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A Pandemic Gives the Funny Pages a Jolt of Reality


As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world, many in the United States self-quarantined, and thousands of people died, one section of the daily newspaper seemed wholly untouched by the cataclysmic events: The comics pages. Characters carried on much as they ever did — car-pooling, going to school, wandering into neighbors’ houses. Each comic strip felt like a time capsule from the impossibly faraway era of 2019.

One reason for that cultural disconnection was the lead time in comics syndication: Unlike internet cartoonists, who can respond immediately to current events, creators of daily newspaper strips work about two weeks in advance, sometimes longer. And there can be many motivations for artists to exercise caution, from not knowing how to adjust a lighthearted formula to not wanting to trivialize a widespread tragedy. But in recent weeks, when a handful of daily newspaper cartoonists began running strips inspired by the coronavirus, it felt unusually vibrant and immediate; we spoke with six of them.

These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

April 1

“I thought I was going to distract people with gags that have nothing to do with the coronavirus because that’s my job, to give people an escape,” said Mark Tatulli, creator of the strips “Lio” and “Heart of the City.” “But it was permeating my life and it was all I could think about, to the point where it was crippling. It found its way onto the page.” “Lio” is a dialogue-free strip that frequently plays with the format’s conventions; Tatulli discovered that the pandemic introduced new visual shorthand, such as the suddenly recognizable spiky ball that is the Covid-19 viral particle: When Lio blows bubbles, his bubbles float away looking like the spiky virions. “Here’s the irony of this: I got new material,” Tatulli observed. “I hate to say I’m benefiting from it creatively, but I am. These are the things that shake up our society.”

“I’ve touched on social events infrequently,” said the “Curtis” cartoonist Ray Billingsley. “But I could see it getting worse and worse and I knew it was going to touch society so much that I had to do something about it. I wanted to write about not what the pandemic was doing worldwide, but how it affected one family.” So Curtis’s family, living in a cramped apartment, relieves tension by making pancakes — but then their joyful mood is shattered by the news that Curtis’s schoolteacher has tested positive for the coronavirus. “I’m about characterization and continuity,” Billingsley said. “I hope that ‘Curtis’ is an emotional experience.” This strip about Anne Frank was inspired by a friend of Billingsley’s who complained about being unable to go to the movies. “As Americans, we’re very much spoiled,” Billingsley commented. “People tend to forget the past, and it wasn’t even that far past.”

“When they shut down sports, that’s kind of unnerving if you do a comic strip about sports,” said Bill Hinds, who has been drawing “Tank McNamara” since 1974 and writing it since 2012. “I was able to move to Tank’s personal life, rather than do too much on sports, because I have no idea what’s going to happen with sports.” Even so, the world can change rapidly in the two weeks between Hinds finishing a strip and it seeing print; a sequence where Tank visits his neighbors to do a jigsaw puzzle (with face masks and latex gloves) was out of step with the best social distancing practices by the time it saw print. Hinds said he’s had to work to find the right tone, observing, “I like to play off craziness and I don’t know how appropriate that is right now.” But he said his readers haven’t objected so far: “People were more angry about the Astros than they were about the pandemic. That makes sense — nobody understands the pandemic.”

“I have always thought of myself as kind of an anxious person, and suddenly everyone has that worldview,” said the “F Minus” cartoonist Tony Carrillo. “I’ve been making jokes about existential dread for a long time, but all of a sudden, everyone’s looking for that kind of humor.” While some of his recent panels are clearly about life under quarantine, others fit into his usual themes of ennui and social awkwardness. As a cartoonist, he noted, “It’s nothing new to sit down and to have to make a funny comic regardless of what horrific things are going on in the world.” Carrillo said that he’s well-prepared for this cultural moment: “I have a number of comics about the growing pains of adjusting to a hermitlike existence. Fourteen years of working from home has put me in a unique position to know what everyone is dealing with.”

“My strip is very news-oriented and political, so there was no way that I was not going to comment on the quarantine,” said Lalo Alcaraz, creator of “La Cucaracha.” “My strip is about what the Latino community is going through — all the angles.” Since Alcaraz’s wife is a schoolteacher, he said, “It felt good to comment on the teachers’ remote-teaching and being appreciated more by parents who are having trouble logging into a website or paying attention to their own kids.” The idea for this strip, however, was pitched by his art assistant, Joaquin Junco. Alcaraz said, “We saw the anxiety surrounding people wearing masks inside of businesses.” Alcaraz has found it easier to write strips about coronavirus’s societal impact; jokes about actual illness have felt inappropriate to him. He is used to a steady drumbeat of hate mail, even on topics that he doesn’t find controversial, such as praise for farmworkers, but he reported that he’s gotten almost no negative feedback lately: “My usual haters, hopefully they’re not sick.”

Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine,” was traveling in Colombia in March when the country announced it was shutting its borders. He scrambled for a flight home to California; once he returned, he did a week of strips where he pretended that he had been stranded in South America without art supplies, drawing with pencil on a yellow legal pad to make his work look even sketchier than usual. “It could very well have happened,” he said. “It’s always confusing what part of my life is real.” While Pastis normally works nine months ahead of schedule, he has been swapping in new topical material for strips he completed last year. “Other than maybe 9/11, I can’t think of another time when every single person was thinking of the exact same thing, and if you’re not reflecting that, what are you doing?” he asked. He considers the reruns of classic comic strips like “Peanuts” to be a sin against the medium, saying, “You have strips on the page by great artists and they cannot speak to what we are doing right now, because they are repeats. I care about the comics, and I want them to stay relevant.”

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