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Do comics get enough respect in U.S.? More interviewees say no than yes, and add that there should be increased media coverage of cartooning and a comics Pulitzer.

Do comics get enough respect in U.S.?

More interviewees say no than yes, and add that there should be increased media coverage of cartooning and a comics Pulitzer

They are ready by millions of people, but do comics and cartoonists have as much status as they deserve in this country?

Some of those interviewed by E&P said yes but more said no. They noted that comic cartoonists seem to be held in higher regard abroad than in the U.S., aren't covered enough by the American media, and have no Pulitzer Prize category of their own.

"I don't think the profession will ever get the respect it really deserves," said "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz of United Feature Syndicate (UFS). "For some strange reason, we're considered to be on the same level as burlesque."

"Comics are regarded as being at the lower end of the pop culture scale," added National Cartoonists Society (NCS) president Mell Lazarus, who does "Momma" and "Miss Peach" for Creators Syndicate.

"A lot of people [wrongly] feel that comics are just for kids," commented "Beetle Bailey"/"Hi and Lois" creator Mort Walker of King Features Syndicate.

Cartoonists are not sitting around moping or anything, and they acknowledge that some of their better-known peers get plenty of recognition and publicity. Schulz, for instance, told E&P: "I'm the last one to have any complaint."

But there is still a feeling that "the funnies" are sort of looked down upon in the Uniteds States -- a feeling that really hits cartoonists when they're abroad.

"In Europe, cartoonists are regarded as artists and cartooning as a fine art," said Lazarus, who most recently traveled to England and Hungary. "They get enormous respect. It's a feeling me and most of my colleagues get rarely in this country."

Walker recalled receiving "movie star" treatment in Sweden a couple of years ago that was "almost frightening." Fans met him at the airport, photographers followed him around, and autograph seekers flocked to a book signing. "I sat there signing books for three hours and never saw the end of the line," said Walker.

"It makes you think of being an expatriate," joked "Mother Goose & Grimm" creator Mike Peters of Tribune Media Services (TMS). Peters said he and a number of other comic creators get plenty of recognition in the United States, but it still can't compare with the level in Europe.

Several interviewees did note that part of the reason why American comic creators are lionized abroad is that they are "exotic" artists from another country.

"What's closest to home is always overlooked the most," said Aron Laikin, who has been working for several years on a massive video project called Cartooning: A Mirror of America. He has interviewed more than 250 cartoonists for the video, which will also have an international version called Cartooning: A World Mirror.

Laikin added that American cartoonists are especially heralded when they travel overseas because they are from the country where comics were born.

But it's not only U.S. creators who are lionized abroad. Laikin -- a cartoonist himself who has worked for magazines and other media -- observed that European cartoonists seem to have more status among Europeans than American cartoonists do among Americans. Two possible reasons for this, he said, are that so many European cartoonists include political commentary in their work and that print isn't overshadowed by tv quite as much as it is in the United States.

"One of the main reasons I'm doing the [video] project is to increase the respect for cartooning among the American public," stated Laikin. "It has been taken for granted."

Laikin, whose video also includes rare old footage of deceased creators, did say that Americans now respect cartooning more than in the past. But other cartoonists said the status level is still not extremely high, and gave some reasons why.

Lazarus observed that many people take comics for granted because they come out day after day, year after year -- unlike, say, a movie which makes a big splash during a specific period of time.

"And what we do is thrown out at the end of the day," commented Schulz.

The "Peanuts" creator added that comics are "the victims of poor reproduction" at a number of newspapers, and noted that some papers looking to save space have "squeezed down" his strip to the point where the characters are "distorted."

"It's stupid to take something [the comics section] so popular and treat it shabbily," declared Schulz, who did emphasize that some papers treat cartoons very well.

He also pointed to the shrinking of Sunday strips. "If we could just be given more space, we could turn out work that is so much better and so much more decorative," said Schulz. "Everybody talks about how great |Little Nemo' was, but Winsor McCay had a whole page."

Schulz did add with a chuckle that maybe cartoonists should be glad comics aren't as big as they used to be because they would then have to work harder and "hire two or three assistants."

Lazarus also lamented the shrinking of strips. "A lot of papers certainly don't regard comics as something they have to particularly spotlight," he said.

But Lazarus acknowledged that it can also be argued that papers do give comics a separate section on Sundays, and that the shrinking of strips is often due to a desire to publish as many as possible.

"If we didn't run them smaller, we would run less comics," stated Pittsburgh Press public service director and comics editor Richard Macino, who said he thinks comics are still large enough to be readable.

Macino added that very few papers are going to increase their number of comics pages, especially during the current economic downturn.

"The cartoonists I interviewed understand the economics behind the shrinkage," said Laikin, "but they say it's stifling interest in comics in the long run because it's reducing the artistic value of the medium."

Another reason why cartoonists don't have more status is that many people believe strips and panels are easy to create, said several interviewees.

"The lines may be simple, but there's genius behind them," commented Laikin.

"It doesn't look like it takes too long to do a comic, but it does," declared Walker. "It's a lot of work. [Late |Terry and the Pirates'/|Steve Canyon' creator] Milt Caniff used to say that a cartoonist is an artist, a writer, a humorist, a casting director, a set designer . . . ."

"Cartoonists work like dogs," declared Peters.

Public relations director Nancy Nicolelis of United Media -- which includes UFS and Newspaper Enterprise Association -- agreed that it's tough being a successful cartoonist.

"You have to come up with a funny idea a day for the rest of your life," she observed. "Then you have to execute it in 25 words or less, in a small space. I don't think there's an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into this . . . although there's not a disrespect either."

But some of those interviewed do believe comic cartoonists have the status they deserve.

"Based on what we hear from readers, I would say they are regarded with considerable respect and admiration," said vice president/editorial director Lee Salem of Universal Press Syndicate, whose high-profile comics include "Calvin and Hobbes" by Bill Watterson, "The Far Side" by Gary Larson, "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau, "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston, and "Cathy" by Cathy Guisewite.

"I do think cartoonists get respect in this country," agreed Houston Chronicle executive vice president/editor Jack Loftis. "Comics have added so much to our language and culture."

Schulz's Snoopy character, Loftis said by way of example, "is part of Americana." And he mentioned that comics have spawned well-known plays and movies such as Dick Tracy and Popeye.

Loftis -- who is also president of the Newspaper Features Council (NFC), whose members include cartoonists -- said the Chronicle tries to cover comics as much as possible.

"We try each time we introduce a comic to do an interview with the cartoonist," he reported. "We think it's good promotion," and the articles can be "interesting" and "educational."

Loftis -- who described himself as an avid comics fan -- said the Chronicle also runs stories on cartoonists who live in the Houston region, pieces on "Doonesbury" controversies, and more.

Salem said any "blip" of news relating to "Doonesbury" ends up in the media.

Macino said his paper, too, tries to run material about comics as much as it can. "We at the Press feel comics are a very important part of our product," he stated. "If we didn't cover them, it would be like cutting off our nose to spite our face."

Nicolelis said, "Papers that carry a strip generally are pretty interested in doing something promoting their own feature." But she added that getting papers to write an article about comics they don't run or about a comics-related development can be a more difficult matter unless a superstar cartoonist is involved.

"You really have to find the right angle to get someone interested in someone else," Nicolelis commented.

One of those superstars, of course, is Schulz. Lazarus called the "Peanuts" creator "the best in the business," and said media coverage reflects the fact that "affection for his strip is so profound."

King director of advertising and public relations Ted Hannah said some newspapers do an excellent job of covering comics while others do not.

He observed, "Newspapers still give more space to comics than any other media, but less than they used to."

Part of the problem is shrinking newsholes, acknowledged Hannah, although he said "there doesn't seem to be less space devoted to movie stars," film reviews, tv listings, and so on. "Yet," Hannah continued, "it is a difficult sell for us to get many newspapers to promote their own [cartoon] stars."

Lazarus observed that many newspapers devote a lot more space to a tv show reaching its 10th anniversary than to a comic turning 40.

Hannah said some younger newspaper editors may have grown up with more of an affinity for tv than comics. These and other editors, Hannah added, don't realize just how large and loyal comics audiences are until they are swamped with responses to surveys they conduct.

Other interviewees said they have seen some increase in newspaper coverage of comics during the past few years.

Lazarus, for instance, mentioned that there has been a number of articles about the issue of whether a cartoonist or syndicate should own the rights to a comic -- although he added that this increased comics coverage is not necessarily a trend. "It runs in spurts," he declared.

Loftis said he has seen, as NFC president, "a lot of clips about cartooning from papers around the country. And if a syndicate sends the Chronicle a package promoting a cartoon, you usually see clips from other papers."

Hannah noted that King is still able to get a good amount of media coverage for its comics, but has to work much harder and be much more creative than in past years to do so.

The syndicate, for instance, staged an extravaganza last December in which a quartet of anniversary-celebrating cartoonists were crowned "Kings of Comics." The four included Walker, whose "Beetle" comic had reached its 40th birthday; Bil Keane, creator of the 30-year-old "Family Circus"; Hank Ketcham, creator of the 40-year-old "Dennis the Menace"; and Dean Young, who does the 60-year-old "Blondie."

Media response was excellent, with AP, newspapers, Newsweek, CNN, tv stations, and others covering the New York City event.

But how much does tv feature comics and cartoonists in general?

Tv and comics have had a relationship for years, as witnessed by the specials and series based on "Peanuts," "Dennis the Menace," "Garfield" by Jim Davis of United, and so on. A "Far Side" panel was even discussed on an episode of the top-rated Cheers sitcom several months ago.

But comics and cartoonists, despite their millions of fans, have a modest tv presence at best when it comes to appearances and coverage.

"I do feel there's a lack of coverage of cartoonists on tv," stated Macino.

A spokesperson for NBC's Tonight show with Johnny Carson could recall only Cathy Guisewite as a recent comic creator guest. "It's just not our format," she said. "We do celebrities, tv stars, comedians . . . ." Her implication was that most comic cartoonists are not celebrities.

A spokesperson for ABC's Good Morning America (GMA) said she could find records of only four comic creators appearing during the past year or so -- Davis, Ketcham, "Dick Tracy" artist Dick Locher of TMS, and "Bloom County"/"Outland" creator Berke Breathed of the Washington Post Writers Group.

But she did observe, "Cartoonists are very good guests. They usually come on and sketch something or bring something with them."

Loftis agreed that some comic creators do quite well in front of a tv or live audience. "There's no one more funny than Mell Lazarus," he said, by way of example. "Cartoonists are supposed to be funny. That's what they do."

The GMA spokesperson added that comic cartoonist appearances usually coincide with the publication of a book, the release of a movie (like last year's Dick Tracy), and so on.

At CNN's Showbiz Today, comic cartoonist mentions are often tied to newsworthy events. A spokesperson said the program the past several years has covered the aforementioned "Kings of Comics" crowning, "Doonesbury" developments, the 40th anniversary of "Peanuts," the return of "The Far Side" after Gary Larson's hiatus, the collective effort to do comics on the homeless, and so on.

The spokesperson said Showbiz Today, in the past year specifically, has aired about a half-dozen segments relating to comic cartoonists. He added that these segments had good pickup elsewhere on CNN, including the cable network's Headline News.

NBC's Today has had mixed success with comic creator appearances, according to a spokesperson, who said cartoonists accustomed to working in a print medium don't always "translate well on tv." She noted that there were four cartoonists on the show recently, and "it was hard for two of them."

Indeed, some cartoonists decline invitations because they feel uncomfortable in front of a tv camera. Others may have already done a lot of media during their careers, said what they've wanted to say, and don't want to take any more time away from their work.

Ultimately, observed Schulz, media appearances don't make or break a cartoonist. "The work has to speak for itself," he stated.

Comics, added Peters, are already "ingrained in the public's consciousness" from being read every day.

Peters said he used to make periodic appearances on Today and give about 50 speeches a year, but finally decided it was taking too much time away from his cartooning.

"People began thinking of me more as a speaker than cartoonist," he stated.

Indeed, Peters reported that one reason he started "Mother Goose" in addition to his Dayton Daily News/UFS editorial cartoons was to force himself to stay home and cartoon.

Peters still makes occasional appearances ("it's always fun to be in the makeup room with, say, Barry Manilow") but there are other cartoonists such as Larson and Watterson of Universal who shun the limelight almost completely.

Salem said the media gives good coverage to his syndicate's comic creators -- several of whom one non-Universal interviewee described as "among the most newsworthy cartoonists of recent years" -- but would cover the field even more if reclusive artists made themselves available.

"Garry Trudeau never wants to be interviewed so everyone wants to interview him!" observed Peters.

"A lot of cartoonists I've met are kind of quiet people," said Nicolelis. "They're not used to the glare of publicity. Maybe one of the reasons they chose their profession is because they want to be alone."

"Many cartoonists have an innate shyness," added Lazarus. "It's part of what propels us into the business,"

Some creators, such as Peters, are more extroverted. But whether outgoing or not, many comic cartoonists are modest -- which is not always the quality tv shows are looking for in their guests.

"People who do comics are the most lovable, nicest guys in the world," said Peters. "They have no idea of how great they really are."

Then there are comic cartoonists who may not receive a lot of national media exposure, but appear on local tv talk shows, get interviewed by their hometown papers, and so on.

Nicolelis said, by way of example, that "Jump Start" creator Robb Armstrong gets a lot of press in the Philadelphia area, where he lives and is active in the community.

She added that Armstrong also receives a good deal of media attention because he is one of the few black cartoonists in syndication. This also holds true for some of the dozen or so women cartoonists in syndication.

Basically, as several interviewees and the GMA spokesperson noted, the media need a "hook" to increase the chances that a comic creator will get coverage or appear on tv.

Cartoonists will hook into plenty of tv exposure if things go according to plan for Laikin. While he can't provide exact details yet, Laikin said the nearly completed Cartooning: A Mirror of America will be a one-hour tv special as well as a 10-part series within the next year or so. The project, produced by Filmart Productions in association with the NCS, will also be available via home video and archival library collections.

Another reason why cartoonists don't receive more tv time and general publicity is that their comic characters are usually more famous than they are. Some creators chafe at this, but others say they kind of like it.

"It's enough for me that my characters are pretty well known," said Walker, noting that he enjoys walking down the street or eating at a restaurant without being stopped all the time by "Beetle Bailey" and "Hi and Lois" fans.

But Walker and others would like more media coverage of the NCS's Reuben Award for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year" -- which Peters called "the closest thing to the Oscars we cartoonists have."

"When a movie actor wins an Oscar, it's big news," said Lazarus. "When a cartoonist wins the Reuben, it isn't."

"Everybody loves cartoons just like everybody loves movies," stated Peters. "But I just don't see the Reubens written about much."

"I think it should get a lot more coverage," said Nicolelis.

"It's a very good example of the resistance newspapers have to publishing stories about comics," added Hannah.

Interviewees noted that a Reuben recipient might be the subject of a small story in a number of newspapers via AP, and that the winner's hometown paper or tv station might do a larger story.

National tv covers the Reubens even less. One rare mention was on Entertainment Tonight in 1982, when Lazarus won the coveted prize. "I was stunned," he recalled, adding that CBS sent a crew the following year when the ceremony took place in Los Angeles for the only time.

Macino said tv is crucial for an entertainment award to become well known to the public. He added that tv could never make the Reuben ceremony as prominent as the Oscars, but that it could increase its prominence quite a bit.

Lazarus said the NCS doesn't have its own "p.r. apparatus" to seek more coverage of the Reuben in any methodical way, but has made some efforts to contact the media. The result has been a certain amount of coverage, he noted, but the annual Reuben announcement is still "mostly greeted with lethargy."

Walker said the media does not consider cartoonists to be as "glamorous, beautiful, and sexy" as movie stars and other entertainment celebrities, and he added that the NCS hasn't organized the Reuben ceremony to be a glitzy show like the Oscars.

But Salem said he thought Reuben media coverage has increased during the past few years. "We've seen more and more clips in reference to it," he stated.

A Universal cartoonist has won three of the past five Reubens and will receive another May 18 because the syndicate distributes all three nominees.

Speaking of awards, several of those interviewed said there should be a Pulitzer Price for comic cartooning.

"I think it would be a great idea," declared Nicolelis. "Comic strips really are an important art form and an important part of journalism."

Lazarus added, "If they are going to honor the American newspaper, which is essentially what the Pulitzers do, they're ignoring a very important part of it."

"Considering the amount of space that most papers give to comics, it wouldn't offend me to see a Pulitzer for them," said Loftis.

"I don't know why they don't have one," commented Schulz. "A lot of great comic strips are certainly as good as, and in some cases infinitely better than, columns which get Pulitzers."

Schulz did say that being named a Commander of Arts and Letters last year in France was an honor that, for him, more than made up for not having the chance to win a Pulitzer.

Pulitzer Price Board secretary Robert Christopher said he doesn't recall receiving any formal requests for a comic cartooning category during his 10 years on the job, and added that such a Pulitzer is not likely. "I wouldn't rule it out forever and ever, but the odds are not high," he stated.

Christopher explained that "the board is very slow and very reluctant to add categories," having rejected proposals for Pulitzers in such areas as business, sports, and graphics.

There are currently 14 journalism and seven other Pulitzers, with the latest winners announced April 9.

Christopher added that some of these categories have been "redefined" over time to allow for a wider variety of potential winners. He noted, for instance, that editorial cartooning Pulitzers were awarded to the "Doonesbury" and "Bloom County" strips for their political and social commentary.

But Loftis said having comics compete against editorial cartoons for the same Pulitzer is "like comparing apples and oranges."

Christopher stated that he doesn't believe the Pulitzer board wants to honor comics "that have no purpose other than to entertain."

"In general," he continued, "the Pulitzers are journalistic awards in one sense or another. They have to do with information and educating the public or carrying some kind of message."

When asked, Christopher did acknowledge that Pulitzers in such categories as feature photography, fiction, and music might not necessarily fit the information/education/message criteria.

"If authors and playwrights can receive Pulitzers, I don't see why we're excluded," said Walker.

And Peters, who has won an editorial cartooning Pulitzer, observed that certain so-called entertainment comics do more than entertain. "What comics like |Calvin and Hobbes,' |The Far Side,' |Cathy,' and |For Better or For Worse' do is talk about the world around us and make observations that touch us and move us and weave themselves into our lives," he said.

"There's a lot of philosophy and politics in comics," added Walker, who noted that a Pulitzer would increase respect for strips and panels.

A desire to increase respect for -- and media coverage of -- comics were two of the reasons why Walker founded the Museum of Cartoon Art back in 1974. Since then, thousands upon thousands of comics fans and many journalists have visited the facility, which is scheduled to move from New York to Florida in the not-too-distant future.

This impending move, Walker noted, has received a great deal of press.

"Fortunately we have a couple of our own museums," said Lazarus. "It's very unusual for a major [non-cartoon] museum to do a cartoon exhibition."

One interviewee noted that the Walker-founded museum and the NCS-started Reubens exemplify how cartoonists, whatever the public may feel, honor and respect the artistry of their peers.

Many Americans do have plenty of respect and awe for the monetary aspects of cartooning. Original comics are being sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars -- even at posh auction houses -- and the most widely distributed and merchandised cartoonists earn huge incomes.

Several interviewees said they would prefer that Americans respect comics for artistic rather than monetary reasons, but added that anything that puts the medium in the public eye is helpful.

Perhaps the upcoming 100th anniversary of the first comic -- R.F. Outcault's "Yellow Kid," which started in 1895 -- will provide the profession with a helpful dose of publicity and status.

PHOTO : Charles M. Schulz (right) after his 1987 induction into the Museum of Cartoon Art Hall of Fame. He is with |Terry and the Pirates'/|Steve Canyon' creator Milt Caniff (1907-88), the only other living member at the time.

PHOTO : Lee Salem (left) and Garry Trudeau.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc.
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Author:Astor, David
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 13, 1991
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