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A graphic grid of seven different comic strips focused on the COVID-19 pandemic Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Various

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Should the funny pages look like the news?

Newspaper comic strips find themselves rethinking slice-of-life comedy

Newspaper comic strips have an uncanny relationship to the flow of time. They can function like historical records — I remember doing deep dives into my father’s Doonesbury collections as a kid, attempting to reconstruct the Watergate scandal from the mostly inscrutable punchlines — but they are also an incredibly ephemeral medium. The vast majority of a strip’s audience will read it once, on the day it’s published, and never again.

But what happens when history — unavoidable history, with sweeping changes to everyday life that may stick around a good long while — suddenly happens very quickly, as it did this spring, when the coronavirus spread worldwide and prompted unprecedented countermeasures? Polygon reached out to several syndicated newspaper comics creators to find out how the current historical moment has affected their work, and how it has affected the sometimes wonky flow of time within their private universes.

Take, for example, Sally Forth, a long-running family strip. This was a strip that gave me one of my strongest feelings of temporal whiplash a decade or so ago. Its core character configuration — middle-aged working mom and dad Sally and Ted, middle-school daughter Hilary — had been stable since I had been Hilary’s age, which in my mind meant that Ted and Sally were my parents’ age and always would be. So it was a rude surprise when Sally showed up one day, in a flashback to her college years, in a Sonic Youth T-shirt.

This phenomenon, dubbed Comic-Book Time by TV Tropes, is only unsettling when you spend time thinking about it, which there’s usually no reason to do. Those of us who do read the newspaper comics on a regular basis are mostly happy to let them exist in an eternal present. Blondie and Dagwood have experienced a century of tech history, slowly transitioning from candlestick phones to cellphones without getting any older.

But in March of this year, Francesco Marciuliano and Jim Keefe, Sally Forth’s current writer and artist, felt that kind of drift through history no longer made sense. They were discussing one of their staple spring plots — a school dance that would be attended by Hilary and her friends, who have debated annually, for the better part of a decade, whether to go to that dance and with whom — and by March, real-world events were already skewing how they thought about the story.

“The strips were all written and illustrated for a mid-April run, but we thought we should put a disclaimer in each day’s comic saying it was done pre-pandemic, since school systems had already sent their students home by that point,” says Marciuliano. “And once we realized we were going to apologize for not reflecting reality, we realized we had to be true to things as they are now. So we discarded those strips. I threw out a month of scripts, and we quickly started over with the Forths now in lockdown.”

The young Hillary Forth complains that she’s even started to miss school — she can’t believe the cosplay school dance isn’t happening, but “I guess I can use this time to learn the welding necessary to make my costume.” “Or we could just do a jigsaw puzzle instead,” her mother counters, in the 4/16/20 strip of Sally Forth. Image: Francesco Marciuliano, Jim Keefe/King Features

This anecdote illustrates another quirk of newspaper comics and the timestream: There’s a weekslong editorial lead time imposed by the nature of the editorial process and syndication. In the case of Sunday strips, many newspapers physically print the color inserts as much as a month in advance. Daily strips can be replaced with reruns at the last minute, but even then, new strips generally need to be submitted several weeks ahead of time.

King Features, the largest syndicate of newspaper comics, worked to accommodate artists who wanted to pivot quickly. “What we told them was, ‘We’ll help you with this. If you’ve already sent in strips, you can send in replacements,’” says Tea Fougner, editorial director of comics at King Features. “Our editorial team are saints. They doubled back on a lot of work that they’d already done in order to make sure that this happened for the cartoonists who really wanted to change the story they were telling.”

Another artist who wanted to shift quickly was Bill Holbrook, whose On the Fastrack strip is a workplace ensemble piece that largely takes place at the headquarters of a giant corporation. “It would have been really awkward to have two months of people working and in the office and not doing social distancing,” he says. “It would have just been like a missive from another world.”

Various characters wear professional tops with casual bottoms. A newscaster in front of her laptop declares the new fashion trend “The Videogonferencing Look,” in the 4/20/20 strip of “On The Fasttrack.” Image: Bill Holbrook/King Features

Holbrook too ended up jettisoning three weeks’ worth of strips — “those strips still exist and will run someday, but that’ll be after things get back to some semblance of normal,” he says. He switched gears and began to mine the copious material produced by innumerable office workers suddenly trying to do their jobs at home.

But not everyone wanted to move that fast.

Alex Hallatt is no stranger to taking on big themes: Her strip, Arctic Circle, about misplaced penguins who’ve found themselves in an Arctic being transformed by climate change, usually focuses on the environmental issues that are her passion. But as the coronavirus became a global crisis, the pace of change was almost overwhelming. “We’re going from normal to, ‘Okay, can’t go into bars and cafes,’ to, ‘Can’t leave the house.’ And that’s happening every two days,” Hallatt says. She could see commenters on various comics sites, who weren’t necessarily savvy to long syndicate lead times, growing increasingly confused. “As all our old strips are going through, people are saying, ‘I can’t believe they’re not dealing with this.’ I think people wanted to see their life reflected in the comics.”

But that long lead time was also something of a creative blessing for Hallatt, giving her time to ground her strip in the new reality. “You have to think: This is going to appear in five or six weeks’ time. What is the situation going to be like then?” she says. “I have to reflect on where we’re at now, and where are we going to be then, and analyze it, and not just put out how I feel right now.”

“Some of the effects of the pandemic will be felt for years,” says one wine-drinking penguin, while another panics and pulls out their phone. “It’s okay,” the second penguin continues, “The New Zealand government decided that the sauvignon blanc harvest was an essential service, in the 5/22/20 strip of “Arctic Circle.” Image: Alex Hallatt/King Features

Arctic Circle’s penguins have, after some deliberation, integrated coronavirus talk into their sometimes hopeful, sometimes worried conversations about the future. John Hambrok, creator of The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, was even more deliberate than Hallatt. “I didn’t want to jump into something that I didn’t know a lot about, and I didn’t want to trivialize it in any way because things were evolving on a daily basis, even an hourly basis,” he says.

Instead, Hambrok began to introduce the changes from our world into his bit by bit. Rather than his characters experiencing the pandemic as a single discrete event, it subtly became part of the fabric of their world. The family’s grandfather, like many of us, loses an indeterminate amount of time to binge-watching. The title character has to move his lemonade stand inside.

The family’s grandfather marathons four seasons of a show, his armchair slowly becoming covered with more snacks, and his clothes becoming more food-stained and casual. “I’m sorry, pop, but I’m canceling season 5,” says his son, in the 5/17/20 strip of “The Brilliant Mind of Eidson Lee.” Image: John Hambrock/King Features

“My comfortable zone of approaching this is just to show what’s going on around everybody without actually saying ‘This is what’s going on around us,’” Hambrook says. “I think normalizing it takes away some of the stress. You’re a kid, you’re reading the comics and you see two people in the store wearing masks and they’re just talking about, ‘Oh, should we get pizza rolls or should we get hot dogs?’ And kids go, ‘Well that’s not a scary thing. They’re doing it and it’s fine.’”

Some of the changes the pandemic has wreaked on Hambrook’s strip have taken the form of losses and narrowing of experience — not unlike the changes in our real lives. Edison Lee characters are staying away from their favorite haunts, like the park or the burger joint. Some other comics artists, even those not explicitly tackling the pandemic, cut everyday activities out of their characters’ lives.

Fougner says that when King Features sent out word in March that artists could change some of their strips, several of them “felt really strongly, for example, about not showing their characters in church on Easter. They’d already sent in Easter strips, and they said, ‘You know what? We really want to change these out because right now we don’t want our readers to feel badly that they can’t be in church on Easter.’ People had a lot of sensitivity toward things that they felt might make their readers feel unhappy with the current situation.”

Two children consider riding their bikes down a steep hill called “Devil’s Elbow,” as it “doesn’t look as scary without snow on it.” “You’re not listening,” replies one of them “I said ‘not as.’” in the 5/11/20 strip of “Take it from the Tinkersons.” Image: Bill Bettwy/King Features

And though many of us have endured losses great and small during the pandemic, some comics creators weren’t ready to accept them in their strips. For them, it was also a matter of time — a disruption to how time and history work in the universes they’ve created.

“I just made the decision right from when I created the strip that they were going to live in the times, but they weren’t going to live in the moment,” says Bill Bettwy of the characters in his family strip Take It From the Tinkersons. “The Tinkersons live in the year 2020, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything happening in 2020 is happening to them.”

For him, in some ways it’s a practical question, considering the typical long lead time of strip publishing. “Something drastic could happen, right?” says Bettwy. “It could be that two million people are dead, and there’s no longer anything funny about it. Or I write it and two weeks later, the whole thing is over, and now I’m six weeks out and I have the Tinkersons wearing masks and no one’s wearing masks anymore.”

So the sharp-elbowed family keeps plugging along as usual, going to work and meeting up with friends. “I keep the Tinkersons in a nice little vacuum of their own misery,” says Bettwy.

Sandra Bell-Lundy, creator of Between Friends, has also chosen not to directly address the pandemic in her strip. For her, some of it has to do with the flow of time within a story. One of the many reasons the crisis strikes such anxiety into us is that it doesn’t fit into a narrative arc, or not one we can see: We don’t know how far into the middle we are, or whether it has an ending. “For me to do a COVID storyline, I’d have to stay with it until it was resolved, and it looks like this is going to be for another year, maybe even two,” says Bell-Lundy. “So for me to bring it into the strip, for me to resolve it, it wouldn’t really make sense.”

But if the coronavirus were released into the world of Between Friends, it would also disrupt the rhythms of the characters’ lives in a way that would throw the strip, which centers on a group of female professional friends, out of balance. “The writing would just be too limited,” she says. “The women probably shouldn’t be interacting with each other. They wouldn’t be interacting with people in the office. It would all be done from home. How could I do that for a year or two and nothing else?”

Two women at a cafe discuss motherhood. “I’ve never really lived up to being a ‘cookies and milk’ mom,” one says. “I was, however a ‘go-to-all-the-kids’-movies’ mom. With popcorn!” in the 5/20/20 strip of “Between Friends.” Image: Sandra Bell-Lundy/King Features

The question of how we can endure a year or two without regular contact with friends and co-workers is, of course, something we’re all trying to answer. Take It From the Tinkersons and Between Friends, by changing nothing, have managed to become escapist fantasies, even when they’re just showing two friends lingering over coffee. And in contrast with the commenters who wanted coronavirus content from Hallatt’s Arctic Circle, one Between Friends reader wrote to Bell-Lundy to say, “Thank you for not writing about COVID.”

Ultimately, we would all dearly like to know what the future of the coronavirus pandemic will look like. The comics creators I spoke to were all tentatively thinking about how their strips would move forward.

Everyone seemed hesitant to integrate the disease itself, as opposed to the overall social changes that have arisen from its spread, into their strips. “The impact on the cast of Sally Forth will be entirely on social and day-to-day living aspects,” says Marciuliano. “It’s simply not the right strip to go any darker.” However, he also writes the soap opera strip Judge Parker, and hints that the more over-the-top tone of that genre leaves room for more dramatic developments — though he emphasizes that it would have to be part of “a greater story, outside of the virus, to work.”

Other artists, even those who had hesitated to explicitly bring the pandemic into their strips, said they could see fundamental social changes wrought by it eventually becoming part of their stories. “If we always have to wear a mask outside until forever now, then yeah, it would make its way into The Tinkersons,” said Bettwy. “That’s because it’s no longer a moment.” Bell-Lundy speculated that videoconferencing might become a permanent part of our lives, and that could be a good engine for stories for her characters.

Because if the world really is going to change, the newspaper comics will change with it, no matter how subtly or gradually. Dagwood Bumstead may still wear a bow tie to work in 2020, but he also uses a cellphone. “I would say most cartoonists are writing from the heart,” says Arctic Circle’s Hallatt. “So how can you not be influenced by the biggest thing that’s ever happened in your life?”