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A review of 2007
2007 was to be a year of great shake ups. Bill Amend announced at the end of 2006 that his strip Fox Trot was going to Sunday only and Lynn Johnston had maintained for years that she was retiring For Better For Worse when her contract was up in the fall. But instead 2007 might be summed up as the death year with characters Mort Park (Rudy Park), Sam Roland, (Tom the Dancing Bug), Lisa Moore (Funky Winkerbean) being written off (some more permanently than others). Other characters were depicted as close-but-not-so-dead as you think: For Better or For Worse’s grandpa Jim suffered a stroke, Wally Winkerbean was shown being blown up by an IED (in what later would be shown as a video game), and Dilbert intern Asok dying in an experimental moon shuttle prototype only to be reincarnated into a Snickers bar.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom for cartoon characters or their creators. I’ve outlined the highlights of last year in mostly chronological order:
The new year starts out with a bizarre story of a crazed young man who reportedly “jumped out of the car acting crazy and hugged the statue [of Garfield the cat] and the head came off.” The head was found later found along side a road near a reservoir. The 23-year-old hugger received a suspended 90-day sentence and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
With Bill Amend retiring the daily version of his Fox Trot strip, early January became a late Christmas for many cartoonists as several hundred spots became available. While many assumed family strips would pick up the vacant spaces, it appeared that editors opted to “diversify.” The big winners were Mark Tatulli’s Lio and Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. Several cartoonists picked up multiple newspapers.
On the heals of the post-Fox Trot rearranged comic landscape, Lynn Johnston, creator of For Better Or For Worse, who for years had maintained that she would retire her feature at the end of her contract, announced that she would continue the feature in a “hybrid” fashion consisting of new and rerun material.
Over the Hedge co-creator Michael Fry finally launched his new venture, RingTales, which hopes to create animation shorts of well known comic features for mobile devices. It launched with a number of New Yorker cartoons.
Time magazine decided to stop running editorial cartoons in each edition. Apparently, nobody cares.
In another bizarre story out of Miami, Jose Varela, a freelance editorial cartoonist for the El Nuevo Herald, stormed The Miami Herald offices last November. He pleads no contest to assault and burglary charges in return for a sentence of two years probation. He was also ordered to take anger control classes, continued psychiatric counseling and make a $500 donation to the victim’s assistance fund.
After 28 years at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, editorial cartoonist Chuck Asay retires. They did not replace him.
The L.A. Times dropped four features: Candorville, La Cucaracha, Mallard Fillmore and Mr. Boffo. La Cucaracha was quickly reinstated due to public demand. Candorville returned as well – three months later.
Rob Harrell announced that he was ending his popular feature Big Top for “professional and financial reasons.” Three months later, Rob opened his first solo art show and four months after that his second.
March is a month when many national awards are announced. Mike Luckovich took the National Headliners Award for a second time in a row; Steve Benson took home the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award; Erin Russell won the Charles M. Schulz award for top college cartoonist and Walt Handelsman, Nick Anderson, Mike Thompson’s names were leaked as the likely Pulitzer Prize finalists. The official results were still a month away.
Editorial cartoonist Roger Harvell lost his job with Greenville News. The paper only said there is no more funding for the position.
A shock wave rolled through the cartooning community when news broke that King Feature Editor-in-Chief Jay Kennedy died in a rip tide off the coast of Costa Rica. He was a giant in the industry with an unmatched love of the art. A common thread in many cartoonist’s reaction was the individual feedback he have to many hopefuls. Just this last November, King Features announces that they are committing $100,000 to a scholarship fund in his honor.
Another round of awards were announced in April. State University of New York College Kory Merritt won the 2007 Locher Award; Denver Post editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe took home the Fischetti Award and picked up the Freedom of Press award later in June; Mike Lestor, of the Rome News-Tribune won the Society of Professional Journalist’s Sigma Delta Chi Award; Signe Wilkinson was awarded the Overseas Press Club, and lastly, Walt Handelsman won his second Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning with a submission portfolio of both print and animated editorial cartoons setting off a debate on whether animated cartoons should be considered for the prize.
Another giant in the industry died. Johnny Hart, creator of B.C. and co-creator of The Wizard of Id passed away at the drawing board at the age of 76. Two weeks later Brant Parker, the other co-creator of Wizard of Id, passed away as well. Johnny’s grandsons and daughters took over on B.C. and Brant’s son, Jeff, continues to produce The Wizard of Id, having taken over the feature some 10 years earlier.
King Features announced the successor to Jay Kennedy’s position to be Brendan Burford.
May started with an announcement that Corey Pandolph would be taking over part of The Elderberries feature. This would be the first indication that The Elderberries co-creator Phil Frank was having health issues.
Christian Science Monitor editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett took home the Kennedy Journalism Award and the AAEC held an online auction to raise money for their classroom project netting $5,747.
In what may have turned out to be the biggest comic strip related news item of the year, Tom Batuik announced that his Funky Winkerbean feature will delve back into a story-arc involving a second bout of cancer for the Lisa Moore character. Readers worry about such a weighty issue on the comics page.
Members of the National Cartoonists Society convened in Orlando, Florida on Memorial Day weekend for their annual Reuben Awards. Bill Amend was presented with the 2007 Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year. In the division awards, Stephan Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine” was named best comic strip, Hilary Price had the best newspaper panel with “Rhymes With Orange,” and Michael Ramirez won best editorial cartoonist. Cartoon legend, Mort Walker was the recipient of the Golden Key Award.
In the first of two controversies involving Berkeley Breathed this year, conservatives around the country took issue with an Opus strip depicting a character having two moms.
More information regarding the eventual death of the Funky Winkerbean Lisa Moore character was leaked out. She’s slated to die sometime in the fall.
And what might go down as a prime example of why the ol’ saying “think before you speak” is so important: Paul Fell lost one of his biggest clients, the Lincoln Journal Star after a flippant remark about their ethical policy was reported in an MSNBC article about journalists who contribute to political parties.
The AAEC convenes in Washington D.C. to celebrate their 50th year. Topics discussed include animation, blogging and of course, the hemorrhaging of their professional numbers.
Another big name in cartooning passed away before his time. Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette died in an car accident in Mississippi. He was coming back from his father’s funeral and on his way to Oxford to help with a play based on his comic strip feature Kudzu. Tribune Media announced that Kudzu would not be carried on in his absence and it came to an end in August. The Tulsa World, where Doug was the staff cartoonist announced that they would keep his position open.
The L.A. Daily News decided it would be a great idea to drop 10 of its comic features. Most of them are returned.
As the intended transition date for Lynn Johnston’s new “hybrid” For Better Or For Worse quickened, readers began to wonder how the current story lines were to end in time. The Elizabeth and Anthony story was just starting to settle, but could it reach resolution before Lynn froze the characters age? To accommodate unresolved story lines, Lynn announced that the move to the Hybrid would be gradual and that current arcs would still continue – even up to the end of the year before they’re played out completely.
2007 was also a year in which the daily local comic strip all but died. Leo Garza, who produced the Nacho Guarache feature for the San Antonio Express-News for 20 years was shown the door for “economic” reasons. Only two other daily local comics remained in the country: Farley, by Phil Franks and Denver Square by Ed Stein. Only one will make it into 2008.
Racial controversy erupted in Jacksonville Florida over a cartoon by Florida Times-Union’s editorial cartoonist Ed Gamble who depicted a gunman wearing a “Don’t Snitch” t-shirt calling two little children a “good little ho!”
Berkeley Breathed’s feature Opus had a second moment in the pubic eye when 25+ newspapers yanked the Sunday only feature because of a gag involving Steve’s girlfriend converting to radical Islam and insinuating that Steve wouldn’t be getting sex. The ban makes readers question, not Berkeley, but the papers who pulled it, citing a double standard.
At last, the hybrid For Better of For Worse hit newspapers everywhere with a strip opening in current time, flashing back to an earlier event when main characters John and Elly meet for the first time. Confusion sets in on which parts were original and which were copied from the archives. As it turns out the strip was all new, but using an earlier gag. Later hybrid strips were more clear as to which were old versus new because of a noticeable difference in Lynn’s drawing style over the years. Based on e-mails that I received, some uninformed readers were convinced that someone of lesser cartooning skills had taken over the feature.
The third editorial cartoonist of the year to be let go (or retire with the position closing) was Craig Terry, the editorial cartoonist and graphics editor of Northwest Florida Daily News. He left willingly in a buy-out.
The cartooning community once again bows its head in sadness as news spreads that cartoonist, historian and friend to all, Arnold Wagner, passed away after losing a fight against cancer.
Less than a week later, another announcement was made that Phil Frank would retire from his daily local comic strip Farley. Phil died six days later of a brain tumor. The San Francisco community turned out in several tribute events and Phil was posthumously awarded the first Herb Caen lifetime achievement award.
In what many feared would be a re-do of the 2005-2006 violent Mohammed cartoon reaction, a Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks, went into hiding after drawing the Prophet Mohammed’s head on the statue of a dog’s body. The reward placed on his head rose to $150,000 by al-Qaida groups inside Iraq.
Parade magazine, which for decades featured Howard Huge and The Lockhorns by Bunny Hoest and John Reiner began to run other cartoonists such as Dave Coverly, Carla Ventresca and Dan Piraro.
And after months of national publicity and public debate on the appropriateness of such a weighty topic such as death and cancer on the comics page, the Lisa Moore character of Funky Winkerbean passed away. The debate continued. Cartoonist Tom Batuik jumped the Funky Winkerbean cast ahead 10 years, published the complete Lisa Moore story-line, and set up a non-profit organization to raise money for a cure for cancer.
And in a positive editorial cartooning news, Chattanooga Times editorial cartoonist Bruce Plante was hired at the Tulsa World to replace Doug Marlette. The Chattanooga Times said they’ll look for another cartoonist.
October also marked the release of David Michaelis’ biography of Sparky, entitled Peanuts and Schulz. Bill Watterson’s positive review ran in the Wall Street Journal and the book hit the New York Times Best Seller list. Michaelis had access to the estate papers, interviewed extensively with family, friends, and associates to create what would be perhaps the definitive volume on the man who has most influenced comic strips, ever. But as it turns out the Schulz family hated it and they made their opinions known. Their main complaint that it painted Sparky “depressed, cold and bitter.” Later in the month, PBS featured Sparky in their American Masters program which most who watched it agreed, it focused on Sparky’s melancholy, but over-all was more fair than Michaelis’ book.
And the triennial Festival of Cartoon Art held at the Ohio State Cartoon Research Library honored Milt Caniff. Milt was also a big topic this year. The Cartoon Research Library was founded with the Milton Caniff collection, so it was appropriate that this 30 year anniversary of the Library paid tribute to the Caniff collection. Also this year, the Caniff family gave permission to the Humorous Maximus web site to run the Steve Canyon, and Latigo features. And lastly, after several years of work, R.C. Harvey released his biography of Milton Caniff.
Clay Bennett, who won the Pulitzer Prize at the Christian Science Monitor, announced that he was taking the Chattanooga Times slot vacated by Bruce Plante. His cartoons will be syndicated through the Washington Post Writers Group in January 2008.
But editorial cartooning news did not end on a positive note in November. A Utah editorial cartoonist, John Kilbourn, was asked by his publisher to resign for plagiarism after a reader sent a Mort Druker cartoon to the publisher pointing out the similarities between the two.
And now we come to the last month of 2007. Here are a few of the notables.
Susie MacNelly wanted to move Shoe to King Features but hit a legal wall in the form of a contract signed in 1995 and renewed after her husband, Jeff MacNelly’s death in 2000. She’s suing Tribune Media for obstruction.
And for those still counting, editorial cartoonist Aaron Taylor voluntarily left the Daily Herald for a better paying job outside of newspapers making his departure, a loss of six staff editorial cartooning positions vacated this year. Two other papers kept their positions open, but there were zero increases.
But, it’s not all gloom and doom for editorial cartoonists. Steve Breen won this year’s Berryman Cartoonist of the Year and keeps his job for another day – literally. His paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s, announced a round of employee buy-outs, but Steve’s not eligible. Apparently, they like him too much.
So there it is. 2007.
What did I miss? Leave your thoughts in the comments.