City Paper has been running the syndicated comic "Maakies" by Tony Millionaire (aka Scott Richardson) for 15 years, but this week we decided to stop running it. We told Millionaire our decision and explained the reasons, and were content to leave it at that. But he took to Twitter with dozens of tweets lashing out at City Paper and me as editor, quoting from my email to him, calling the staff "idiots" and "cunts" and asking me, "You on the rag now?" So, I figured I'd explain the decision, which actually reflects on an interesting dynamic in alternative newspapers around the country.
As a longtime City Paper reader, I usually liked "Maakies." Its transgressive humor was refreshing in a generally oversanitized world of pop culture, and I always loved the artwork. Millionaire's comic fits comfortably in the world of alternative weeklies, which were established to present a more compelling, unvarnished alternative to mainstream daily newspapers.
When I started as editor of City Paper in 2012, I started reading "Maakies" every week, and I often chuckled at Drinky Crow, Uncle Gabby, and crew, but after a while, the comic seemed to be covering the same ground over and over again, with very little innovation. There are only so many times Rear Admiral taking a dump is funny, for example, even if devoted fans find the repetition to be part of its charm. Drinky Crow's suicidal alcoholism produced some of the comic's best panels in my opinion, but even those started to feel rote. And lazy.
Even so, I never really thought about canning the comic. It was a part of alt culture and, even stale, it was sacred and untouchable, especially by a relative newbie to alts like me. Then we got the comic for the Jan. 14 issue, and the sub-comic—the secondary panels that typically run below the main comic—included this hilarious dialogue: "I beat my alcohol problem." "What do you mean? You are completely drunken!" And in the final panel, joined by a battered woman, "Yeah, but you should see my wife!"
Maybe he was trying to mock this kind of misogyny, but however much irony was intended, repeating these sorts of jokes reinforces the idea that that sort of behavior or attitude is OK. There are ways to make jokes about serious issues that don't dehumanize victims or belittle an issue, but Millionaire instead resorted to lazy "humor" and hides behind the tired, empty defense that it was "just a joke."
By contrast, the comics that we still run every week, such as Emily Flake's Lulu Eightball and Ben Claassen's Dirt Farm, are plenty transgressive, but they're also genuinely smart and funny week in and week out. Simply being transgressive isn't enough anymore.
After the wife-beater comic, most of the staff was ready to can "Maakies." We held off, nodding to history and the alt legacy. In the interim, we got more loose stools and alco-gyno hilarity, along with some genuinely mesmerizing shit that we didn't get nearly often enough.
Then we got this week's comic. Yeah, it's a "joke" about a woman filing for divorce because she is "on the rag." She has her period! So she mad! I sent it around to the staff, suggesting that we finally can "Maakies." Everyone who responded agreed.
"He's not adding anything new or interesting or nuanced (or funny) the way he talks about abuse or periods," one female staffer wrote back. "He's straight-up just making fun of women for being women with the 'rag' stuff."
It also reminded us of a rather obnoxious tweet we received from someone in response to a piece that recently in our screens section, "Clicking and Streaming: 'Bridesmaids' and 'Fried Green Tomatoes, films that pass the Bechdel Test," which just said, "Someone must be on their period." In short, Millionaire's wit was at about the same level as one of our Twitter trolls. And again: Maybe Millionaire's making a joke about jokes about women on their period, but we're not much interested in that either.
I wrote to Millionaire, explaining the decision by saying "a lot of the staff (myself included) have found some recent comics offensive." In retrospect, I wished I hadn't put it in those terms. The problem is not that "Maakies" is offensive—offense is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, and plenty of things that are generally considered offensive can be funny or beautiful or smart. I wish I had been honest. We were getting rid of "Maakies," first and foremost, because we didn't like it anymore.
Also, even if this punching-down humor, in which women are continually the butt of jokes, isn't "offensive," it's old-fashioned and stupid and should be viewed with the same disdain most of us now have toward racist or homophobic jokes. And again, if these are more jokes about these kinds of offensive jokes, that kind of ironic sexism, like ironic racism, also feels very out of touch.
We'll admit that it isn't considerably worse than anything Millionaire has done over the years. And of the many things Millionaire's defenders have thrown at me on Twitter, the only ones that actually make any sense point out that Millionaire has been doing this all along—what changed?
I guess it's that, as much as we cherish our roots and history, Baltimore City Paper has changed, and maybe alt-weeklies generally have changed. The generation of founding alt-weekly editors is aging and passing the reins to younger writers and editors. That hallowed history that we're a part of is something we honor, but we do not want to blindly worship it. And we don't think giving someone a pass because they are a hero of alts is actually in the spirit of alt-weeklies. Millionaire's jokes about women being beaten up or acting up on their periods are not "alternative" at all. This kind of misogyny, joking or not, is insipidly mainstream. It's everywhere—it dominates plenty of political policy in the country, for example. It's the sort of thing alternative culture should say "fuck off" to every chance it gets.
As a 40-year-old, I'm not "young," but I'm grateful that our masthead is increasing populated by people who are—they really should be the driving force behind "alternative" culture, however we define it these days. If alternative weeklies are still relying on fifty- and sixtysomethings to be their driving force—and many of them are—then something is wrong. It was interesting that toward the end of Millionaire's Twitter tantrum this week, he took aim at Millennials as a generation: "My comic strip is good, very good. Your opinions are Millennial Generation, ready to shoot any duck."
I had been surprised by Millionaire's strong reaction to getting cut from City Paper. The comic will still be published in lots of other places and the peanuts we paid for syndication rights can't have made a big difference to a guy whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker, who had a show on Adult Swim. Then I remembered that Millionaire once told me that City Paper was the paper currently running "Maakies" that had run it the longest—it debuted in 1994 in the now-defunct New York Press, founded by City Paper founder Russ Smith.
In that context, I can absolutely understand why Millionaire reacted so strongly to City Paper cutting "Maakies." I've only got vitriolic emails and tweets to go on, but it seems like Millionaire associates "Millennial Generation" with some kind of weakening of things—one of this first tweets called me a "baby"—but I see it as the opposite. A younger generation is coming of age, calling it like it sees it, and getting rid of shit it doesn't like. Maybe that scares Millionaire, I don't know. But if alt weeklies are to survive—and whether or not they will is a very open question—they'll have to stop relying on the same old tired stuff, no matter how great it once was. Times have changed and we can do better.