editor had a problem:

His comic strips seemed designed to attract children; after all, most offerings included little boys.

Yet looking closely, he noticed these kids were out of control. They swore; they caused trouble; why, they even beat up their own mother! Readers were up in arms.

Had it come to this — that even the comics challenged authority and contributed to a coarsening of society with their thinly veiled questionable language?

Yes, it had, and this was only the 1890s.

Almost from the very moment newspapers began publishing comics, there has been a tug of war between their innate visual appeal to children and their aim of amusing adults.

"There are still legions of people who believe the comics are for children, even though they didn't start out that way and certainly aren't that way now," said R.C. Harvey, a comics historian and author of "The Art of the Comic Book."

Those 1890s Katzenjammer Kids comics, which showed children as unsupervised tricksters, drew complaints, said Harvey. In response, newspapers remade their new comic pages to be what we'd now call "family friendly."

A century later, a quick tour of the comics will show bathroom humor, the occasional borderline oath and overt political commentary.

Last month, some papers refused to run daily installments of "Doonesbury" because they made reference to President Bush's excrement-based nickname for aide Karl Rove.

Earlier this summer, "Pearls Before Swine" ran a series of strips depicting Osama bin Laden taking up residence as an exchange student with a clueless American family. That family? Those tow-headed tykes of "Family Circus," who eventually ended up as detainees at Guantanamo, their heads covered with black hoods.

The first newspaper comic pages came about because publishers were desperate to compete with the popular comic weeklies — comic books that included many different offerings. What better way to prevent readers from defecting than by including a color comic supplement in the Sunday newspaper?

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The childlike doodles and short bursts of type made them accessible to children, even if not completely understood by them. They looked like they should be for children even if they weren't.

The art form continues to face that dilemma.

"They've always been seen as fare for children, yet the person most likely to read them tends to be ages 35 to 49," said Kathleen Turner, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has studied the role of women in the comics.

Readership among children undoubtedly declined when newspapers switched to morning publication and both parents started working, said Jay Kennedy, editor in chief at King Features, a comics syndicate. Now Mom or Dad was likely to take the paper to work, so the kids at home couldn't read the comics even if they wanted to.

"I wish there were more cartoons for kids to read, but the market doesn't really support that," said Tom Spurgeon, a comics historian at www.comicsreporter.com. He cited as one example "U.S. Acres," a farm-based strip by the same artist who created comics megastar "Garfield," that failed to reach commercial success.

For more than 100 years, the mantra of the comic page — with a few exceptions — has been to steer clear of offense.

"The tradition is to offend as few as possible and amuse as many as possible," Harvey said. "Artists are told, 'Don't offend people.' And that means 'Don't offend the parents of children.' "

That said, the language now deemed "acceptable" in the comics has definitely changed. Artists may fear their creations will look dated, stale or vaguely out-of-step if they don't adopt the language seen on television, Spurgeon said.

"Artists feel compelled to do something that sets the strip apart, to say something slightly outrageous," he said.

The newspaper comic page, however, still trails far behind television in its embrace of a coarsened vocabulary.

Despite complaints about contemporary comics, artist Hilary Price, who writes and draws the Sunday feature "Rhymes With Orange," said it's pointless to try to cloister comics away from more mature themes — especially given their location.

"I think people understand that a newspaper isn't a child's medium," she said. "After all, the rest of the paper is full of death and destruction."

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