Nearly 100 cartoonists devoted their comic strip this Sunday to the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (King Features Syndicate)Link
A panel from Sunday's "Hi and Lois." (Brian Walker / King Features Syndicate)Link
A panel from Sunday's "Arctic Circle." (Alex Hallatt / King Features Syndicate)Link
A panel from Sunday's "Mutts" cartoon. (Patrick McDonnell / King Features Syndicate)Link
A panel from Sunday's "Zits." (Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman / King Features Syndicate)Link
A few panels from Sunday's "Hagar the Horrible" strip. (Chris Browne / King Features Syndicate)Link
A panel from Sunday's "The Family Circus." (Jeff and Bil Keane / King Features Syndicate)Link
An image from Sunday's "Hi and Lois." (Brian Walker / King Features Syndicate)Link
Sept. 11 seems an unlikely topic for the newspaper funny pages, but cartoonist Brian Walker might be considered an expert in finding the positive.
Walker, who writes the syndicated strip “Hi and Lois,” was one of nearly 100 cartoonists challenged with dedicating Sunday’s comics to the victims and heroes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in honor of the tragedy’s 10th anniversary.
“We’re reductionists,” Walker said. “We take something that’s big to the point of almost being overwhelming. Like, you think about 9/11 and everything it’s meant, and everything that’s happened since then, and it’s just too much to deal with, really. How do you take that and put it into four panels or six panels?”
“Blondie,” Wizard of Id” and “Doonesbury” are among 93 strips from King Features Syndicate, Creators Syndicate, Tribune Media Services, Universal Press Syndicate and Washington Post Writers Group that rallied in the effort to fill Sunday’s funny pages with memorial cartoons.
Many cartoonists participated in a similar tribute soon after the attacks during Thanksgiving 2001. The anniversary of the tragedy seemed an appropriate time for cartoonists to again offer “solidarity, solace and sympathy,” said Brendan Burford, comics editor for King Features Syndicate, which helped organize the effort.
“Most comics are there to make you laugh, but some of them go with a little bit of a deeper message,” Burford said. “The bottom line is that people generally turn to them for some sort of reflection. They either see themselves in them, or they see someone they know in them. It’s sort of a daily conversation that readers have with them. A topic like this, a 10-year remembrance of 9/11, I think is definitely in step with that conversation that the cartoonists have with their readers on an everyday basis. It’s just a little deeper than usual, that’s all.”
Deeper, and also more difficult, especially for those lighter, family-focused strips like Walker’s.
“It was pretty challenging to come up with something that isn’t just sad or depressing or frightening or anything,” Walker said. “It’s our job to do the opposite. We can’t make people laugh every day, but hopefully we can brighten up their day a little, but with some insight or observation or something. So to just remind people of this tragic event — how do you do that?”
Walker, who also works on his father Mort Walker’s strip “Beetle Bailey,” which is set in a fictional U.S. Army post, said many cartoonists, including his father, turned to such imagery as the burning towers, flags and the Statue of Liberty.
“I looked at it and I said, ‘God, that just upsets me to look at that,’ ” Brian Walker said. “But that seems appropriate for ‘Beetle Bailey,’ because it is a military strip, and part of it is sort of a display of patriotism or support for the country or the people that go fight for the country.… We can’t have a family looking out a window and seeing that. That would just be horrible.”
Walker said he and artist Chance Browne found their solution in the official name for the anniversary — a National Day of Service and Remembrance.
“We tried to do something like hats off to the heroes, and heroes wear many hats, and the whole idea of the symbolic nature of the police hat and the fire hat, and the nurse’s hat, and the different people that were the first responders that were there helping immediately and have helped since,” Walker said. “You’re not only supposed to remember the heroes that responded to the initial tragedy, but also to dedicate yourself to some kind of service.… So that’s what Lois says at the end of ours, ‘And remember to volunteer.’ ”
Burford said cartoonists were advised to “stay within the DNA” of their strips.
“Some are really zany and silly, some are a little more touching, a little more reflecting,” Burford said.
For example, Mike Peters’ “Mother Goose & Grimm” depicts Grimm, the dog, offering up a fire hydrant to a group of firefighters instead of doing what a dog would normally do to a fire hydrant, Burford said.
And “Zits,” by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, shows Jeremy, the teenager, wrapped up in his parents’ arms.
“They’re hugging him, and he’s sitting there with his eyes closed, going ‘Do we have to go through this every 9/11?’ ” Walker said, describing the comic. “I remember that feeling after 9/11. You look at your kids, and you look at your family, and you just say, ‘God, we’re so lucky to be alive.’ … It was just such a brilliant solution because that’s what that strip is about.”
Sept. 11 is not the first time North American cartoonists have rallied for a cause, said Walker, who is also a cartoon historian and author of “The Comics – The Complete Collection.”
In 1918, during World War I, cartoonists devoted their strips to selling war bonds, he said. And during World War II, many comic characters enlisted. Billy DeBeck’s Snuffy Smith joined the Army, and Barney Google joined the Navy. Popeye became a “spokescharacter” for the Navy. Milton Caniff created a new character — bombshell Miss Lace — meant to remind the troops of what they were fighting for. And on the cartoon home front, Little Orphan Annie collected scrap metal, while Al Capp’s Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner lobbied readers to buy war bonds.
In 1985, more than 175 cartoonists participated in the Thanksgiving Day hunger project, back in the era of “We Are the World” and Hands Across America. More recently, the comics pages created Earth Day-themed comics in 2008 and painted the pages pink for Breast Cancer Awareness last year.
Of course, graphic novels and comic books have also explored the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in their pages. Captain America found himself facing the ruins of the World Trade Center in John Ney Rieber and John Cassaday’s “Captain America Volume 1: The New Deal.” “Maus” author Art Spiegelman’s intensely personal and political book “In the Shadow of No Towers” drew from his own experience in Manhattan during the attacks. And Frank Miller’s violent graphic novel about terrorism, “Holy Terror,” hits shelves later this month.
But comic strips are a fundamentally different medium from comic books; cartoonists are charged with distilling in a few panels what graphic novel authors can explore in an entire book.
“Cartoons are made to be read in the newspaper, and they’re made to read quickly, so you gotta get your message out there very efficiently,” Walker said.
He said he hopes Sunday’s comics pages will provide a simple yet touching tribute to the Sept. 11 anniversary in the midst of what is sure to be a media deluge of memorial coverage.
“Cartoonists have a way of distilling things down to their essence,” Walker said. “I think that’s why they’ve been around so long and people love them so much. They can make the point and do it not only putting the idea across with the words, but graphically with images. You don’t have to watch a three-hour television special to get the message. It only takes a couple of seconds to read a comic strip. And that’s a good thing.”
– Noelene Clark
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