Yes, ‘Dilbert’ is a Victim. The Perp May Not Be Cancel Culture.
The comic strip character Dilbert gets slapped around daily by the insanity and absurdity of contemporary corporate culture.
Now Dilbert’s creator, Scott Adams, seems to think he’s getting further slapped upside the head by cancel culture.
Adams, who is one of the best in the business, said this week that his strip was dropped by 77 newspapers. At first that’s all he said. After fans and supporters began declaring this was retaliation for “Dilbert” strips mocking wokeness and ESG, Adams strongly suggested he thinks they’re right.
If that’s true, it’s depressing and disturbing.
On-target as he is with “Dilbert,” though, Adams isn’t necessarily right about this.
The discussion began when the Lee Enterprises newspaper group — fourth largest in the country, with about 80 mostly small newspapers — drastically reduced the number of comic strips it runs in its print editions.
Lee hasn’t specified what it’s doing with which strips in which papers, but a sample of Lee papers suggests it is eliminating most or all the comics in its print editions. Some Lee papers will offer the departing strips to online subscribers, which dovetails with efforts by Lee and other publishers to build the kind of online subscriber base that print editions once had.
That’s a challenge, because the sad truth is that newspapers have been shrinking for most of this century. People who once read daily papers now get news on their phones or iPads, from a smorgasbord of sources.
Newspapers are only one of those sources, and often not the dominant one, which is why the entire industry is scrambling to reinvent its marketing and delivery systems in a world where a couple of keystrokes are the contemporary equivalent of the kid on the bicycle throwing the paper onto the front porch.
As print newspaper readership has shrunk, so has advertising and therefore so has the size of papers. One by one, traditional features have been squeezed out, and while comic strips have always been a major reader draw, they aren’t immune. Many if not most newspapers have been whittling down their funny pages, which means it’s hardly suspicious for Lee Enterprises to do the same.
Adams acknowledged this to the Washington Post. But, he added, this elimination or relegation is still selective. It would be “a huge coincidence,” he told the Post, if “Dilbert” just happened to be dropped soon after his ridicule of wokeness and ESG (shorthand for “Environmental, Social and Governance,” guidelines that encourage corporations to implement responsible policies).
As he does when he portrays outlandish everyday office behavior, Adams made these recent strips clever and entertaining. He created a character named Dave, who is black but ruins his employer’s diversity strategy by telling the pointy-headed boss he identifies as white.
It’s possible to take diversity and identity issues seriously and also find this hilarious.
In any case, despite Adams’s skepticism, the case of “Dilbert” and the 77 newspapers just might be no more than coincidence.
For one thing, Adams has been lampooning wokeness for years, so no one would have felt sudden shock at his recent strips. There also hasn’t been any widespread campaign by lefty media groups to silence “Dilbert,” maybe because a lot of lefties agree that Adams nails the corporate stuff.
Lee itself, which mostly focuses these days on financial survival, has never made any particularly political corporate gestures. It has been as likely to support Republicans as Democrats and its board includes Herbert W. Moloney III, former publisher of the conservative Washington Examiner. There’s little indication it would get prickly about criticism of wokeness.
If Adams is correct in implying that dropping “Dilbert” is not a “huge coincidence,” but a calculated plan, that would seem to suggest the company is axing those dozens of other strips as, in effect, a smokescreen to obscure its real target.
More likely: Lee would like to have kept “Dilbert,” and all the others. Then it looked at the checkbook.
The political storylines in “Dilbert” place it in a relatively small yet notable corner of comic strip history.
The most prominent modern example might be Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” whose progressive attitude led some newspapers to run it on their opinion pages.
But “Doonesbury” didn’t last multiple decades because of its politics. It lasted because at its best it was insightful and funny. Trudeau didn’t hesitate to make liberals look silly when he felt they deserved it and like Adams, he made his points with bemusement, not scolding lectures.
“The Boondocks” was perhaps the mostly overtly political strip in recent years, while political commentary surfaced more sporadically in popular strips like “Bloom County,” “Opus” and “Mallard Fillmore.”
Going a little further back, several giants of comic strip history had strongly conservative leanings. “Little Orphan Annie” creator Harold Gray railed against the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt. Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” ridiculed the social movements of the 1960s with characters like the folksinger Joanie Phonie.
Most comic artists, in any case, stay in the apolitical lane navigated so successfully by strips from “Blondie” and “Beetle Bailey” to “Peanuts,” “For Better or Worse,” “Cathy,” or “Calvin and Hobbes.”
They run on everyday human drama. So does “Dilbert,” which Adams has turned into a modern comic strip institution by focusing on the office and workplace.
So it’s too bad that readers of what remains of the print editions of Lee Enterprises newspapers will no longer get to read it.
If Lee Enterprises doesn’t think wokeness is fair game for satire, that’s a bad and troubling decision.
In the larger scope, what’s even more troubling is print newspapers having to cut off healthy limbs in a desperate gamble to keep the tree alive.