Are Black Cartoonists Unfortunate Predictors of the Entire Industry?
After 18 years in the business, you'd think I would know by now: if you're lucky enough to stumble on a good story, get it into print soon as possible.
Case in point: fellow Times staffer Charlos Gary told me in mid-2007 about a possible protest by several of the small number of black people who pen daily cartoon strips for newspapers nationwide, in which they would all draw the same strip to satirize the idea that comics page editors -- and some readers -- seemed to view their comics as interchangeable (I can't reprint the strip here because syndication companies are especially touchy about publishing cartoons before they are released to clients).
When he confirmed that it was happening last week, I began digging into the issue, trying to learn more about why these guys complained about a "two strip rule" in which most newspapers seemed to only feature two strips starring minority characters on a page which might hold more than 20 -- forcing black, Latino and Asian cartoonists to compete for just one of two slots instead of the wider field.
"It seems clear that it’s tokenism to me,” said Darrin Bell, who introduced the strip Candorville in 2003 and has since seen it featured by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and many other newspapers -- often viewed as a successor to Aaron McGruder's provocative, black-focused strip The Boondocks.
“I find it hard to believe that a newspaper wouldn’t have Curtis and Candorville and Café Con Leche all in the same paper; all they have in common is the ethnicity of the characters,” Bell added. “I dread hearing what strip I’ve replaced when I’m added to a newspaper, because more often it’s Curtis or Jump Start or one of the other comics which encouraged me to get into the business.”
Unfortunately, one of the cartoonists also sent an email to the newspaper industry magazine Editor & Publisher, which broke the story out from under me a couple of days ago (no shame on E&P or the cartoonists; I should have moved quicker to get it in print). My column on it all runs Monday, but I figured I'd give a preview now -- because I believe these cartoonists are actually canaries in the coalmine, reflecting more intensely a difficulty to break new talent which affects the entire comics industry.
On Feb. 10, Bell and at least seven other black cartoonists will present the protest comic: Charlos Gary (who does two strips, Café 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 which appears in the St. Petersburg Times (though Charlos Gary works as a graphic artist at this newspaper, the Times doesn’t publish either of his strips). Overall, Editor and Publisher estimates there are about 15 black cartoonists in national syndication to newspapers, among more than 200 artists in the field.
Thomas said he ran into some of the issues raised by their “protest” – Bell balks a using such a serious word to describe complaints about cartoons – when the Times first began publishing Watch Your Head, which was adapted in 2006 from a strip about six college buddies he drew for historically black Howard University’s The Hilltop newspaper.
“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.”
In fact, as the newspaper industry contracts, comic artists find their traditionally popular pages squeezed as well. 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 own 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.
At the St.Petersburg Times, features editor Mike Wilson admitted there could be more ethnic diversity on the newspaper’s comics page, which currently 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 longtime strip Cathy in 2006. “This isn’t like adding a new columnist on home repair. You have to really engage in a deep conversation with readers because they care a lot about this.”
All I know, is that I used to live for reading the comics pages in my youth, and now I barely look at them. When I do, they seemed filled with comics which are hardly funny, many of which were ancient when I first started reading them. Can't help but believe some new blood would help.