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Dragging Drabble through the mud

Cartoons continue to be casualties of newspaper cost-cutting



Kevin Fagan was the youngest syndicated cartoonist in the country when he introduced the comic strip Drabble in 1979; the Sun-Times quickly picked it up and I've been reading it ever since. For years Drabble anchored the second of the Sun-Times's three pages of comics and it was the only strip on that page I was loyal to. But a month ago it disappeared.

When Drabble was new the tabloid pages of the Sun-Times were 14.5 inches long; today they are 11. Papers everywhere have shrunk their borders to save on newsprint costs—the Tribune is narrower than it used to be, the Reader is stubbier. A month ago, the Sun-Times chopped off an inch and a half and turned overnight into an oversize postage stamp. Technology as well as economics drove this change: to save money, the Sun-Times shifted production to the Tribune's Freedom Center, putting itself at the mercy of the Tribune's printing presses. By necessity it converted to a page as long as the Tribune page is wide, and the shorter page meant a comic strip on each page had to disappear. One of those strips is Drabble.

I e-mailed features editor Amanda Barrett asking what gives, and an answer came from on high. "One of the touchiest areas of the paper is the comics section," publisher John Barron wrote me. "As I'm sure every paper would report, if you change anything there . . . you will get calls. Lots of calls. Far more calls than on any other thing you do. It can be inhibiting to make a move. Back in the 90s, I killed the ancient comic Belvedere (about a distressingly know-it-all pooch) and got 73 calls and letters."

Barron went on, "Looking at a variety of factors (yes, the comics demand scrutiny and strategy), we had to make several difficult choices. Drabble was among the comics we eliminated. We don't like to take anything away, but when you need to make changes or want to introduce something new . . . something has to give. . . . The calls came in, but maybe not as many as you might have imagined."

But why Drabble? I wrote back.

"Editing the comics page—and it is editing—is more art than science," replied Barron, trying to be a little bit informative even if he didn't intend to answer my question. "We try to have a mix of the old and the new, stuff that will appeal to the old and the young, strips that have different sensibilities and senses of humor, comics with male and female and family points of view, and, of course, a proper mix of people and animals."

Did the Sun-Times's powers-that-be calculate along these lines: we have a better adolescent-centered family strip in Luann. We don't need Drabble? Maybe—though to a faithful reader of both strips (me) the two are miles apart. Barron and I had done this dance before. Ten years ago, when he was the features editor, the Sun-Times dropped Joe Martin's Willy 'n Ethel. "We felt that Willy 'n Ethel had run its course," Barron told me then. "It is essentially a one-joke strip that is similar to others we already carry."

In fact, Willy 'n Ethel was nothing like any of them. In the long history of newspaper funnies that milk matrimony for laughs, it might have owed something or other to Andy Capp and nothing whatsoever to Hi and Lois or Blondie. "Barron was wrong," I announced, turning my Reader column into a bully pulpit. "It is, by Martin's count, a three-joke strip: the beer joke, the humongous sister joke, and the can't-hold-a-job joke. Then there's the running joke of Willy, who has lived a useless life, believing there's a book in it. Besides, Martin simply draws funny."

Barron replaced one pair of sweethearts with another, but Abby and Len of Terry and Patty LaBan's Edge City resembled Willy and Ethel not in the slightest. By now I'm willing to concede Edge City its merits, though it took me until at least until mid-decade to acknowledge them: Abby and Len lead recognizable white-collar lives and break important ground by being Jewish. But the LaBans are neither cruel nor absurdist. And they don't draw funny.

Kevin Fagan does. And though it is accurate enough to describe Drabble, as its syndicate does, as a "lighthearted family strip," it is important to remember than Norman Drabble is a moron and his sometimes girlfriend Wendy is poker-faced evil. The United Media syndicate signed Fagan on the strength of a cartoon he'd been drawing for his college paper in Sacramento about a nerdy, bearded college student. The syndicate wanted a similar but new character with a name it could copyright. "That's when we came up with Drabble," Fagan told me. "I thought, 'Drabble is kind of a catchy name—I wonder if it's a word.' And I looked it up in the dictionary and it says 'to wade through mud,' and I thought, 'that sort of fits my character—he's wading through the mud of life.'"

Said Fagan, "When the strip started I was Norman Drabble. There was no difference between him and me."

After 32 years of Norman's earnest mopery, Fagan recently gave his hero reason to wonder if life was finally breaking his way. Even as Wendy announced she'd decided to start calling him "Turkey burger," Norman awakened to the possibility that Norma, the girl he'd been (literally) bumping into for months, might actually be just about perfect for him. Trouble was, he kept forgetting to ask for her phone number. But how long could he go on being so stupid? Or to put it another way, how long could Fagan milk that gag? Matters would surely proceed, and any fan of Norman Drabble had his fingers crossed. But that's when the Sun-Times dropped the strip.

"I've known for about a year what's going to happen here," said Fagan, who would tell me no more about Norman and Norma except to reflect that their fate together is limited only by his imagination. "A cartoonist can do anything he wants to in his strip," he said. "There aren't a lot of constraints, unless you put them there yourself. There's that line in Garfield, 'I hate Mondays,' but I really do like Mondays and sitting in my Angel seats with a note pad doodling and scribbling, letting my mind wander." Fagan lives in Orange County, California, and when the local Angels remodeled their baseball park his wife, Cristi, brought home a couple of the old seats.

"After a while I like to get out of the house. What I usually do is go to a nearby fast-food restaurant and sit there with a diet lemonade or something, and continue doodling. When you're a grown man sitting by yourself in a restaurant drawing funny pictures, most people are very happy to leave you alone."

Fagan said Drabble's in about 200 papers. "In the last couple of years it's taken a bit of a hit, but it's been very consistent over the years. It's a decent living, but I'm not up there with the all-time biggies, who live in mansions and whatnot. But it has enabled me to stay home and raise my kids. So it's been a very nice life." At this point he supposes his alter ego is no longer Norman but rather his doughnut-craving father Ralph Drabble, who at different points in his law enforcement career has been a mall cop and a retirement village gendarme and recently became an equally fierce airport screener.

Maybe you need to raise a ruckus, I told Fagan.

"Well, you know, it's not my nature," he said. But he noted that losing the Sun-Times is "very alarming and very scary in this day and age. Chicago has been my client since I started. I'm not suggesting it's not devastating because it is. I've just got to hope readers will make their voices heard and the Sun-Times will change their mind."

Fagan said he found out the Sun-Times had dropped him when he got e-mail from readers saying it was gone. He didn't hear from the Sun-Times directly, but then that's not how the business works—papers give syndicates 30 days' notice, and when the time's up they formally cancel. If Fagan's syndicate, now called Universal Uclick, got an explanation from the Sun-Times about why Drabble was history, it didn't tell Fagan.

I didn't tell him what Barron had written me about his "resolve" in standing up to angry readers, and about there not being as many angry readers as he'd expected. I did say that Barron had tried to mollify me by letting me know I could go on reading Drabble online.

"I've always thought it was more fun to read comic strips in the newspaper than the Internet, and I hope a lot of our readers in Chicago agree," said Fagan. "It's a kick in the gut—there are no two ways about it."

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