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Changes today in the comics pages; more ahead with your help

"Opus" has left our pages. Last Sunday's edition was the final News Tribune to carry our lead Sunday comic strip about the exploits -- sometimes a bit political, sometimes a bit racy -- of a peculiar penguin and his pals. "Opus" creator Berkeley ...

"Opus" has left our pages.

Last Sunday's edition was the final News Tribune to carry our lead Sunday comic strip about the exploits -- sometimes a bit political, sometimes a bit racy -- of a peculiar penguin and his pals.

"Opus" creator Berkeley Breathed decided to quit drawing the strip, giving newspapers across the country little time to find replacements. Most of us print comics well in advance. And "Opus," at Breathed's insistence, ran at twice the size of other strips.

But we have found two replacements, and our comics look different today. The ever-popular "Dilbert" moves to the top of the section front as our new lead strip. We moved "Zits" out front as well.

Joining our Sunday lineup are "Red and Rover," about a boy and his dog (or is it the other way around?) and "Daddy's Home," about a stay-at-home dad and his family. Both new offerings seem to fit our community. "Red and Rover" should have special appeal to readers in the Northland, where a disproportionately high number of us own pets. And "Daddy's Home" takes a look at family issues with a modern twist, a likely winner in our family-focused region.

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For years, a firm rule of newspapering was to never touch the comics. For all the talk and thinking we do about the journalism in our paper -- and it is important -- it's humbling to see how passionate readers are about the comics.

I can't take credit for making the switch with "Opus." Breathed simply decided to drop his cartoonist's pen. And "Opus" was here when I arrived as editor, so I can't take credit for bringing him on, either.

But honestly, I've wanted to do something about "Opus" for some time.

In my four years as editor, I have heard consistently -- if not in overwhelming numbers -- from readers whodidn't like the strip. Some considered it inappropriate, given Breathed's racy storylines and constant pushes into politics.

One reader even told me she blocked out "Opus" with tape and blank pieces of paper every Sunday before handing the comics to her children.

I had a hard time defending "Opus," and I often didn't find Breathed's storylines funny. That was strange to me. In college, I loved "Bloom County," Breathed's previous strip, in which the main "Opus" character debuted.

I'm sure I'll hear from "Opus" fans who will miss the little penguin. But the reality is that Breathed made the decision for us. I didn't act on my earlier concerns. Everything else -- all that important journalism stuff -- always seemed to push a decision about the comics onto the back burner.

But soon we plan to take a closer look at our daily and Sunday comics and, at long last, involve you. In December or January, we plan to ask your opinion by publishing a poll. We hope you'll clip it and return it with your opinions or fill it out online.

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Are we too stodgy and traditional with strips like "Family Circus?" Too out there and weird with offerings like "Close to Home?" Are you tired of re-runs drawn by dead or retired artists, such as "Peanuts" or "For Better or For Worse"? Perhaps you long for the days of "Hagar the Horrible" and "Beetle Bailey," two strips pulled by a former editor who considered them too sexist.

Of course, you may be just fine with our comics. Maybe you have a wickedly weird sense of humor. Maybe you find a strip like "Peanuts" comfortingly nostalgic.

I'll confess a secret passion for "Family Circus." It was the lead strip in the Des Moines Register, a paper I delivered growing up in Iowa. On those cold, dark mornings, "Family Circus" was the first thing I turned to under the streetlight as I clipped the wires on my bundle of papers and prepared to deliver my route.

That's the thing about comics. They are intensely personal. Many of us first picked up the newspaper as children because of the comics, beginning a lifelong habit.

All the more reason, then, for you to have a say in what comics we present. I know we all won't agree on every strip. But I think it's long overdue that we asked your opinion.

ROB KARWATH is executive editor of the News Tribune. You can reach him at (218) 720-4177 or rkarwath@duluthnews tribune.com.

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