Over the years I’ve received numerous irate responses from Sally Forth readers wishing to lecture me, chastise me or simply call me a “feminist gay pussy twat” because of various plot lines or jokes in the strip.
Of course, that is in now way meant to implay that everyone who responds to a Sally Forth does so without merit. In fact, many of the readers' reactions have been quite reasonable:
Dear sir: My husband and I have been readers of the Sally Forth comic strip for years, and we have generally enjoyed it a great deal. However, we are extremely dismayed to find that recent strips have shown thievery in the office place after a general lay-off. Completely unacceptable behavior, but it certainly isn't being portrayed as unacceptable--in fact, the thievery appears to be accompanied by a self-congratulatory attitude. Until this is rectified, we won't be enjoying the strip any longer.
Others, however, a little less so:
Who are you to make fun of looms?!
But all of the responses have been--in a word--passionate. Back in 2004 when I wrote a story about the Forth family considering having a second child, people thoughtfully took the time to track down my home phone number and leave messages angrily demanding that I remind the characters there are already 6.2 billion people currently populating the globe, none of whom I imagine are fictional.
In 2005, when I had the family’s cat—“Kitty”—go missing for two days, my syndicate received 2800 pieces of hate mail and over 200 irate phone calls. Two newspapers pulled the strip, three ran scathing editorials about the storyline, several animals rights groups contacted me threatening to boycott the strip and a call-in pet care radio show in Florida invited me as a guest so I could chat with their listeners, all of whom they said “wanted me dead.”
And just a few months ago I got emails from four incensed readers—one stating, “Dear Mr. Marciuliano: You are a dumb fuck”—because I didn’t know that pickles now come in plastic bags.
Many of these responses I find pointed or funny, a few I find irritating and one or two make me wish I never left copywriting. But only once in my almost ten years of writing the strip was I completely terrified of the readers’ possible reaction to a story. It was the result of remarkably poor timing and completely without intention, but it involved a major geopolitical fiasco.
Now, there is a significant lag time between when one writes a strip and when it appears in the newspaper. I’m currently writing daily strips that will run at the end of September and Sunday strips that will appear in the November. So at the end of May 2004 I wrote a Sunday strip for that autumn in which the title character—Sally— dreams office demands and obstacles are piling up at an increasingly bizarre pace until her company’s building is eventually taken over by Chechen rebels. The strip was approved, illustrated and set to run in 900 newspapers on Sunday, September 26, 2004.
On Wednesday, September 3—on the third day of a tense standoff in a Beslan elementary school, shooting broke out between Chechen rebel hostage-takers and Russian security forces, resulting in the deaths of 344 civilians, 186 of them children.
On Thursday, September 4, I received the advance print of the aforementioned strip. Only then did I remember what I had written.
I now had three weeks to get the comic pulled.
To be honest I had two reasons to prevent the strip from running. First and foremost, the last thing I wanted was to appear to be making light of a horrible tragedy, especially one involving the death of children. Second, I had once received 13 emails in a single day cursing me out because the characters in the strip had not wrapped their Christmas gifts until Christmas Eve. The thought of what kind of—and how many—responses I would receive from a large-scale international tragedy was a significantly more than I could comprehend. Unfortunately, the reason Sunday strips are written so far in advance is that it takes that long to process them in color, put them in Sunday comics supplements and send them out to various warehouse distribution centers. In other words, the only chance I would have had to pull the strip was more or less three days after I wrote it.
So I had another idea—what if I wrote a note to run in the editorial section of all 900 newspapers explaining that the strip had been written and illustrated long before the shootings and apologizing to anyone who might take offense at its content. Not wanting to seem indifferent to people’s reactions—which were going to be strong—I also gave readers a special address through which they could contact me with their questions or concerns.
The papers ran the statement. Then I waited in fear, worried that if I could receive 22 emails telling me off for getting one of the “Thundercats” names wrong—it’s “Cheetara,” not “Cheetera”—God only knows what wrath I was about to face.
I got one letter. This is that very letter, furiously hand-scrawled, all in caps, on unlined paper (please click on image to enlarge):
The next day I received an email from a reader angry because I had mentioned “Yodels” in the strip instead of “Ho-Hos.”