Comics get real in por­tray­ing fam­i­lies

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY MATT MOORE

TPHILADEL­PHIA here are wed­ding bells in Riverdale, but not for Archie and Betty or Veron­ica. They’re for Army Lt. Kevin Keller and the phys­i­cal ther­a­pist who helped him over­come his war wound — Clay Walker.

Mean­while, in the comics pages, Gil is an 8-year-old boy be­ing raised by his di­vorced fac­tory-worker mom, and Dustin is 23 and liv­ing at home, un­able to find a job af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege.

Comics al­ways have been a por­tal for es­capism and fan­tasy, but also have la­bored to re­flect a con­tem­po­rary cli­mate, a process that shows no signs of slow­ing whether it in­volves su­pervil­lains, breast can­cer or other complicated re­al­i­ties of mod­ern life.

Writ­ers and artists fold real-world events into their fic­tional worlds, blend­ing boundaries to make readers not just

laugh and es­cape, but also re­flect and think.

“Comics have al­ways been a re­flec­tion of our world,” said Bren­dan Burford, comics ed­i­tor at King Fea­tures Syn­di­cate in New York. “Peo­ple want to see a re­flec­tion and, chances are, if the re­flec­tion is some­thing that rings true with their world, their life, their fam­ily and their friends, they can re­late and laugh.”

The ti­tle char­ac­ter in “Gil” is an el­e­men­tary school stu­dent, slightly portly and al­ways picked last for sports, who lives with his mom. He would love a nu­clear fam­ily be­cause it would mean he’d have su­per­pow­ers.

“Grow­ing up in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­ily dur­ing Amer­ica’s first ‘Great Re­ces­sion’ wasn’t al­ways easy, but I look back on my for­ma­tive years fondly,” said car­toon­ist Norm Feuti, who de­buted “Gil” in Jan­uary and has based it, partly, on his own ex­pe­ri­ences.

He noted that with the na­tional di­vorce rate ris­ing, there are par­ents and kids who can prob­a­bly re­late to his ti­tle char­ac­ter, an 8-year-old quin­tes­sen­tial un­der­dog who lacks the lat­est toys or elec­tronic gad­gets.

“Gil is a very per­sonal comic to me,” Mr. Feuti said. “It’s a cel­e­bra­tion of the re­siliency and in­de­fati­ga­ble spirit of child­hood.”

In an­other strip, Dustin has fin­ished col­lege but is liv­ing with his par­ents, un­able to find a sig­nif­i­cant job or af­ford his own apart­ment, ex­pe­ri­ences not un­com­mon among many re­cent grad­u­ates.

“It’s hu­mor ther­apy for peo­ple,” said Steve Kelly, who, along with fel­low car­toon­ist Jeff Parker, cre­ated “Dustin” in 2010 and has seen it ex­pand to some 300 news­pa­pers since then. “If you were to sit at home and you were un­em­ployed and you thought you were the only one, that would be a lot more dif­fi­cult to deal with.”

But see­ing it in the comic strips, or in the comic books, may soften the blow, he said.

“In these tough eco­nomic times, there are a lot of peo­ple sit­ting in their par­ents’ houses and they think you’re mak­ing fun of them and, hon­est to God, we’re not,” Mr. Kelly said. “I’ve been un­em­ployed — worked at the news­pa­per in San Diego, got fired and was un­em­ployed for a year. I know how you can feel iso­lated and de­pressed and you won­der what the fu­ture holds.”

Some­times, the top­ics can be rife with pol­i­tics or chal­lenge dif­fer­ent so­cial val­ues.

In Riverdale, long­time home of the high school hi­jinks of Archie, Betty, Veron­ica and oth­ers, is­sues rang­ing from gay mar­riage to can­cer are find­ing new readers and story-lines, bring­ing up top­ics not typ­i­cally found in the funny pages.

A story about the wed­ding of Army Lt. Kevin Keller and the phys­i­cal ther­a­pist who helped him over­come his war wound sold out its print run. It also drew a protest from one group con­cerned that its cover, which showed the two men in front of a “just mar­ried” sign, was too bold for a mag­a­zine sold not just in book­stores, but also in drug-stores and toy stores.

One Mil­lion Moms, a project of the Amer­i­can Fam­ily As­so­ci­a­tion, re­cently asked re­tailer Toys R Us not to dis­play the mag­a­zine near its check­out aisles, not­ing that a “trip to the toy store turns into a pre­ma­ture dis­cus­sion on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and is com­pletely un­called for.”

Archie Comics co-chief ex­ec­u­tive Jon Gold­wa­ter said the com­pany isn’t aim­ing to ruf­fle feathers. In­stead, he said, it’s re­flect­ing a con­tem­po­rary world where in some states, gay mar­riage is le­gal.

“We be­lieve in a Riverdale that doesn’t judge or con­demn. Maybe some­day the rest of Amer­ica will fol­low in the town’s ide­al­ized ex­am­ple,” Mr. Gold­wa­ter said.

In an­other sto­ry­line, Ch­eryl Blos­som, who lit out for Cal­i­for­nia to pur­sue a film ca­reer, is now in her 20s and fac­ing not cel­lu­loid dreams, but breast can­cer.

So, said Vic­tor Gore­lick, Archie ed­i­tor-in-chief, she re­turns home to be among friends, fam­ily and a fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment even if she feels guilty over be­ing able to af­ford her treat­ment.

“One of the things that comes out is that she feels she’s very for­tu­nate that she can have all this treat­ment be­cause she has med­i­cal in­sur­ance, the money, to be able to do it,” Mr. Gore­lick said.

The story “opens the door that there are a lot of peo­ple who can­not af­ford this kind of treat­ment and we have to see where that’s kind of go­ing to lead.”

That’s one as­pect of comics that has al­ways been ever-present: sto­ry­lines that can change and ad­just with chang­ing times.

From 1979 to 2010, Lynn John­ston wrote and il­lus­trated “For Bet­ter Or For Worse,” a comic strip that saw its char­ac­ters — a fam­ily of five in a Toronto sub­urb — age in real time and face events rang­ing from the death of the fam­ily dog to di­vorce to child abuse.

Ms. John­ston aimed to be “re­al­is­tic in my ap­proach,” not­ing that the strip was “both a com­edy and a drama,” she said in an email.

“Some folks com­plained that the comics page was for laughs and not tears,” she said, “but the tears we shed are of­ten as cathar­tic as the laugh­ter.”


Gil of the “Gil” comic strip lives with his mom fol­low­ing her di­vorce. The ti­tle char­ac­ter is 8 years old and he imag­ines that he would have su­per­pow­ers if he was part of a nu­clear fam­ily with two par­ents and a sib­ling.

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