What’s Not Funny About the Funny Pages?

Artists say it’s still an uphill battle getting editors to believe that a comic strip with minority characters can gain a mainstream following.

As a kid, Darrin Bell devoured newspaper comic strips. He even read “Mary Worth” and “Apartment 3-G.” Nevermind that the storylines of those soap opera-style strips were far removed from his life.

So it was disappointing whenever editors refused years later to add his comic strip, “Candorville,” to their funny pages as soon as they saw that his lead characters were minorities. The editors would say they already carried a so-called Black strip.

The problem, according to Bell and others, was that these decisions didn’t fully consider his work. Furthermore, why couldn’t newspapers run more than one cartoon with minority characters and themes? After all, strips starring characters of color differed from each other just as strips starring White characters differed from one another. And considering the commercial popularity of “The Cosby Show” and other TV shows highlighting minorities over the years, why did editors automatically assume a comic strip with minorities couldn’t gain a mainstream following? “

I figured if I brought this to their attention, things would hopefully change,” says Bell, whose “Candorville” was first syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) in 2003. “I couldn’t let myself believe that people went into journalism intending to discriminate against others.”

That’s why this year, he and Cory Thomas, creator of the “Watch Your Head” strip that’s also syndicated by WPWG, organized a satirical protest. It featured their work as well as that of nine other artists. On Feb. 10, the artists’ strips featured minority characters rebuking White characters who complained that newspapers shake up their funny pages too much. Bell says their goal was to actually coax editors into changing their comics lineups more often. The protest was timed near the birthday of pioneering Black cartoonist Ollie Harrington, who died in 1995.

 “It was great to have so many artists,” Bell says. “It was courageous for some of them who haven’t been in syndication as long as I have. They ran a greater risk of jeopardizing their careers.”

Ironically, the only way to read all the “sketch-in” strips was through the artists’ individual Web sites. In fact, only six papers around the country published two or more of the participating artists on a daily basis at the time the sketch-in occurred, says Karisue Wyson, WPWG’s manager of marketing, licensing and sales. “The reach of the full protest was fairly small and likely overlooked by many readers, but we’re still glad the word got out and that editors paid attention,” Wyson says.

Comics are among the most popular sections of daily newspapers with fans of all ages and demographics. Many parents read them with their children. Worried followers frequently jam newsroom phones when a strip goes on hiatus, such as when the artist goes on a long vacation.

Some artists contact newspapers and magazines individually to publish their work. Others work with syndicates, which act as middlemen. Typically, syndicates distribute comic strips, editorial cartoons and written commentaries to publications for agreed-upon fees. Syndicates make it easier for a columnist or artist to reach a broad audience nationally.

Many comic strips are recognized for historic and social value. In recent months, archivists at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library have catalogued the works of Gus Arriola, who died earlier this year. Arriola, who produced the “Gordo” strip, donated original sketches and artwork along with personal papers and promotional material. His strip introduced millions of Americans of all backgrounds to Mexican life and culture during its run from 1941 to 1985. “Huge numbers of people previously knew (Mexican culture) only through the stereotypes in movies,” says Dr. Charles Faulhaber, library director and professor of medieval Spanish literature.

The strip starred bean-farmer-turned-tourguide Gordo Lopez and an ensemble cast. At its peak, “Gordo” appeared in 270 daily newspapers. The Mexican government honored the strip and Arriola for promoting international understanding. At one point, Arriola offered through the strip to share his family recipes, leading callers and letter-writers to bombard newsrooms with requests.

Sometimes artists lend their characters to charitable and social causes. For instance, the teen-age protagonist of the “Baldo” strip, created by Hector Cantú and Carlos Castellanos and distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, teamed up with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project to encourage voter registration for the 2004 presidential election.

Despite the cultural impact of cartoons, it remains tough for Wyson and her peers to have meaningful talks with newspaper editors about their comic strip lineups. Lower profits among U.S. dailies have resulted in drastic cuts in coverage of everything from news to horoscopes. Comics are no exception. Newspapers used to regularly publish multiple pages of comics, but now one page or less is often the norm on weekdays. And the Sunday funnies have fewer pages than they used to.

For cartoonists, that has meant feverish competition for fewer slots. Today’s artists also face fewer opportunities because of “legacy” strips. The creators have died, and their work is now either in rerun or another artist has taken it over. Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” easily one of the most-beloved comics of all-time, is in rerun.

“If he knew, I think he’d be proud, but distressed about the state of newspapers today,” says Amy Lago, who was Schulz’s editor at United Feature Syndicate. “To him, it was about new material. How many teenagers recognize a rotary-dial phone? How many recognize the manual typewriter Snoopy uses? What if every paper reran stories from the 1960s or even last year? Readers wouldn’t stand for it.”

As a result of these many factors, the comics pages feature artists and characters who are overwhelmingly White. A year ago, the WPWG commissioned a survey of 1,413 newspapers to determine the play of 238 strips. The WPWG was especially interested in 18 nationally syndicated strips — including “Baldo,” “Candorville,” and “Watch Your Head” — that have minority characters or are drawn by minorities. The survey’s findings were “striking as well as disappointing,” Wyson says.

Seventy-six percent of newspapers surveyed did not carry any of the 18 so-called minority strips. Only 6 percent carried at least two of those strips, and those papers were confined to 26 states. Only the Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Post each published four of those strips.

Lago, who’s now comics editor at WPWG, is troubled by those findings, saying, “We get most of our impressions of people through visual representations. Comic strips should portray people from all walks of life.”

And while newspaper editors don’t disagree with her out loud, Lago says, “it’s hard for them to get past first impressions. Plenty of times, I have pitched ‘Watch Your Head’ as a strip about a group of friends. I describe it as the ‘Peanuts’ group going to college. I hand over the sales brochure, and editors look startled. They don’t expect Blacks and minorities.”

Even Schulz used to battle editors, she says, recalling how he showed her a letter from an editor in the South asking him to stop portraying Franklin, a Black character, at school with Whites. Schulz didn’t comply.

Since the Feb. 10 artist sketch-in, editors have been re-examining their funny pages a little closer, Wyson says. “They appreciate that we gave them facts and statistics from last year’s survey to support our position,” she says.

In fact, the protest may have already helped Bell and his contemporaries. When Garry Trudeau left his wildly popular “Doonesbury” on hiatus for more than a month, editors filled the space in their papers in various ways. One daily ran “Watch Your Head” as a guest strip, while 15 did the same with “Candorville,” Wyson says, adding, “The exposure was fairly favorable, and the strips are well on the radar of those editors.” She remains hopeful the strips will be added to the permanent mix of comics in some, if not all those papers.

Similar hopes remain with Bell, whose “Candorville” comments on politics, current events, poverty and biracialism. “Artists like me just want a chance,” he says.

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