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Posted at 12:35 PM ET, 12/17/2008

The Interview: 'Candorville' Cartoonist Darrin Bell

By Michael Cavna

When Los Angeles-based cartoonist DARRIN BELL takes aim at a comic target, it's refreshingly difficult to predict just where he'll take you in his strip "Candorville." One week, the ghost of George Carlin is lecturing on humor and society; weeks later, Anderson Cooper -- posing in tighty-whities -- is leading an "Apocalypse Now"-like mission to retrieve John McCain's principles.

Cartoonist Darrin Bell and his cast of characters. (Courtesy of Darrin Bell/WPWG.)Enlarge Comic

Bell, reportedly the first African American cartoonist to have two strips syndicated concurrently (he also draws "Rudy Park"), blends the topical humor and the deeper world of his characters. This allows him to comment on several levels, often at once.

This week, we caught up with Bell to talk newspapers, politics and his own brand of candor. Today, we run Part 1 of this interview; look for Part 2 tomorrow.

MICHAEL CAVNA: Do you strive to be edgy in "Candorville" or is that simply a product of your having a daily platform, a canvas-meets-soapbox on which to create and share your voice?
DARRIN BELL: I was a latchkey kid, practically raised by Norman Lear and Bill Cosby. The shows I watched as a kid raised uncomfortable issues and taught me to laugh at them -- to not take them too seriously, and to not automatically accept other people's arbitrary taboos and sacred cows. My first instinct when I see a sacred cow is to reach for the barbecue sauce.
I don't try to be edgy. I just try to say what's on my mind, and when things don't make sense to me, I question them. If that seems edgy, I think that's largely because the medium is stuck in the 1950s, catering to the old-at-heart who just want "edgy" comics to get off their lawn. Catering to that steadily shrinking demographic doesn't strike me as a great business model if growth is what you're after.
But what do I know?

MC: This week, your strip amusingly uses the bailout meetings in Washington to spoof, if not directly comment on, current challenges in the comics industry. How do you size up the comic-strip business right now?

DB: Newspapers are dying, largely because of the skyrocketing cost of newsprint and other economic pressures, but also because of self-inflicted wounds. Papers let themselves be snapped up in a great journalistic fire sale and merged into huge conglomerates. When has there ever been a corporate merger that didn't eventually result in job losses?

Distant corporate offices have eviscerated newsrooms across the country. It's been a massacre. If the corporations thought readers wouldn't notice the steady increase in wire articles, the steady closures of foreign bureaus and the increasing lack of local coverage and local autonomy, they were delusional. Not a week goes by that my grandfather doesn't complain about how his local paper is a shadow of its former self. He's been a loyal newspaper reader for decades. It's been part of his daily routine for 80-plus years. Yet the only reason he continues to subscribe is to get "Candorville."

DB (Continued): Cartoonists have suffered along with reporters and columnists. Papers that once ran four pages of comics now run only a handful of strips. Opinion pages have been jettisoning their editorial cartoonists. All of this is counterproductive. The funny pictures are what draw younger generations into the paper. The political comic strips and the editorial cartoons are what teach those younger generations to become interested in the news and politics, which eventually leads to their reading the rest of the paper. That's how it's worked since papers first began running cartoons. That's what today's papers have clearly forgotten.

Too many of them look at the comics page and don't see it as the gateway drug to the rest of the paper. Instead, they just see the cost of the newsprint, the cost of the features, the time and energy they'd have to "waste" answering angry calls and e-mails from readers every time they add or lose a strip .... and they start to sharpen their axes. Too many of them don't seem to realize or care that a lot of people like to be outraged, and that angry readers are still readers, even if they're reading just to find something to complain about. They're cutting off their noses to spite their faces, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and other assorted metaphors.

Papers are competing with the Internet, a place where people can get news customized to their desires. ... The papers only have two advantages: local and in-depth reporting, and the one thing most news sites don't offer RSS feeds for: comics. The comics page is still what sets them apart from sites like Politico, Slate, Huffington Post and online news aggregators like Drudge and Google News. People still like to spread out the inky newsprint and see a field of artwork, a sea of comics they can swim through. That sensory experience is impossible on the Internet; but, thanks to short-sighted newspapers, it's becoming impossible in papers as well. You'd think newspapers would exploit that one great advantage instead of pruning themselves into redundancy.

MC: Berkeley Breathed recently told Comic Riffs that the way of the widely read syndicated comic strip is passing us by. Do you think it's still possible for a relatively new-to-the-scene syndicated cartoonist to achieve mass appeal -- be it in print or online?
DB: It's possible, not probable. All it would take is for one major newspaper to devote more resources to the comics page, run more comics, run them larger and exploit the page the way [William Randolph] Hearst used to. If it proved successful for that paper, others would emulate it, and we'd have a new day in the comics industry.

And if digital paper ever becomes commonplace, the cost of newsprint won't be a barrier anymore, and we'll probably see more features being restored to the paper. Barring that kind of change in technology or that kind of change in mentality on the part of editors and publishers, it's not going to be easy for any new strip to reach critical mass and wind up in 1,000 papers or more.

As it stands, too many papers are retrenching, trying to hold on to their proven, if dwindling, readership by offering them the comics they read as a kid, even if those comics are in reruns. And it's not going to happen online, either. The Internet, by design, creates niches, not mass markets. There are thousands of webcomics out there. A few are wildly successful, but they still don't have anywhere near the readership of "Blondie" or "Garfield."

TOMORROW: Part 2 of our interview with Darrin Bell.

By Michael Cavna  | December 17, 2008; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Right on, Mr Bell, exactly what I said last month. The comic page is what builds readership in young people. And once you have the newspaper habit, you just gotta have it delivered at home or buying a local paper when traveling. We are losing that. Kids aren't reading the funnies.

Posted by: judyohr | December 17, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

When the New York City newspaper deliverymen went on strike in 1945, NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia went on the radio to read aloud the comics strips like "Dick Tracy" and "Little Orphan Annie", so that kids wouldn't be denied their beloved stories. Some things in life are just too important to do without.

Posted by: seismic-2 | December 17, 2008 8:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree with DB's comments about a return to yellow journalism in order to boost sales of newspapers, but this time there should be a push to entice female comics enthusiasts. The three panels and a gag format is geared toward men. Put in larger, more illustrative comics and watch a new era of "pink journalism" emerge and boost newspaper sales.

Posted by: larrybush | December 17, 2008 9:14 PM | Report abuse

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