All in the Family: A Cartooning Roundtable
Just like any other creative industry, cartooning has always had dynasties. Tom Heintjes talks to four creators who followed their cartoonist forebears into the family business, with all the pitfalls and advantages the career path has offered them.
When you think of Barrymores, Guthries, Redgraves and Peales, the word that springs to mind is dynasty. Generations enter a creative field and flourish, carrying the family tradition until the next branch of the family tree is mature enough to ensure the cycle remains intact. In this respect, cartooning is no different and has seen generations working in the business into which they were born. John Dirks ably followed in his father Rudolph’s footsteps, as did Tom Johnson (Ferd’s son), Cullen Murphy (John Cullen’s son), John Saunders (Allen’s son), Chip Sansom (Art’s son), Dean Young (Chic’s son) and others. Who can say what leads boys to follow in their fathers’ shoes? Is it genetic, environmental or simply a case of being born to a unique family enterprise? Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes sat down with some of today’s cartooning scions to talk about the ups and downs of dedicating their careers to their ancestors’ creations. Jeff Keane moved behind the drawing board when his father Bil turned the keys to The Family Circus over to him, Mason Mastroianni took over B.C. following Johnny Hart’s death, and Brian and Greg Walker are Mort’s sons and work primarily on Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, although they have participated in a number of strips that came out of the Walker studio.
Tom Heintjes: You all have a unique perspective on the comics industry: You grew up around it, and now you work in it. I wanted to get your thoughts on changes you’ve seen, given your unique vantage point. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
Greg Walker: The biggest change I’ve seen is the smaller number of newspapers. It used to be that every town had competing newspapers, and if you didn’t sell one side of town, you’d sell to the other. That was a healthy competition, and it drove up prices. Now, you’re lucky if a big city has one paper.
Brian Walker: Newspapers are really struggling right now, and you kind of wish they’d look to comics as something they had that is truly unique. They’re cutting back on newsprint, shrinking the size of the sections, firing political cartoonists. We’re kind of the barnacle hanging onto the side of the ship.
Heintjes: The comics used to be used as a sales tool. When do you think that was no longer the case?
Greg Walker: It still is to some extent.
Brian Walker: I don’t think they use it to their advantage at all. The Sunday comics used to be wrapped around the outside of the Sunday paper, and now the Los Angeles Times completely hides it under layers of advertising and really requires you to search to find it. Kids today don’t think of the Sunday paper in the way we did. For us, the Sunday paper was, “Ooh—the comics page!”
Mason Mastroianni: I have a different perspective. Before I worked in comics, I was working in computer graphics. It was taking off, and everyone wanted to be in it. The jobs were right there. I’m a year into working in comic strips now, and the impression I’m getting is that the industry is getting more competitive because in a way it’s dying. I know my grandfather had been losing papers for a decade.
Brian Walker: Certainly, we have the advantage of the papers holding onto the established, proven products, so that makes it harder for new cartoonists to break in and to attract new readers. The ideal solution would be to allow more space for everybody, so every paper could have new, edgy comics and older, more established comics, and story strips and everything. That would be the ideal situation.
Greg Walker: Do you think it’s changed all the much, in that sense? It’s always been a competitive industry. In the old days, you also had more comics competing for the space, like when you had three versions of the Katzenjammer Kids competing for space.
Brian Walker: What used to happen a lot in the boom years of the ‘30s was that a syndicate would come out with Buck Rogers, so King Features would say, “Now we need a science fiction strip,” and they would introduce Flash Gordon, and NEA would come out with something else. Each syndicate would have a version of a successful concept that they sold to the five or six papers in a town.
Heintjes: Did we see a version of that sort of stampede in the wake of The Far Side’s popularity?
Jeff Keane: I think every syndicate looked at The Far Side and said, “We should get a version of that, too.” The hardest thing for those single panels to do is be something different. A lot of them got lumped together, like “Oh, there’s a dinosaur, or a cow, so it must be like The Far Side.”
Mastroianni: I guess I can get away with using dinosaurs [laughter].
Brian Walker: And I love that Family Parallelogram strip! [laughter]
Keane: I’ve always been a little surprised that no one else tried to create a circular panel. I think the genius of my dad was using the circle where everyone else was using squares. It was very recognizable and now is synonymous with the strip.
Heintjes: One of the biggest challenges is to stand out on the page.
Keane: Yes, it’s helped us stand out.
Greg Walker: At the same time, you have to wonder what people are reading. I work on Hi and Lois, and I get people saying, “I really like that thing you do with the dashed line behind the little boy.” [laughter]
Brian Walker: When people meet you, they want to comment on something they remember about your work. So they tell you something they remember, and it makes you want to do it more, because people like it. But you have to keep in mind that it’s not that they necessarily like that thing, but that they remember it.
Keane: I get that all the time. People say, “Oh, I love it when you have Not Me in the strip,” and they have the impression that Not Me is in the strip all the time! But we hardly ever use Not Me anymore. We probably use him once a year. Or I’ll get criticism for using Not Me all the time. But it’s because it’s so recognizable, like the dotted line. We get compliments on the dotted line, which is good because it takes forever to draw!
Greg Walker: How do you draw that? One line that you put white on later, or do you draw the dashes?
Keane: No, it’s one continuous black line, and I put the white on it.
Greg Walker: We get the same thing in Hi and Lois with Trixie in the sunbeam. Some people say, “Oh, I love Trixie in the sunbeam,” and other people say, “Get her out of the sunbeam!”
Brian Walker: Those are actually hard gags because you want to do a different take on it. We’ve had the sunbeam coming through venetian blinds, or the sun going behind a cloud, every single variation on something that simple has been done in 50 years.
Keane: But I think if you do it in a different way, it’s all right.
Greg Walker: This is something we run into that other people don’t run into. There’s a historical aspect to the strips, and we have to know what’s been done before.
Heintjes: The challenges facing the comics pages are well known. But have there been any positive changes in the time you’ve been working as cartoonists?
Keane: No. The whole thing’s a failure [laughter].
Mastroianni: I know that political correctness has taken its toll on what we can do, but I feel that there’s an edginess that I can get away with. Look at Pearls Before Swine.
Brian Walker: I would agree. Starting with The Far Side, you began seeing humor that you might have seen in Playboy before that. Not in a raunchy way. I read a variety of comics, and I don’t want them to be all the same. I want a newspaper to have a variety of strips. They shouldn’t all be old strips, and they shouldn’t get rid of strips just because their old. I know when I read the paper, I change my reading habits. There are times in my life when I’ll start reading a strip again even though I stopped reading it earlier.
Greg Walker: But in our case, don’t you feel like our readers expect something? I’ve worked on brand-new strips, and there are different expectations. When you’re reading Hi and Lois or Beetle Bailey or the Family Circus, you expect certain things. You cant’ get too edgy.
Keane: That’s what I think makes a good newspaper page: the juxtaposition of our material with edgier material.
Greg Walker: But we always have to remain conscious of that edge and not go over it.
Heintjes: Since you are all working on strips that have certain audience expectations, is there any room for personal expression on your part?
Brian Walker: One thing that [former King Features comics editor] Jay Kennedy used to tell us all the time is that no strip can remain static. A strip like Hi and Lois, which has been around for 50 years, has gone through coonskin caps and hippie beads, stuff like that. When we started getting involved, we started making changes subtly, almost so people don’t even notice it. That’s a pretty challenging thing. Now we do a lot of stuff with cell phones and computers. And even though they have uniform clothing, we’ve struggled with clothes, too. We’ve tried to make the shoes more like sneakers. The kids in Hi and Lois used to basically wear Beetle Bailey shoes; they were like Army boots, almost.
Keane: You change the surroundings, but families don’t really change. The stuff around them changed. Now you have flat-screen TVs instead of the big consoles.
Greg Walker: You lost that iconic image of the square TV with rabbit ears. You can’t draw that anymore
Keane: Exactly. But the gag or the feeling doesn’t change.
Brian Walker: I think styles of humor change, too. When I started writing for Hi and Lois, Calvin and Hobbes was really big. And here’s this image of a kid going over a cliff in his wagon. If I had Ditto do that, people would freak! People would say, “He’s going to kill himself—you can’t have him go off a cliff on his sled!” Particularly with Trixie—we couldn’t have Trixie hanging off high-tension wires.
Brian Walker: So even if you try to make the humor edgier and more in line with up-and-coming strips, you can’t get away with it.
Heintjes: How do you turn around that battleship of expectations to make the strip more of your own? Do you always try?
Greg Walker: We do try to push the envelope, but we can’t do it too far, too fast.
Brian Walker: I think your own personality inevitably creeps into it.
Mastroianni: I try to maintain the personality that my grandfather gave the strip.
Keane: I think you’ve got a challenge. You have the older readership that’s expecting a certain strip, but if you update the humor, they’re going to get mad. But you have to update for younger readers to make them take a look at it. So how do you get them to take another look at B.C. when they think they know what it is, even though you’re putting a fresh spin on it?
Mastroianni: We’re actually in a fortunate situation in that we have two strips: B.C. and the Wizard of Id. We kind of decided early on with B.C. that we were going to take a little more of a risk and integrate a punchier and edgier style, like my grandfather was doing back in the ’70s. With the Wizard, we decided to maintain the status quo and really maintain the look of that strip as it has been for a couple of decades and see what the reaction is. I’m pretty active on blogs, and so far there hasn’t been negative stuff said about B.C.
Greg Walker: I’ve seen positive comments about B.C.
Brian Walker: We have a similar situation with our two strips, Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. My father is still very much the creative force on Beetle, even though there are four of us coming up with ideas for it. But he’s had very little to do with Hi and Lois since the mid-’80s, over 20 years. And they’re very different strips to write for: Hi and Lois is a reality-based strip, with true-life observational humor, similar to Family Circus. Beetle Bailey is more surreal: Beetle can be broken up into little pieces one day and back the next. It’s much more visual and slapstick. It has a biggest cast of characters. So you have to constantly switch hats to write for them.
My father will say, “We need to get some new life into Beetle Bailey. We need some contemporary humor to keep it up to date.” So Greg and I will write a gag that includes the name of a current slang phrase, and he’ll look at it and say, “I’ve never heard this phrase” or “I’ve never seen this TV show,” and it’s back to the drawing board [laughter]. It can get frustrating. Chance Browne and I still talk about how we feel like we’re still striving for the perfection that our dads established, and that we’re still in their shadows. He says that when he’s at the drawing board he tries to channel his father [Dik Browne]. And I still feel that I’m learning, even after all these years. And we work with Jerry Dumas, who’s been doing this for 50 years. He’ll look at a gag and say, “Beetle would never say that,” and I’ll say, “Really? I thought it was pretty funny.” And he’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s just not him. Beetle is smarter than that,” or whatever.
Greg Walker: That’s what’s interesting about our situation, where you’re working with a dedicated group of writers. We’re not freelance gag writers who send stuff in. I feel like they’re family. I feel like Beetle Bailey is my family and Hi and Lois is my family. You have to have that feeling of ownership so it isn’t just canned gags. I’ve been writing gags for this strip since 1968, so I’ve been involved with this for 40 years, which is more than half the life of the strip.
Keane: I’ve been writing gags for longer than that. I’ve been writing gag since I was 2 [laughter].
Greg Walker: But you weren’t getting paid for them [laughter].
Keane: I thought my dad liked me. He just liked my gags [laughter].
Greg Walker: I get that all the time. And people say, “Oh, you’re Chip, aren’t you?” Well, I guess I am.
Heintjes: Was working in the family business something you’d always envisioned for yourself?
All [in unison]: No.
Heintjes: How did it happen that you all started working where you do?
Mastroianni: I was an illustrator and an animator, and I always suspected there was a possibility that my grandfather would one day pass away. I thought in the back of my mind I might someday be involved with the strip. But I never suspected it would be so soon. My situation is probably somewhat unique in that I had never drawn the characters before he died, and he died rather suddenly after winning a battle with cancer. The next day I flew home, and we talked about our options. We said we could sell the strip, or I could give it a try. I said I would see what I could do.
Brian Walker: How long did it take you to work on it until you felt you could put it out there confidently?
Mastroianni: At first it was just a lot of looking at his art and copying it. That was several weeks.
Brian Walker: How far ahead was he?
Mastroianni: We ran six weeks of classic [material]. I forget how that decision came about. I think my family decided right away they were going to do that.
Brian Walker: So you had nine weeks. That’s a huge buffer [laughter].
Mastroianni: Well, I’m an artist, and I know how to draw.
Brian Walker: And the drawing looks fine. I think it looks great. Johnny’s drawing changed over the years, but it always tended to be sort of flat and linear. You’ve added a roundness, a depth and a perspective, to it. I tell people to look at it.
I got in a big argument with Bob Harvey, because he wrote something that said if a creator dies, his strip should go with him. I said in the case of Wizard of Id, Brant [Parker] hadn’t been doing it for, what, 10 years?
Mastroianni: About 15 years.
Brian Walker: And it looked OK then. Why should it go away now [with Parker’s death]?
Mastroianni: That’s a tough argument, and I can see both sides.
Greg Walker: We were conscious of that with Hi and Lois. For a long time, we didn’t tell anybody we were working on it. We didn’t want people to say, “Look at this thing—it’s not as good as it used to be!” When we started putting our names on it and people said that, we said, “Well, we’ve been doing it for 10 years, so when did this change happen?”
Heintjes: So if none of you envisioned yourself in the family business, how did you come to do what you’re doing?
Greg Walker: I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had a job at a film company, and I was commuting into the city every day. I was writing comic books on the side. I was writing for my dad’s comic books, and somebody said, “This kid can write.” So I started writing Rocky and Bullwinkle comics and Flintstones comics, and the artist drawing one of the books says, “I don’t want to draw this anymore.” I said, “Well, I can quit, or I can draw it or hire people to draw it.” I actually hired Chris and Chance [Browne], and they did some beautiful stuff. After a while, I said, “I think I can draw this,” so I started drawing. So I had this film job, then on my lunch hour I’d be off to Western Publishing to drop off my work. So I’d work all day and then go home at night and do the comic book work. It was a way to earn some extra money. But meanwhile, I’m commuting every day. I’m sitting on this train, and it’s a sunny day, and I’m thinking, “My dad’s playing golf today” [laughter].
Brian Walker: It’s a very appealing way to make a living, being at home and around your kids. Where we live, in Connecticut, you have dads and moms on business trips and nannies watching the kids. Families are separated. The way I’ve always thought of it is, sure, we were presented with a huge opportunity as the offspring of these famous creators. That’s not an opportunity that everyone gets, and I’m very aware of that. A certain amount of luck goes into play with that. But in this business, nepotism will only get you so far. That strip is going to appear in the newspaper, and the reader doesn’t care if Bil Keane or Jeff Keane or Mort Walker or Brian Walker is doing it. The product’s quality has to be there, day in and day out. It’s not like dad had an auto repair shop and I’m sitting in the back room drinking beer.
Keane: The problem is the same. We all start with a blank piece of paper. So whether I’m doing it, or my dad is doing it, it doesn’t matter. And you don’t really know if the person whose name is on the strip is really doing it anyway. I know that what I’m doing now is more than what my dad was doing 30 years ago, because he had a couple of cartoons he was doing at the same time. But then he was only doing Family Circus, and he would pencil it and letter it, and somebody else would ink it, and somebody else would color it on Sundays. But I’m doing the penciling, the inking, the lettering and the coloring, only because I want the quality to be as good as I can make it myself. So if someone says, “Oh, you have it easy,” it isn’t. I guess I could make it easy and not do anything, but I know what it’s supposed to be like. When I first started it was scary, because I didn’t even know how to ink. I could pencil, because I could use an eraser. But the guy who was inking Family Circus left, and Dad said, “Why don’t you try to ink it?” And I said, “He uses a brush!” But I taught myself to use a brush. It took me a lot longer. And the dotted-line cartoons are so complicated because you need perspective. At first I said, “I could never draw that!” But you start this thing and you go along, and you’ve got this finished product.
Brian Walker: You’ve got this tremendous obligation. When you start a new strip, there’s no expectation. But when you work on a strip that’s been around for 40 or 50 years, you feel an obligation to the readers—and to my father—to continue this level of quality. I find it’s helpful to think of it as an open-ended apprenticeship. You never say, “OK, I got it. I’m better than he is.”
Keane: In terms of my own personal journey through this, I look at it as, I’m a lot better than I used to be, and a lot quicker. [To Mastroianni] Your experience would be totally different. With you, it was, “Here, start doing this strip.” [laughter]