Comics tackle tough social, economic issues

Tuesday , March 06, 2012 - 10:53 AM

Matt Moore

PHILADELPHIA-- There are wedding bells in Riverdale, but it's not Archie and Betty or Veronica. It's Army Lt. Kevin Keller and the physical therapist who helped him overcome his war wound -- Clay Walker.

Meanwhile, in the comics pages, Gil is an 8-year-old boy being raised by his divorced factory-working mom, and Dustin is 23 and living at home, unable to find a job after graduating from college.

Comics have always been a portal for escapism and fantasy but have also labored to reflect a contemporary climate, a process that shows no signs of slowing whether it involves super villains, breast cancer or other complicated realities of modern life.

Writers and artists fold real-world events into their fictional worlds, blending boundaries to make readers not just laugh and escape, but also reflect and think.

"Comics have always been a reflection of our world," said Brendan Burford, comics editor at King Features Syndicate in New York. "People want to see a reflection and, chances are, if the reflection is something that rings through with their world, their life, their family and their friends, they can relate and laugh."

The title character in "Gil" is an elementary school student, slightly portly and always picked last for sports, who lives with his divorced mom, who works in a factory. He would love a nuclear family because it would mean he'd have superpowers.

"Growing up in a single-parent family during America's first 'Great Recession' wasn't always easy, but I look back on my formative years fondly," said cartoonist Norm Feuti, who debuted "Gil" in January and has based it, partly, on his own experiences.

He noted that with the national divorce rate rising, there are parents and kids who can probably relate to his title character, an 8-year-old quintessential underdog who lacks the latest toys or electronic gadgets.



"Gil is a very personal comic to me," Feuti said. "It's a celebration of the resiliency and indefatigable spirit of childhood."

In another strip, Dustin has finished college but is living with his parents, unable to find a significant job or afford his own apartment, experiences not uncommon among many recent graduates.

"It's humor therapy for people," said Steve Kelly, who, along with fellow cartoonist Jeff Parker, created "Dustin" in 2010 and has seen it expand to some 300 newspapers since then. "If you were to sit at home and you were unemployed and you thought you were the only one, that would be a lot more difficult to deal with."

But seeing it in the comic strips, or in the comic books, may soften the blow, he said.

"In these tough economic times, there are a lot of people sitting in their parents' houses and they think you're making fun of them and, honest to God, we're not," Kelly said. "I've been unemployed -- worked at the newspaper in San Diego, got fired and was unemployed for a year. I know how you can feel isolated and depressed and you wonder what the future hold."

Sometimes, the topics can be rife with politics or challenge different social values.

In Riverdale, longtime home of the high school hijinks of Archie, Betty, Veronica and others, issues ranging from gay marriage to cancer are finding new readers and story lines, bringing up topics not typically found in the funny pages.

A story about the wedding of Army Lt. Kevin Keller and the physical therapist who helped him overcome his war wound sold out its print run. It also drew a protest from one group concerned that its cover showing the two men in front of a "just married" sign was too bold for a magazine sold not just in book stores, but also in drug stores and toy stores.

One Million Moms, a project of The American Family Association, recently asked retailer Toys R Us not to display the magazine near its checkout aisles, noting that a "trip to the toy store turns into a premature discussion on sexual orientation and is completely uncalled for."

Archie co-chief executive Jon Goldwater said the company isn't aiming to ruffle feathers. Instead, he said, it's reflecting a contemporary world where in some states, gay marriage is legal.

"We believe in a Riverdale that doesn't judge or condemn. Maybe someday the rest of America will follow in the town's idealized example," Goldwater said.

In another story line, Cheryl Blossom, who lit out for California to pursue a film career, is now in her 20s and facing not celluloid dreams, but breast cancer.

So, said Victor Gorelick, Archie's editor-in-chief, she returns home to be among friends, family and a familiar environment even if she's got guilt over being able to afford her treatment.

"One of the things that comes out is that she feels she's very fortunate that she can have all this treatment because she has medical insurance, the money, to be able to do it," Gorelick said.

The story "opens the door that there are a lot of people who cannot afford this kind of treatment and we have to see where that's kind of going to lead."

That's one aspect of comics that has always been ever-present: story lines that can change and adjust with changing times.

Lynn Johnston wrote and illustrated "For Better Or For Worse" from 1979 to 2010 that saw its characters -- a family of five in a Toronto suburb -- age in real time and face events ranging from the death of the family dog to divorce to child abuse.

Johnston aimed to be "realistic in my approach," noting that the strip was "both a comedy and a drama," she said in an email.

"Some folks complained that the comics page was for laughs and not tears," she said, "but the tears we shed are often as cathartic as the laughter," she said.

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