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Often, the Free Press will publish something that generates a lot of, um, impassioned feedback from readers.
Starting Jan. 2 and continuing this week, however, the newspaper has received a flood of responses about something it didn’t publish.
When it comes to the comics page, making decisions about what stays and what goes is no laughing matter.
We do our best to ensure what we offer -- on what remains one of the largest comic sections among Canadian newspapers -- is a selection that delights and engages.
We believed Mary Worth was one of the best options to replace Pajama Diaries, but we are always listening to what our readers say. If you believe the new strip isn't worth it, we are open to exploring others.
-Paul Samyn, Free Press editor
When The Pajama Diaries stopped appearing on the Free Press funny pages, Winnipeg fans of the comic strip were upset. Some were outraged. The word "idiot" was used. Others demanded to know what happened to the syndicated strip our readers have called "unique," "relevant" and "sharply funny."
People emailed, called and snail-mailed. There were easily more letters on this than on any other subject in the past week — including health care or Iran.
"I should retire more often," says Pajama Diaries creator Terri Libenson with a laugh over the phone from her home in Cleveland.
"It reminds me of when I first started out. When newspaper cartoonists first start out, something gets booted out and they have to replace it. It’s very random and it depends on the paper. Everybody gets up in arms and you’re the enemy for a while.
"Now, I feel good. It’s coming full circle. But seriously, it’s so sweet. I’m so happy to hear that they really embraced the strip."
The decision to end The Pajama Diaries — which followed the everyday life of Jill Kaplan, a wife and working mom of two young girls in a Jewish family living in Ohio — this month after a 14-year run wasn’t an easy one for Libenson. The 49-year-old cartoonist had branched out into writing middle-grade books about four years ago and they, like her comic strip, have taken off. Libenson began to feel squeezed by the pressure of balancing two careers.
"I really can’t morph myself into more people, so something had to give," she says. "Truthfully, as much as I love doing the strip and have loved doing the strip, I was considering ending it at the 15-year mark anyway, which would have been next March. Jill and Rob, the parents, are practically empty-nesters, one of the girls is out of the house, one is about to leave. Really, (ending it now) was a matter of practicality and sanity for me."
When Libenson started the strip, which launched with King Features Syndicate in 2006, she was the mom of two little girls herself.
"I was feeling very overwhelmed, and I was reading about other moms like myself who were working moms who were also feeling overwhelmed. I was reading books and the beginning of mom blogs," she says.
At the time, she was working on a weekly strip that wasn’t going anywhere. She wanted to do a daily strip, her dream job since her days as an illustration student at Washington University in St. Louis, but was struggling to land on a premise — that is, until she noticed Jill Kaplan staring back at her in the mirror, so to speak.
"I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s my cartoon character right there: an overwhelmed working mom,’ " she says. "And I thought it would be really nice to reach out to other parents. It’s more of a niche audience, but I strongly feel that you have to write from a genuine place."
Oh dear, did @WinnipegNews add Mary Worth at the expense of Pajama Diaries? Why replace a good strip when there are so many awful ones to choose from?— Mister Shrewd (@mistershrewd) January 3, 2020
Turns out, her audience wasn’t so niche. The Pajama Diaries ran in roughly 200 newspapers internationally, and Libenson has heard from fans all over in the past week, following the news she’d be retiring it permanently.
"My inbox is crazy. It’s been wonderful. It’s very reassuring, too. It makes me feel that much prouder of my body of work, and that it’s reached people," she says.
"On a normal day when I was doing my strip, I’d hear from people here and there, and most of it was very good. Once in a while I’d get a criticism, but I was pretty much in a bubble as far as what kind of criticisms the newspaper would receive. To hear from so many people over the past week has been overwhelming in a great way, like I’m not just working away in my hovel."
As The Pajama Diaries progressed in real time, Libenson’s family has grown up alongside the Kaplans. Her daughters, who were five and three when the series began, are now 19 and 17.
It hasn’t hit Libenson yet that this is goodbye to the Kaplans for her, too.
"Weirdly enough, I’ve been drowning in work since the strip ended. I have all these deadlines right now. It will ease off, and it’s probably going to hit me in the middle of summer, when I’m looking at my computer like, ‘Now what?’
"I’m blissfully unaffected right now. But I know I will be. And when it hits, it’s going to hit really hard."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Friday, January 10, 2020 at 3:11 PM CST: Adds editor's note.
January 11, 2020 at 9:09 AM: Corrects caption.