Last year, the N&O ran a much-ballyhooed comics poll that seemed to go on forever, in multiple stages. After all the voting, the paper’s readers boldly ratified a new comics page consisting of Cathy, Family Circus, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, Sally Forth, Marmaduke and that edgy avatar from the Jazz Age, Blondie.

For some of us, the main focus of the poll was to see how new prospect Mallard Fillmore would fare in reader opinion. Mallard Fillmore is the daily excrement on the comics page, a reliable kick to the liberal groin that gets us into fighting form every morning. This is why it’s practically the only cartoon we read.

But Mallard Fillmore is, for some of us, a fascinating ongoing example of how the media, in response to right-wing bullying, is willing to publish hack propaganda solely for the sake of providing “balance” with the national treasure that is the sophisticated, literate, humane, Pulitzer Prize-winning, and yes, left-leaning, Doonesbury.

Last year, the readers spoke, and spoke loudly: Mallard Fillmore was one of the most-loathed strips being presented for inclusion in the revamped comics page. Despite overwhelming reader hatred, the N&O’s editors decided to ignore the vox populi and invited Bruce Tinsley’s nasty piece of work into its comics pages.

Today, the N&O announced the 2008 reader poll. It urges us to forget Obama and McCain, and think about the things that really matter, like Garfield and his lasagna. And Mallard Fillmore. The poll consists of three questions: The first is for readers to name their favorite 12 comics, and the third is an interesting question about the propriety of running legacy comics like Peanuts and For Better or For Worse. But the second question is bait for Mallard Fillmore haters everywhere:

What’s your opinion of strips that have political content, such as “Mallard Fillmore” or “Doonesbury”?

The first problem: The wording of the question treats them as equivalent strips, as if to say, “Do you think actresses like Meryl Streep and Jenna Jameson make too much money?”

Really, the difference between the strips is that profound: As Jon Lovitz’s character in Happiness might say, one strip is champagne and the other is shit.

The question is itself irrelevant because Doonesbury runs on the Op-Ed page, not the comics page, and the Op-Ed page has no interest in running Mallard Fillmore because of its obvious crappiness. As public editor Ted Vaden wrote last January:

But [Op-Ed editor Steve Ford] and op-ed editor Allen Torrey don’t want to add “Mallard” to the page because a second comic strip would consume valuable real estate that’s needed for opinion articles. And, they said, “Mallard,” at least at this point, is not the same quality as “Doonesbury” in terms of writing, wit and art. Thad Ogburn, features editor, would be happy to accommodate “Doonesbury” on the comics pages — it would help his readership, too — but he said he respects Ford’s reasons for wanting to keep it.

Still, the question has been asked, and remarkably, the N&O can think of only four possible policies regarding strips with political content:

  1. Run them only on the Editorial pages
  2. Run them only on the comics pages
  3. Doesn’t matter where they run
  4. Don’t run them anywhere

We have a fifth: Let the champagne rise to the top, and let the shit sink to the bottom. Enough with this affirmative action for bad comic strips!

Vaden weighed in on this urgent issue yet again last month, calling for the cancellation of Mallard Fillmore:

Tinsley’s cartoon has morphed from political satire to political propaganda, and the prospect is that it will get more partisan as the presidential campaign intensifies.

With 15 anti-Obama panels in one month [August], the strip has abused its place on the comics page. But it’s frankly not of the same artistic or writing quality as “Doonesbury” and doesn’t merit opinion page placement on bombast alone.

I fully expect that our readers from the starboard side would be aggrieved if the duck flies off. That’s a concern, but I don’t think the newspaper has an obligation to continue an unfair partisan strip out of a contrived sense of balance. “Doonesbury” too has been political lately, during the Democratic convention, but its jabs were at the Democrats.

Still, it has to be said: The only reason some of us bother with the Hi and Lois territory of the paper is to bring up the blood pressure with Mallard (in addition, perhaps, to a nostalgic look at Peanuts).

As it happens, both strips today take on the pressing matter of Sarah Palin. Here’s Mallard Fillmore on the topic, in typically insulting fashion with a bull-dyke, standing in for N.O.W., providing the strip’s only line.

And here’s Doonesbury, in what is, frankly, a lesser, too-much-on-the-nose effort by Garry Trudeau: