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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/18/2008

The Interview: 'Candorville' Cartoonist Darrin Bell (Pt. 2)

By Michael Cavna

Comic Riffs spoke with Los Angeles-based cartoonist DARRIN BELL , who yesterday shared thoughts here about his strip, as well as the comic industry at large. Today, we continue with Part 2, in which Bell talks more in depth about -- among other things -- his "comic industry bailout" storyline this week.

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

MICHAEL CAVNA: "Candorville" this week features characters you appropriate for cameos (from Dilbert to Huey Freeman to Larry the Croc). Have you discussed your views on the industry with any of their creators? And also: Did you get permission to appropriate their characters?

DARRIN BELL: Oops. Permission? So many cartoonists use other people's characters constantly, so I forgot about the whole concept of asking permission. Oh well, if they do sue me, I just hope they spell my name right. It's spelled "W-I-L-E-Y ..... M-I-L-L-E-R."

Bell satirizes how he believes some comics editors view strips by minority cartoonists. (WPWG) Enlarge Comic

Cartoonists talk about this stuff all the time, mostly on Internet discussion forums like the one I run, at . My views on the industry are mild compared to some of those [guys]. Every time I visit a cartoon site and see how another half dozen editorial cartoonists have been escorted to their newspaper's exit by armed guards, I thank God I got out of that line of work, and then I remember, we're probably next. Luckily, I was always pretty good with the lemonade stands as a kid, so I've got something to fall back on.

MC: How much of this week's "bailout" storyline is pure tongue-in-cheek spoofing, and to what degree do you intend this to be true satirical commentary?
DB: About 100 percent of it is tongue-in-cheek, and about 100 percent is true satirical commentary. They go hand in hand, like newspapers and pink slips.

MC: In the "Alan Salem" strip [today], this could be read like a satirical take on some real-life syndicate execs. Is that intended? And some cartoonists have said they feel "ghetto-ized" and unfairly labeled as strictly "minority cartoonists" whose strips fill requisite industry slots. What's your take on this?

DB: It's not the syndicates that are the problem. The syndicates are trying. The problem is the newspaper editors. Syndicates offer maybe a dozen comics featuring minority characters, and a few hundred featuring Caucasian characters. When editors look at those hundreds of Caucasian-starring features, they think in terms of many different categories.

If a paper's approached at the same time with "Zits," "For Better or For Worse," and "Luann," there's a good chance they'll buy all three, because they'll be seen as occupying different categories. All are family strips, but "Zits" is told from a teenage boy's perspective. "Luann's" told from a teenage girl's perspective. "For Better or For Worse" is told mostly from a middle-aged woman's perspective. Editors will rightly see those as three distinct categories.

Now, let's say syndicates approach that same editor with "Candorville," "Herb & Jamaal," and "Jump Start." Instead of seeing [their] categories, that editor, much of the time, simply sees them all as "black strips." And instead of letting "Curtis," for instance, compete against family strips featuring white characters, they'll have Curtis compete against "Jump Start." Even if a newspaper has 20 slots for comics, so-called "black strips" are competing mostly against each other for only one or two slots (and we're not even talking about all the papers that simply won't buy any strips featuring minorities, because they don't think their readers will identify with them). Put another way: It makes as much sense as if a syndicate tried to sell an editor "For Better or For Worse," and that editor responded by saying: "No thanks, we've already got Doonesbury, so we don't need another white strip."

MC: So if tomorrow you were made emperor of a comics syndicate or publisher of a newspaper, what are some of the industry changes you might make in your "first 100 days"? What would your priorities for reform be?

Other than what I've already said above? I'd have to be appointed emperor of the United States so I could reverse the Telecommunications Act Clinton signed into law and break up the virtual monopolies it created, launch antitrust investigations against newsprint manufacturers, and provide government start-up assistance for people looking to turn one-newspaper towns into two-paper towns. I'd invest whatever was needed to bring "digital paper" to the market, which just might combine everything that's good about a newspaper with the convenience of the Internet sites. There would be unlimited space for comics with digital paper.

I'd also hire someone to squirt editors in the face with water every time they say, "We've already got a black strip."

MC: You've already found some ways to satirize President-elect Obama's transition. With the inauguration less than 40 days away, what are your thoughts on (a) this historic moment; (b) how you might begin to satirize the new administration?
DB: When the House ratified the Emancipation Proclamation, there was reportedly a lot of hugging, crying and hope in the room. One representative remarked later that at that moment, he felt like he was living in a new country. I think that's what happened again the night of November 5.

I don't think it's possible to minimize the effect a glass ceiling has on a people. Even when I was a kid, with Bill Cosby on TV and Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, we KNEW with every fiber of our being that the country didn't see black people as being fit to lead it. "Do you think we'll ever see a black president?" was a question kids asked on schoolyards, and even at that age, it was usually asked rhetorically. As I was driving home from my grandfather's house on election night, I was struck with the thought that no kid, anywhere, is ever going to ask that question again. That question, and the unspoken defeat and alienation that accompanied it, belongs only to history now.

The vestiges of that history are still with us and probably will be for another couple generations. But a lot more minorities have a real sense of equal ownership of this country today than they did on November 4. And a lot of people -- not all, but enough -- who thought the sky would fall if this ever came to pass are now getting over that irrational fear. No child born today will ever truly believe his race can prevent him from doing whatever he wants to do. Because of what we did on November 4, we're living in a new country.

And to me, that's a country filled with fodder for satire. First, there's the dramatic irony. It's a country that's changed in a fundamental way but is still plagued by a shrinking number of people who don't recognize it. Then there's the inevitable disappointment everyone's going to feel as soon as Obama violates whatever they believed his "change" mantra to mean.

Beyond that, it's too early to tell, but everyone's got flaws. Some fundamental flaw in the Obama administration is going to present itself, probably sooner rather than later, and it'll come to define his presidency and provide me with an overarching theme to hit on. Carter was a wimp, Reagan was a mad cowboy, Bush 1 was another wimp, Clinton was a hedonist, Bush Jr. was an incompetent liar, Obama is ..... ? We'll find out.

By Michael Cavna  | December 18, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Just want to say that I really love both C'ville and Rudy Park. My big complaint: the WaPo prints C'Ville on the crease and they often have text at the top & bottom of the panel. If I don't remember to re-crease the paper, I miss the half the joke.

Posted by: MAL9000 | December 18, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

when I was a kid, Bill Cosby was on RECORDS! We loved his comedy "back then".

Posted by: MSchafer | December 22, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

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