Mallard Fillmore, typically restrained. Artist: Bruce Tinsley.


Original Medium: Newspaper cartoons
Published in: Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
First Appeared: 1991
Creator: Bruce Tinsley
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It's ironic that the popular comic strip Mallard Fillmore, where political correctitude is deplored with a passion rivaling that of The Big Bad Wolf for pork, owes its existence to exactly that phenomenon. But it's true — when, in 1991, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley, then on staff at Charlottesville, Virginia's Daily Progress, was asked to create a mascot for the paper's new entertainment section, his first two tries were rejected on grounds of causing possible offense to …

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… certain specialized human types. The first, a big nose with a pair of glasses, was not only potentially offensive to anyone with a big nose (such as Jews and Arabs), but was also alleged to suggest a permissive attitude toward cocaine. The second, a hippopotamus, was simply unacceptable to any publication whose subscribers include fat people. The one that finally found favor was an inoffensive little duck named after the 13th U.S. president, Millard Fillmore.

Another irony is, that inoffensive little duck is what got Tinsley fired. He used Mallard Fillmore to make fun of the National Endowment for the Arts, in a way that offended certain interests who didn't share the cartoonist's conservative point of view. Tinsley shopped his duck around, and quickly found a new venue in The Washington Times, where, according to editor Mary Lou Forbes, he provided "a new way of looking at things". On Monday, May 30, 1994, Mallard was picked up as a seven-day-a-week comic by King Features Syndicate, the industry giant responsible for comics as popular as The Family Circus, as critically acclaimed as Krazy Kat and as outside the mainstream as Zippy the Pinhead.

A third irony is that in the scenario within which the little green fowl lives in his King Features incarnation, he owes his job to political correctitude — Washington TV station WFDR, which employs him as a news anchor, does so because otherwise, it wouldn't meet its quota for Amphibious Americans.

The Mallard Fillmore feature was apparently an easy sell during the Clinton administration, when it stood in opposition to practically everything the government was doing. It was soon up in the neighborhood of 400 papers. But it's hard to tell whether being more in tune with the political times has helped or hurt it, because either circulation has held rock-steady since Clinton's departure, or King hasn't updated its promotional material. Either way, Tinsley's comic obviously strikes a responsive chord with millions of Americans.

Mallard Fillmore himself is the only funny animal in an otherwise human cast, but he stands out as much for his politics as for his body type. Other characters tend to be stereotyped liberals (critics say "straw men"), from simpery Mr. Noseworthy, his boss, to Chantel, his fuzzy-brained co-anchor. The resident politician is Congressman Veneer, whom the syndicate describes as having "no chin, and a backbone to match". Among the few that share Mallard's point of view is his friend Dave, who embodies all the traditional American virtues, possibly because he's from Vietnam. Dave's son's name is Rush, and it probably isn't necessary to mention where Dave got the name.

Obviously, subtlety isn't Tinsley's forté. Maybe that's why he has no trouble connecting with his audience.

(By the way, there's no word on whether or not, in addition to President Fillmore, Mallard was also named after the original would-be mascot of National Lampoon, created by art director Peter Bramley and named in a contest, who hasn't been seen since the contest ended in 1970. Same with the Mallard Fillmore who was U.S. president in DC Comics' Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew during the early 1980s.)


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Text ©2005-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features Syndicate.