Sunday, February 15, 2004



Turning out the 'toons
Jeremy Duncan from "Zits"

Several new strips will grace
our Sunday comics next week,
alongside old favorites

Earl and Mooch from "Mutts."

THE STAR-BULLETIN'S Sunday comics section is growing.

Beginning next Sunday, we'll be introducing 11 new comic strips, plus one just for kids and a word game to test your smarts.

Don't worry, we've hung onto the best of the previous bunch. These include strips that have proven, over the years, to be consistently at the top of their game: Patrick McDonnell's "Mutts," Darby Conley's "Get Fuzzy," Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott's "Baby Blues," Jim Borgman & Jerry Scott's "Zits" and Greg Evans' "Luann."

We're also hanging on to such great gag strips as "Sherman's Lagoon" (Jim Toomey), "Betty" (Gary Delaney & Gerry Rasmussen) and "Lola" (Steve Dickenson & Todd Clark). Plus those with a wry sense of humor, like David Gilbert's "Buckles," Vic Lee's "Pardon My Planet," the rotating cartoon stylings of "Six Chix" and tell-it-like-it-is "Agnes" from Tony Cochran.

Bernice and Luann from "Luann."

Established favorites like "Hi and Lois" (Brian and Greg Walker & Chance Browne) and Jim Davis' "Garfield" (which will get big-screen treatment June 25) will also continue to find a home in the Star-Bulletin Sundays.

We're also retaining Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks," the topical and thought-provoking strip with an African-American viewpoint, voiced through former inner-city kids living in white suburbia.

WE'D LIKE to give you an advance introduction to our new group of cartoonists and their strips, so you won't have to wade through the bios to get to the main act, the strips themselves. First off, a big mahalo to the cartoonists who were kind enough to break away from their busy schedules to create original illustrations just for us. So let's say aloha to ...

Our new lineup

"Get Fuzzy"
Darby Conley

"Spot the Frog"
Mark Heath

"Tina's Groove"
Rina Piccolo

"Over the Hedge"
Michael Fry & T Lewis

"Hi and Lois"
Brian and Greg Walker & Chance Browne

Greg Evans

Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman

"Pardon My Planet"
Vic Lee

"The Amazing Spiderman"
Stan Lee & Larry Lieber

Bill Griffith

Patrick McDonnell

Tony Cochran

"The Boondocks"
Aaron McGruder

"Big Nate"
Lincoln Peirce

Brian Crane

"Sherman's Lagoon"
Jim Toomey

Garry Trudeau

"Baby Blues"
Jerry Scott & Rick Kirkman

"9 Chickweed Lane"
Brooke McEldowney

David Gilbert

Darrin Bell

Gary Delaney & Gerry Rasmussen

"PC & Pixel"
Tak Bui

"Rudy Park"
Theron Heir & Darrin Bell

Jim Davis)

"Six Chix"
Isabella Bannerman, Kathryn LeMieux, Rina Piccolo, Stephanie Piro, Margaret Shulock and Ann C. Telnaes

Steve Dickenson & Todd Clark

"Slylock Fox & Comics for Kids"
Bob Weber Jr.

"Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz"
Ken Fisher


Mark Heath, "Spot the Frog"

Our cover artist's comic strip is one of the newer ones out there, about a frog and his human friend. Spot's original friend was a character named Winslow. But Winslow proved to be too remote and, at times, judgmental of his amphibious charge -- and in stepped Karl.

"Spot has a young rambunctious personality, and Karl allows Spot to be as wild and mischievous as he can be," said Rhode Island native Heath, who started his career as a freelance magazine cartoonist about 16 years ago. "(Karl's) the one person who accepts him for who he is. The relationship between Spot and Winslow was one of those begrudging friendships, where people lovingly torment each other. With Karl and Spot, there's no torment."

Syndicate editor Jake Morrissey thought Spot should have a same-species friend, so Buddy entered the strip. "In order to make Buddy more distinctive-looking, I jokingly gave him hats, then a pair of glasses -- and the glasses worked. ... Buddy has a lot of anxieties and tries to mask them. He lives out in the woods, and never comes into the house Spot and Karl share. Buddy remains true to the wood, and he allows Spot to stay in touch with his wild side.

"This is a gag strip, but it's one that mainly comes out of the characters. I want the jokes to tell you a little more about them. I like the fact that Spot is such a cheery character, and that Karl is very supportive of him."


Rina Piccolo, "Tina's Groove"

Tina's a sweet, single and 30-ish waitress at Pepper's Restaurant. Piccolo shares with her comic-strip character a restaurant background -- except Piccolo couldn't cut it as a waitress. But both she and Tina challenge preconceived notions of what a woman's pursuit of happiness should be today, touching on the usual litany of marriage, children and career.

Piccolo's career is going just fine, with "Tina's Groove" marking its second anniversary on March 4. Piccolo is also in the midst of an important move from Toronto to New York City.

"It's the reader feedback that makes my day," she says enthusiastically. "When people write to me, 90 percent are men, and even though single female readers are reading it, it shows it's appealing to a wider audience.

"Some of the male readers admit they're in love with Tina -- one, who is a restaurant manager, asked me to write him into the strip so he could be Tina's boyfriend! But even those kind of responses make me feel good about her, because she's a positive character, the girl next door, and she's empowered, not neurotic, and doesn't see herself as a loser or a victim.

"She's the perfect role model for any girl. She's not defined by what she does for a living, but she takes pride in her work as a waitress. She's happy with who she is and handles life as it comes. I think she's coming into her own person. Even though she's based loosely on myself, I think she's better than me.

"But, still, I'm a lot like Tina, being a regular working girl myself, coming from a working-class family that immigrated to Canada about 40 years ago from Italy. It's always been said that you write what you know."

(Piccolo also contributes, on a rotating basis, to "Six Chix," so there'll be some weeks when you'll get a double dose of Piccolo!)


Tak (Thach) Bui, "PC & Pixel"

Bui is another Toronto resident, who came to the United States from Saigon on a high school scholarship when he was 17. Now 53, Bui originally lived with a family in Amarillo, Texas, through a tumultuous time in American history, when the country was at war in Southeast Asia. After moving to Canada, he was able to sponsor the remainder of his family, who resettled there.

Although Bui dreamed of being a painter, he found he "had a knack of drawing political cartoons, so I was a freelance illustrator, drawing for papers like the Toronto Globe & Mail." He entered syndicated cartooning through his friend Bill Lombardo, then a Marriott executive chef.

"He was a neighbor of mine, and when he would bring food back from the hotels, we toyed with the idea of illustrating his recipes." That was 12 years ago, and "Cheap Thrill Cuisine" can still be found in newspaper food sections, including The Washington Post, where he started drawing "PC & Pixel" six years ago.

"The strip is a parody of my life," Bui said. "I work at home and use the computer, which has become this kind of weapon of survival in the world of changing graphic work. It's a reaction to this fast-changing landscape of the electronic revolution.

"I've been fascinated with the (comic strip) medium ever since I was a young boy. I remember reading Japanese and French comics back in Saigon, and I didn't see daily American comics until the mid-'60s. I visited a nearby American library and read the comic strips from the racks of daily newspapers. I used the comic strips as learning tools -- 'B.C.,' 'Peanuts,' 'Blondie' and 'Steve Canyon' in particular.

"I like to draw a lot of images in my strip, especially the Sunday one, since there's more room to draw and I can break into a longer narrative to get a gag going."


Brooke McEldowney, "9 Chickweed Lane"

McEldowney says his readers are often surprised to learn his stories about a multigenerational female household is written by a man. "They write that the feeling depicted seems very much on target," the veteran cartoonist said from his Florida home. "But, basically, I work my imagination through the characters, and after 10 years, it seems to have worked."

McEldowney has a more sophisticated take on his comic strip. His three main characters, Juliette Burber, her daughter Edda and mother/grandmother Gran (plus "a satellite character, the cat Solange, who's taken on a life of her own") all live at the title address. "Juliette is a single parent who, at the start of the strip, has just been divorced. She's a professional, she got a Ph.D. in biology and she teaches the subject in a New Hampshire college. Juliette just recently got a boyfriend, Elliott, who also teaches at the university."

Meanwhile, 6-year-old Edda has a best childhood friend in Amos, and even Gran has a boyfriend in Thorax, an eccentric dairy farmer who insists he's from another planet. Gran suspects he's insane, but still likes him. "I keep it ambiguous if Thorax himself really believes if his tales are true," McEldowney said.

He hopes readers will get comfortable with his characters. "I draw a lot on the imaginations of the characters, so sometimes, I may depict what they're thinking as a reality, their visual flights of fancy. ... For instance, Edda often imagines she's this superhero called Superlative Girl."


Bob Weber Jr., "Slylock Fox & Comics for Kids"

Weber's family-friendly comic-and-game strip is in, by his count, nearly 400 newspapers. "My primary audience is children between 6 and 12, but it's a feature that's meant to appeal to readers of all ages."

"I'm really writing it for myself," the Connecticut-based cartoonist admits. "I don't consciously think about the young audience, because I want it to remain smart for the kids. I try to make the puzzles challenging, so much so that it can attract some of the older kids, and even adults.

"And it's OK if you can't figure things out, as long as the solution is there. I just want to encourage them to try harder, give them a good enough challenge where it strikes the right balance, and keep their interest," he said.

Weber is pleased that Slylock Fox is used in classrooms, "where whole classes are always sending me letters."

He also uses his two children as a sounding board, particularly his 10-year-old son, who's picked up his dad's passion and shares the home studio with Dad.

One of the strip's features is a how-to-draw lesson, "and I use kids' drawings in the strips, too," he said. "Your young readers can send their drawings to the address listed in the comic strip. Even though only one submission is printed in the Sunday feature out of about a thousand I get a week, I look at them all, and make it a point to write back if it comes with a letter."


Brian Crane, "Pickles"

We're happy to pick up the Sunday version of this popular comic strip. The misadventures of retiree Earl and his grandson Nelson have entertained readers since April 1990.

At top right are the gang from "Pickles."

"(My syndicate) originally thought it was more a niche strip that would appeal mainly to older people, but they came to find out that it had crossgenerational appeal."

Crane admits his characters are "frozen in time -- I don't age the little boy in order to keep his relationship with his grandfather.

"I like the idea of doing a strip about older people -- I used to live in a neighborhood of older people, and it was like a street of grandparents. I came to identify with them, their humorous outlook, plus they have a lot of wisdom, opinions and experiences. I try to portray the trials of old age with a gentle eye, and I must be doing something right, since I get a lot of fan mail from older people."

"Pickles" has been collected in book form, and the third and latest anthology, "Still Pickled After All These Years," will be out in April.


Lincoln Peirce, "Big Nate"

Big Nate from "Big Nate"

"I named the strip for my brother," Peirce related through e-mail. "'Big Nate' was his nickname growing up. But it's a name that also describes the personality and attitude of the main character. Even though Nate is only a small boy (he's an 11-year-old sixth grader), he thinks big: His ideas are big, his aspirations are big, and he has an over-inflated sense of his own importance and uniqueness.

"When I started the strip, my intention was to create a 'family' comic strip focusing on domestic situations, but before long, I found myself writing more and more jokes about Nate's school experiences with his teachers and classmates. I was a teacher myself for a few years in the late 1980s, and soon realized that school was an environment with a lot of comic potential.

"Readers, I hope, will find Nate to be a believable character. I'm not interested in writing gags about kids who act and speak like miniature adults. Nate's a kid, and his life is filled with people, places and things that kids will identify with and adults will find authentic. ... Mostly I'm concerned with making 'Big Nate' as funny as I possibly can. That's the whole point of a comic strip, right?"


Michael Fry & T Lewis, "Over the Hedge"

Like "Garfield," "Over the Hedge" will get its share of big-screen time in fall 2005. The all-CGI DreamWorks movie will feature the voices of Jim Carrey and Garry Shandling as RJ the raccoon and Verne the turtle, respectively, in a prequel of how the two anthropomorphic friends first met.

The movie idea came a year after "Over the Hedge" debuted in June 1995, when it got off to a great start, being picked up by more than 200 papers, including the Los Angeles Times, where movie studio honchos saw its film potential.

The thematic gag strip, according to artist Lewis, is centered on RJ, "a mischievous, self-centered hedonist of a raccoon, laid-back in a Bugs Bunny way, but when duty calls -- usually when satisfying baser desires -- he likes hanging around the garbage cans of the suburbs," he said. "The hedge of the title is the one dividing their world from the human world. The basic conflict is, while in their better natures they can be regular little animals, it's just that they can't resist the siren call of the fragrance of Twinkies and the compelling glow of TiVo."

The cast of animal characters is rounded out by Sammy, a frenzied, attention-deficit squirrel; and two female foils, Luby and Velma. Occasionally, there's also a toddler who can communicate only with the critters.

Fry and Lewis conceived "Over the Hedge" as "The Secret Life of Pigs" back when both were living in Houston, Texas. Fry's since moved to Austin and Lewis to the East Washington town of Omak.

When they pitched the strip to various syndicates, it was "roundly admired but roundly rejected," Lewis said. "Once we took the outsider animals to the suburbs, it became a far superior concept, and it worked out for the better."

Fry, the writer of the strip, has a background in editorial cartooning, and partnered with Lewis "to do something popular and mainstream." He said the Sunday version of "Over the Hedge" focuses on the strip's major theme "where we see the animals break into houses, and the woods where they live."

Fry also has his own syndicated strip, "Committed," which started in '94 for the alternative Houston Press. His thumbnail description of the strip is "'The Far Side' meets 'Family Circus.'"


Darrin Bell, "Candorville"

and, with Theron Heir, "Rudy Park"

Darrin Bell is another double threat in the comic strip field, who splits his time between his own "Candorville," born during his college days at the University of California at Berkeley, and "Rudy Park," a collaboration on a hilarious topical strip done with Theron Heir (who in real life is Matt Richtel, a technology and telecommunications reporter from the San Francisco bureau of the New York Times).

"The two are related," Richtel said. "Both are about current events, and they reflect two different parts of my personality -- one is the guy who raises his hand in class and says, 'I can solve the Mideast crisis,' and the other, the guy in the back making monkey noises. The two jobs satisfies both urges ... and accommodate both parts of me.

"Rudy is a 20-something who manages a cafe. One reviewer who did our last book described it with a phrase that is apropos here -- 'Cheers' meets Starbucks. It's surrounded by a group of misfits and friends who make up this modern nuclear family, bonded by something stronger than blood -- caffeine! It's also kind of a watering hole for visiting celebrities and politicians.

"While this is a topical strip, my underlying hope is that it's character-driven. The main conflict is between two characters: Rudy, who's this optimist and zealous in his belief in the healing powers of consumption, and Sadie Cohen, this 80-year-old who's the main regular at the cafe. She's a curmudgeon who's suspicious of every repackaging term -- like turning a sandwich into a panini -- just to raise prices."

Richtel admits "Rudy Park" had a rocky start, debuting eight days before 9/11. "What happened that day changed the nature of the strip. The impulse was to be topical, as we, and the rest of the world, were caught up with this sense of community. It heightened our interest in current events because we felt compelled by 9/11. It's become less so since we settled back. Now we're taking on current events in a broader context, like getting the 'Queer Eye' crew help Rudy get more fashionable.

"While there are bits and pieces of the daily strip in the context of the Sunday version, we try to make the stand-alone strip as rich, vibrant and topical as we can. We've taken on cell-phone reception and Howard Dean's head exploding during his reading of an impassioned poem, no less. And be prepared when Rudy and Sadie go on the lam from the record industry!"

RICHTEL MET Bell by chance, thanks to a fax machine at the Oakland Tribune, where Richtel worked. Bell was creating the occasional editorial cartoon for the Tribune while in college, and when Richtel saw his transmitted cartoon, a collaboration was born.

"Sometimes, when you meet someone, it's just harmonious from the first moment," he said. "We found out we had the same sense of humor and politics and comic strips. ... For a collaboration like ours to work, we have to have such intense faith in each other. I mostly come up with the script ideas, then I get his take, and then I rewrite.

"May each of us have marriages that run as smoothly," he quipped.

"Doing 'Rudy Park' now is about as natural as breathing," Bell said. Even though we'll be running Bell's work on both strips, there is a distinct artistic approach to differentiate between the two.

"I did 'Candorville' for years before I met Matt -- it was called 'Lemont Brown,' named after the main character, and ran in the college paper." Bell set aside his own strip as he gained recognition for his editorial work, "but when I started doing 'Rudy Park,' I rediscovered the joy of making my own little world, and made me rethink my focus on 'Candorville.'

"Candorville is every city in the world rolled up into one," Bell said. "The characters are living their lives, trying to make their dreams come true, even though the city is working against them."

Lemont Brown is an aspiring writer who has talent, but not much business sense. His childhood friend, Susan Garcia, is an upwardly mobile Latina who doesn't have Lemont's courage but does have business sense.

"Clyde is a character who blames his shortcomings on society. Where Lemont always makes the right decisions, Clyde makes the wrong ones -- he's unemployed, materialistic and going nowhere fast. He's there to be laughed at because he embodies all the bad decisions all of us make every day. But he doesn't think he's a bad person because he's operating off of his own internal logic. He's a lot more pessimistic -- in fact, Clyde is more right in his opinions than Lemont, but because he's completely off-putting in expressing them, he ends up being the most controversial of the three characters. He's a black man, kinda of like a thug, whose idol is probably the meanest gangsta rapper around. He represents the negative aspects of hip-hop culture."

Bell admits that "Candorville" is "sort of an autobiographical strip" and has a long-term outline that he figures will last "50, 60 years -- provided I live that long!"


Bill Griffith, "Zippy"

Now we come to one of the longest-running and, for some, the most infuriating comic strip around. But we believe you'll come around to enjoying (or at least tolerating) the non-sequitur humor surrounding the thoughts and reactions of a stubble-bearded pinhead clown as he travels through Pop Culture Land.

Griffith is one of those legendary cartoonists who started in the vibrant underground scene of the 1960s, first in New York, then San Francisco. And, speaking to him from his Connecticut home, he'll be the first to tell you that "Zippy" is definitely not a traditional strip. There's no gag, no payoff punchline, within its four-colored panels. You've got to read it with a receptive mind, drop your preconceptions about language and just enjoy the sensual pleasure of wordplay -- along with some cultural critique.

That's usually the duties of Griffith's other alter-ego character Griffy. Griffy is the buttoned-down, rational part of the creator, while Zippy is the uninhibited child-man. The strip becomes a non-linear dialogue of the divided self.

The strip started in 1985 as a daily for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner and was picked up for syndication by King Features a year later, with the Sunday version starting in '90. Zippy himself dates to 1970, when he made what was supposed to be a one-time appearance in the underground S.F. comic "Real Pulp Comix."

"The character of Griffy started off in another regular strip called 'The Griffith Observatory,' where Griffy lived. And instead of pointing the telescope at the stars, Griffy would point it at the people of L.A. below. It was a slice-of-life comic," Griffith said.

"In 1980, even I thought Zippy was getting a little too off-the-wall, and he needed someone to work as a straight man. So I put in Griffy.

"I admit 'Zippy' is an acquired taste," he said. "It's not meant for everybody and it's not meant to be palatable for a wider audience. I basically do it for myself and for people tuned in to pop culture. Like a bluesman once said, 'If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my trees.'

"I've been grateful to get a foothold in the world of daily and Sunday comics, to be able to push my little token out there. I remember when King Features flew me to New York from San Francisco to describe my strip to the sales staff. I told them, 'To be honest, this is the weirdest comic strip you'll ever see.' But it's got a niche following.

"In fact, Zippy was meant to be a caricature of someone with a low attention span. Nowadays, he's in his element -- the culture has caught up to him. I love the ephemeral nature and perennial silliness of pop culture, and I deal with it in 'Zippy' in a way that's not meant to be trivial."


The Amazing Spiderman has his own Sunday strip.

THAT'S IT -- oh, and you'll also find next week the continuing adventures of "The Amazing Spiderman" by the legendary Stan Lee and comic book veteran Larry Lieber, plus, for those of you who don't mind a bit of mental exercise in the morning, "Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz," put together by Ken Fisher.

See you in the funny papers!

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