Most of the time, readers turn to newspaper comics for a laugh. But this week, 93 comic strips in newspapers worldwide will mark a somber affair - the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The trick here is how to entertain and commemorate in a funny medium without trivializing one of the defining events of modern history.
Brendan Burford is the comics’ editor for King Features Syndicate which carries many of the strips involved. He said that the cartoonists have a unique relationship with their readers, and that makes the comics a special vehicle for remembering the 9/11 anniversary.
“Readers probably sense that the cartoonist is someone who they identify with, and someone who speaks to them and shares a certain common sensibility,” he said. “And the comics are every day, and that kind of reliability creates a wonderful relationship between the reader and the cartoonist.”
Jim Toomey draws the cartoon Shermans Lagoon about a Great White shark’s adventures in the oceans. He has tackled serious subjects before - including plastic pollution in the oceans and cutting the fins off sharks. But to do the 9/11 cartoons, he had to remove his characters from their normal zany, funny world.
“With the other serious topics - shark finning and plastic pollution - it was easy because you really can still make those things funny,” he said. “You know there’s a lot of natural tragedy in those things, but with the human tragedy if you try to make fun of that, you find you’ve gone too far pretty quickly,” he added.
Brian Walker writes the family oriented strip Hi and Lois with artist Chance Brown. Both are second-generation cartoonists - Walker is the son of Mort Walker, the author of the long-running strip Beetle Bailey. Brown’s father, Dick Brown, drew Hi and Lois with Mort Walker starting back in the 1950s. Brian Walker says because his work is what he called a “warm, friendly, family strip” dealing with a tragic subject was especially difficult.
“It’s not our job to make anybody sad or depressed or upset,” he said. “You know we’re trying to - if not make people laugh every day, at least to bring a little sunshine into their life,” Walker said.
Walker says that because readers identify so much with his characters, having the family mourn or cry over 9/11 didn’t seem appropriate. Walker and Brown decided on a more positive take after the attacks.
“We went for a kind of more, upbeat, and positive ‘let’s remember the heroes’ and the people that - the first responders who went in there and helped clean it up and have helped protect us ever since,” he said. “So we took a more upbeat approach to it. It seemed appropriate for our strip,” he added.
For Walker - who lives in suburban Connecticut near New York City - doing a cartoon that remembers 9/11 was personally painful. He said there were people in his town that did not come home on September 11, 2001. He also went to the rubble of the destroyed World Trade Center and says it was something he will never forget.
In addition to appearing in the newspapers, the comic strips will be displayed in four museums across the United States - the Newseum in Washington, the Toonseum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, and the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.
Joe Wos is the curator of the Toonseum in Pittsburgh. He says the comic strip artists have a special opportunity to contribute to national healing in a lasting way.
“Think about how cartoons affect our daily lives,” he said. “I bet you on every refrigerator, every university door, your office desk you have some cartoon that is clipped out and sitting there as a reminder of something important to you. Whether it made you laugh or made you smile or made you think, cartoons have that power.”
Andrew Farago is the curator of the Cartoon Art Musuem in San Francisco - the only museum that is not geographically close to the site of one of the attacks. He says that the comics he has seen include emotions of all types from sadness to humor to thoughtfulness.
“We’ve got some tear-jerkers; we’ve got some that are just comedic, probably the same level of comedy and humor that they would have on any given Sunday,” he said. “Cartoonists are in their own way a typical cross-section of humanity,” he added.
Creators Syndicate - which publishes "Andy Capp", "Archie", "B.C.", and "Rugrats" - Universal Press Syndicate, which publishes "Doonesbury", "Garfield", "Non- sequitur" and "Tank McNamara" - and the Washington Post Writers group - publishers of "Home and Away", "Little Dog Lost", "Watch Your Head" and "Barney and Clyde" will also participate in “Cartoonists remember 9/11.” After publication, all the comics will be available on the website, cartoonistsremember911.com.
All those interviewed for this report said the scope of the human tragedy involved made remembering 9/11 in a cartoon especially difficult. Perhaps after 10 years, their art can help people begin to do "what Earl", the dog featured in the strip Mutts says to his owner, Ozzie: “HEAL.”