Newspapers' Comic Strips Keep in Toon with the Times: Syndicates Favor Artists with New `Twist' on Old Themes

By Fagan, Amy | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Newspapers' Comic Strips Keep in Toon with the Times: Syndicates Favor Artists with New `Twist' on Old Themes


Fagan, Amy, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


During a 1937 newspaper strike, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made sure New Yorkers weren't deprived of their comics. He read them aloud on the radio.

Ever since 1895, when the first comic strip character (Richard Felton Outcault's "Yellow Kid") appeared in the New York Sunday World, Americans have loved seeing themselves and their foibles reflected in the nation's cartoons. Some 102 years later, an estimated 200 comics appear in the nation's newspapers.

Today's newest syndicated comics reflect 1990s trends: little girls who play soccer, acne-plagued teens, working moms, hectic suburban family life and computer-challenged office employees.

"I think that editors are more open to new, quirky strips, ones that take an old issue like family and give it a new and interesting twist," said Lee Salem, vice president and editorial director at United Features Syndicate, a powerhouse in the world of comic-strip distribution.

"But in general, comic strips can't cater to only one group, or else they would go out of business," he added.

Mirroring a baby boom that began in the 1980s, newer strips feature many teen-agers. Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman's "Zits," released this year by King Features, is about "the antics of teen-age life in the '90s," starring Jeremy, his parents and his friends. It was purchased by 200 newspapers before its official launch, and grew to more than 400 within two months, according to Jay Kennedy, King Features Syndicate editor in chief.

"Fox Trot," Bill Amend's family strip launched by United Features in 1988, also focuses on teen-agers. It has been picked up by more than 1,000 newspapers within the last five years, according to Mr. Salem.

Readers especially take to offbeat humor, said Maryann Grimes, promotion manager for United Media Syndicate.

" `Herman' was the original classic offbeat humor panel before `The Far Side,' " she said. "When creator Jim Unger retired, there was a big hole left. This year, he responded to people and brought `Herman' back for a different generation. It has just taken off."

Older comic strips like "Rubes" by Leigh Rubin and Bill Griffith's "Zippy" also go over well. In one panel of "Rubes," a man holds a cow at gunpoint and says, "Got milk?"

While traditional family-oriented comic strips (such as "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston, which appears in more than 1,800 newspapers) flourish, new types of family strips have gained popularity in recent years, Mr. Salem said.

Julie Larson's "The Dinette Set," which takes a satirical look at middle-class America, debuted early this year and is already in 75 papers and growing, the cartoonist said.

"I think the appeal of `The Dinette Set' is that the characters do and say the things that we all think about, but never have the nerve to actually say or do. I call it compulsive candor," said Mrs. Larson, who says she gets "bombarded" by material to use every day at local shopping malls and neighborhood gatherings and through television and newspapers.

She describes her characters, the Penny family, as close-knit and loving, yet out of touch with the world beyond their living room. They rely on television for gossip and information, they relax a lot, and they hang on every word of TV talk-show hosts, old wives' tales and superstitions, she said.

She said the humorous strips are growing in popularity at the expense of soap opera-type comics, such as Alex Kotzky's "Apartment 3-G" and Mike Killian and Dick Locher's "Dick Tracy."

Comics featuring children - especially girls - are increasingly attractive to newspapers, said King Features' Mr. …

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