Comics take center stage at festival, convention in Pittsburgh
By Michael Machosky
Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
It's safe to say that many, if not most, kids go through a phase where “doodling” just doesn't cut it anymore. Combined with a close study of the comics section in the newspaper, a decision is usually made on the spot: “I'm going to be a cartoonist when I grow up.”
Of course, most of us tend to grow out of this notion at varying speeds — but not all. This weekend, Downtown Pittsburgh will teem with the few who stuck with it. Through an improbable combination of talent, luck and sheer endurance, they became professional cartoonists. For them, “see you in the funny pages” isn't just an archaic goodbye, it's a day at the office.
“Sometimes I look at the drawing board and think, ‘I can't believe they're paying me to do this,'” says Brian Walker, comics historian and writer of “Hi and Lois” and “Beetle Bailey” — both created by his father, Mort Walker.
The National Cartoonists Society will have its annual convention in Pittsburgh, and many of North America's best cartoonists will gather to present the Reuben Awards for Cartoonist of the Year and several other categories. There also will be a corresponding exhibit at the Toonseum, featuring seven decades of original art from past Reuben winners.
The convention coincides with 2013 Pittsburgh Comic Arts Festival, which will start at the Toonseum and spill out all over the 900 block of Liberty Avenue, Downtown, on May 26. This part is free, open to the public and will set the street crawling with cartoon characters — Betty Boop, Popeye, Olive Oyl, Dennis the Menace and others.
More than 60 of the world's best cartoonists will be doing autograph and sketch sessions, including Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”), Tom Richmond (Mad Magazine), Dan Piraro (“Bizarro”), Mo Williems (“Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus”), Brian Crane (“Pickles”) and many others. There also will be vendors, chalk artists, caricaturists and art activities for all ages.
According to Toonseum curator Joe Wos, Brian Walker is part of the “first family of comics.” He wrote perhaps the definitive book on comic strips, “Comics: The Complete Collection.” But Walker didn't always want to join the family business.
“My father was born in 1923 and grew up in a time when successful cartoonists of the era were like movie stars,” Walker says. “He's one of those people who always knew what he wanted to do and never looked back. We have a pictures of him at 8 years old at the drawing board. He was determined to become not only a successful cartoonist, but the most successful cartoonist.
“In the '60s, myself and my brother, Greg, we were rebellious and didn't want anything to do with our father's business. But, eventually, we saw that this wasn't a bad way to make a living — work at home, watch your kids grow up and don't get your hands too dirty.”
Mort Walker, who will be 90 in September, still draws “Beetle Bailey.”
Drawing a comic stip can be kind of a lonely business, so cartoonists tend relish these annual meetings.
“There's not that many people who make a living as cartoonists,” Brian Walker says. “Most cartoonists work by themselves. There are exceptions. If you work in animation, you work in a studio. Anyone who's a syndicated artist or freelance illustrator works at home.”
Lynn Johnston, writer of the still-ubiquitous newspaper strip “For Better or For Worse,” expected the business to be a little more cutthroat.
“When I got my first contract,” she says, “I thought it would be like, ‘Welcome, congratulations! We hope you fail.' It really hasn't been. Everybody's supportive. If there's a contest, it's between the syndicates.
“When I first started, ‘Blondie' would bump ‘For Better or For Worse,' or the other way around. But it was done by the syndicates and the salespeople, not by the Young family (the cartoon was started by Chic Young) and myself. I still get together with Dean (Chic's son) and Charlotte Young, and we still bump each other (from the comics page).”
Stronger friendships tend to make stronger businesses for the few people able to do this work.
“We really do need each other,” Johnston says. “First thing you do when you get a contract is phone other people in the business and talk to them, because you desperately need their advice and camaraderie. And so, the Reuben Awards became the one time we could get together and socialize. ... So, we'd talk about everything from contracts, to publishing, to life. A kind of collective consciousness got us moved a few steps ahead, in terms of understanding that we should own our work, own our copyright, our licensing rights, things like that.”
The National Cartoonists Society gives out awards for animation, editorial cartoons, comic strips, greeting cards, graphic novels, online comics and several other categories.
“But it is dominated by the newspaper comic artists and the big syndicates,” Walker says, “because that's where the money is, or was.”
The Reuben Award began in 1953 and is named after Rube Goldberg — the sculptor/inventor/engineer and Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, now synonymous with wacky, impractical inventions — who designed the award himself.
Lynn Johnston was the first woman (and first Canadian) to win, in 1985.
“In the early days, everything was in New York,” Johnston says. “There were some talented women cartoonists, but I don't think they got involved with the cigar-smoking, beer-drinking guys at the press clubs and literary society. Eventually, comic art spread out across the country. Cartoonists could live anywhere. You can live in your workplace.”
Among newspaper comics, Johnston's long-lived “For Better or For Worse” is still fairly unique. It's a warm, yet sometimes surprisingly complex, look at a normal family as it goes about its very normal life in suburban Toronto. Instead of just telling a joke — known in the business as “gag-a-day” — there was character development and storylines that evolved over time.
The characters also aged in real time. For example, the character Michael began as a toddler asking his mother for a puppy, and the series ended with Michael married and a father himself.
That puppy became Farley, a furry Old English Sheepdog, one of the strip's most beloved characters. When Farley was 14, he died in a stream after rescuing another drowning character.
The response was overwhelming — she received thousands of letters. When she told Charles Schulz — perhaps Johnston's closest friend in the business — about the end of Farley, he threatened to have Snoopy hit by a truck if she went through with it. (She did, and he didn't).
Though humor was always in the forefront, a lot of serious subjects were addressed in “For Better or For Worse”: death, child abuse, divorce, a gay character coming out. Johnston's own life was difficult — she had an abusive mother and first husband, and struggled with parenting — and she was determined that her comic strip would reflect reality.
“It was going to be a serious look at a family,” she says. “If a character said their glasses were broken because they fell, it could really be because their dad beat them up. I was desperate for material, and anything I could relate to, or talk about with some kind of knowledge.
“My brother-in-law was gay and came out to me first. I felt honored. It was a crazy thing. He wanted to keep it from his father. When he finally told them, his father said, ‘I've known since you were 11.' It's that kind of open family conversation that allowed me to put some really personal things in the paper.”
Johnston is done writing “For Better or For Worse,” but many papers (including the Tribune-Review) still run old strips.
The future for comic strips is a little murky, as it is for the newspapers they inhabit.
“They've just squashed them smaller and smaller until people can't even read them anymore,” Walker says. “And more and more people (are) reading newspapers online.
“I guess the days of the millionaire cartoonist are slowly fading away. But cartoonists are incredibly resilient, almost by definition constantly reinventing themselves.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.
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