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Minority cartoonists: Don't lump us together
A group plans to mock the idea that their work is interchangeable because of their race.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published January 14, 2008
Cartoonist Darrin Bell likes to call it the "two strip rule."
It's the trend he's noticed while pitching his syndicated comic strip Candorville to newspapers across the country. Most newspapers, it seems, will make room for only two strips drawn by people of color, no matter the subject.
For Bell, that means his work about a socially conscious, aspiring young black writer, his book-smart Mexican-American female friend and undiscovered rapper/thug buddy living in a urban neighborhood doesn't really compete with the Mary Worths and Marmadukes of the world.
Instead, he's up against the 15 or so comics created by the handful of minority artists among more than 200 syndicated cartoonists nationwide - vying against Ray Billingsley's Curtis, Tak Toyoshima's Secret Asian Man or Charlos Gary's Cafe con Leche for one of two or three slots on a page that might feature 20 different comics on any given day.
So Bell teamed up with seven other black cartoonists to devise a protest of sorts. On Feb. 10, each of them will draw the same strip featuring their own characters - a joke about how readers and some newspaper editors see their work as interchangeable, simply because of the ethnicity of the characters they draw.
"It seems clear that it's tokenism to me," said Bell, who introduced Candorville in 2003 and has since seen it featured by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many other newspapers. "I dread hearing what strip I've replaced when I'm added to a newspaper, because more often it's Curtis or one of the other comics which encouraged me to get into the business."
So far, the list of participants includes Bell, Gary who does two strips, Cafe con Leche and Working It Out, Cory Thomas (Watch Your Head), Stephen Bentley (Herb and Jamaal), Jerry Craft (Mama's Boyz), Stephen Watkins (Housebroken), editorial cartoonist Tim Jackson and Keith Knight (K-Chronicles). Bell hopes more cartoonists will sign on as word spreads.
They all will duplicate a strip originally created by Thomas, whose Watch Your Head is the only participating comic that appears in the St. Petersburg Times (though Gary works as a graphic artist at this newspaper, the Times doesn't publish either of his strips).
Thomas said he ran into some of the issues raised by their "protest" - Bell balks at using such a serious word to describe complaints about cartoons - when the Times first began publishing Watch Your Head, a strip about six buddies at a historically black college.
"Visiting the (St. Petersburg Times') message boards was a rude awakening," he said. "A lot of people were bashing (the comic), saying it wasn't a worthy replacement for The Boondocks. But how do you know my strip isn't a replacement for Cathy? If you're looking to my strip to find the things you found in The Boondocks, you'll be disappointed, because my strip is nothing like that."
The comparison with Boondocks carries a particular sting, because Aaron McGruder's groundbreaking, racially conscious strip has become a double-edged example for many black cartoonists.
The strip's success, beginning in the late '90s, helped convince editors that they needed to include this new voice - pointed and irreverent, while drenched in young black culture and hip-hop sensibility.
But the comic's epic controversies - from using the n-word to handing "Most Embarrassing Black People Awards" to Jesse Jackson and Whitney Houston - also may have convinced editors they didn't really need to champion many successors when McGruder stopped doing the strip in 2006. The tendency by some to compare every new comic with a black cast to The Boondocks was equally troubling.
David Astor, a senior editor at the newspaper industry trade magazine Editor and Publisher, agreed with Bell and Thomas, noting that some editors seem to group comics by black cartoonists by ethnicity in a way they never would for white artists.
"If that's appropriate, then you should put every Caucasian strip in the same category, too," he said.
Resistant to change
It seems that black cartoonists just may be the canary in the coal mine for a host of issues making it tougher for comic strip artists of any ethnicity.
Common complaints include: editors who balk at changing comics pages for fear of angering longtime readers; editors who choose comics reflecting their own sensibilities instead of reflecting their community's diversity; the persistence of "legacy" comics such as B.C. and Beetle Bailey, which are still produced - often at lower quality - by relatives or other artists long after their creators have died.
Run these issues by Janet Grimley, the assistant managing editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who shepherds their two daily comics pages, and she offers a surprising response:
"Anytime you add or subtract a comic, people will get upset," said Grimley, who recalled one young editor saying her newspaper hadn't changed its comics lineup in a decade or more. "But you should look at your comics pages as a stock portfolio - you're always adding and subtracting to yield maximum returns."
At the St. Petersburg Times, assistant managing editor for newsfeatures Mike Wilson admitted there could be more ethnic diversity on the comics page, which features just two strips centered on minority characters among about 28 comics featured weekdays.
"There's certainly no 'two strip rule' here . . . but we have these problems because of the extreme difficulty replacing anything," said Wilson, who recalled receiving 250 reader complaints when the newspaper cut Cathy in 2006. "You have to really engage in a deep conversation with readers, because they care a lot about this."
An aging audience
So far, some of the industry's best-known black cartoonists - Curtis' Billingsley and Jump Start's Robb Armstrong, for example - are not involved with the protest. Billingsley declined to comment for this article.
Trying to remain diplomatic, Thomas noted the newspaper comic strip industry may be suffering from the same problem as newspapers themselves - dominance by older editors and consumers who see no reason to make room for fresher voices.
"If the comics section is stagnant, you're not going to pull anybody in," he said. "If your average reader is 60 years old, that average reader is not going to be around much longer. Eventually, they're going to disappear, and you'll be left with nothing."
Bell was more philosophical: "I see this as more akin to a weather forecast than a protest," he wrote in an e-mail. "The forecast is mostly sunny, but with continued patches of racism. And we want editors to come in out of the rain."