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Posted at 2:05 PM ET, 11/12/2009

The comic strip that ruined a friendship, rankled a newspaper and landed in court. And that was BEFORE being launched.

By Michael Cavna

NOTE: With some stories, the "full disclosure" clause cannot wait till the end, like some sort of buried, "oh-by-the-way" afterthought. In this case, with this story, I'm obligated to disclose up top that I know or have known most all the principals -- either worked with them or for them. That is because the epicenter of this legal case lies along a fault line (so to speak) -- a low-lying San Diego valley -- where sits a former employer of mine, the Union-Tribune. So as you might imagine, my attention has been rapt. Yours just might be, too.

It's not often that a single comic strip involves two prominent political cartoonists, let alone an unsavory court case. One of the cartoonists, Steve Breen, is the Union-Tribune's current Pulitzer-winning artist; the other, Steve Kelley, is the Union-Tribune's former longtime editorial cartoonist, now drawing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

This case is compelling partly because it serves as a cautionary tale, for whenever two creators partner up on any project. An artistic partnership might meld and bloom relatively seamlessly -- similar to how "Zits" co-creator Jerry Scott described his collaboration with Jim Borgman (speaking to Comic Riffs earlier this year). On the other end of the spectrum, of course, a partnership can dissolve into creative differences, divergent visions, financial squabbles or flat-out rancor.

As Breen said to Comic Riffs yesterday, about his post-collaboration falling-out with Kelley: "I wish Steve Kelley all the best and hope we can be on better terms again one day. I'm not one to hold grudges."

Steve Breen: "I felt totally blindsided [by Steve Kelley's lawsuit]. We exchanged pleasantries during my daylong deposition, but that was it."

But first, before we hear more from Breen on this whole cartoon kerfuffle involving two very talented men, let's begin at the beginning:

By all accounts, Kelley was fired from the Union-Tribune eight years ago -- in a very public dispute -- that centered on a cartoon that depicted teens wearing "low-riding" jeans. As in cartoon butt-cleavage. (The art was later featured in David Wallis's book "Killed Cartoons," a compendium of "censored" cartoons.) Kelley has said he was shown the door after being accused of trying to "sneak" in the offending cartoon.

So long story short, in the intervening years: 1. Breen replaces Kelley at the Union-Tribune; 2. Kelley eventually approaches Breen about collaborating on a comic strip; 3. the Union-Tribune cartoonists past and present get far enough along on the comic strip "Dustin" that at least one syndicate is approached; and 4. the Union-Tribune isn't particularly pleased with this collaboration, Breen says.

That brings us up to speed to a year ago, when Kelley sues the newspaper (officially, the Copley Press Inc.), accusing top editors of trying to get Breen to quit the strip-in-progress. According to the Voice of San Diego last November, Union-Tribune lawyers denied "any wrongdoing" and asked "a Superior Court judge to throw out the suit."

Two weeks ago -- nearly a year later -- that is precisely what happened: A San Diego Superior Court judge threw out the suit.

According to the Voice of San Diego on Monday, Judge Jay M. Bloom determined that Kelley hadn't "produced evidence of any unfair or unlawful business practice" by the newspaper. The news site reported: "Even if its officials had made derisive comments about Kelley's loyalty and team spirit, as alleged in the suit, they were merely opinion, Bloom ruled."

Of the ruling, Breen said to Comic Riffs yesterday: "I felt pretty confident we'd [win] because there was no evidence the U-T forced me to stop the strip. It just didn't happen. I pulled out for several reasons: the workload; "Dustin" didn't have the goods to get into enough papers to make splitting the money worthwhile; my employer was not crazy that I was working with Steve Kelley; and I don't like doing things that upset my employer. It's that simple."

So did Breen -- who is also creator of the United Media strip "Grand Avenue" -- feel completely stuck in the middle, feeling pressure in the fissure between Kelley and the Union-Tribune?

"That's the understatement of the year," he says.

Now, in the wake of the ruling, Breen says: "I'm glad the suit has been dismissed because it was a lot of stress on my wife and me, not to mention my editors, Karin [Winner] and Bill [Osborne]."

And how has his relationship with Kelley changed? "It's very sad. One weekend we were friends having brunch and laughing, and then the next, I get a call from my editor that Steve is suing the paper and trying to make me testify against the U-T. I felt totally blindsided. We exchanged pleasantries during my daylong deposition, but that was it."

According to the Voice of San Diego, Kelley's lawyer, Bob Gaglione, said that he plans to ask the judge to reconsider the ruling and that an appeal is possible. Kelley also said that "Dustin" will be launched by King Features Syndicate in January, the news site reported.

So certainly, Breen has forfeited his entire stake in the strip, which reportedly will now be co-created by Jeff Parker? "I do forfeit any stake," confirmed Breen, adding: "Steve and I had differences of opinion on charm and character development, but the core concept of the main character's working different jobs is solid and had lots of potential."

(Note: As of press time, neither Kelley nor the Union-Tribune had returned calls or e-mails seeking comment.)

Breen discussing his work at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con:


THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: Steve Breen & the art of political caricature.

By Michael Cavna  | November 12, 2009; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  General, Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  | Tags:  Steve Breen; Steve Kelley; San Diego Union-Tribune; Dustin; Jeff Parker  
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A long time ago, I was dismayed at the big step downwards (newspaper-wise) when I moved from D.C. to L.A. I never realized just how good the L.A. Times was, until I later arrived in San Diego, and had to suffer with the Union-Tribune. It's been a long time since I left San Diego, but based on my experience back then, I would probably go online for the Post or New York Times before I would read any of the local papers.

Posted by: kilby | November 12, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

we were recently on vacation in Carlsbad, CA, about a half-hour north of San Diego. The first night, we bought the UT. The second night and all subsequent nights we bought the local Carlsbad paper. Why? Because the UT had very little to offer in the way of content, and the local paper had more comics!!

Posted by: 2old2readcomics | November 13, 2009 2:10 AM | Report abuse

Doesn't King already do Zits? Sounds like the same strip.

Posted by: greasypores | November 13, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

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