The Statuesque of Liberty
Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho works overtime to make the comics page safe for his inimitable brand of bombshell. BOB KENNEDY talks to Cho about his work and the obstacles it has surmounted
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #8.
The funny pages have had their share of torchy sirens over the past century. Fritzi Ritz, Brenda Starr, Daisy Mae Yokum, Juliet Jones, Burma and all three residents of Apartment 3-G (to name but a handful) have inspired many a hormonally charged young lad to try his hand at drawing. They sure had a profound effect on Maryland’s own Frank Cho, among the youngest syndicated cartoonists in the business; his character Brandy Payne (the central character of Liberty Meadows) outdoes all the aforementioned characters; his strip’s effect on the newest generation of comic- strip fans may be even more extreme.
The American newspaper strip has had a bumpy history, especially in the last 30 years. When Doonesbury exploded onto the comics pages in 1970, readers who’d never heard of a “paradigm shift” felt a big and sudden one. The lavishly illustrated strips of yore, such as Li’l Abner and Prince Valiant, Pogo and Tarzan, were obsolete. The era of the funny-but-crudely- drawn strip had dawned. Other cartoonists had given the impression of being loose and sketchy, but any kid from that period who tried to redraw a panel by Jules Feiffer, Hank Ketcham or even George Lichty (cartoonist of the masterful Grin and Bear It) realized that those guys understood things about line weight and composition, no matter how sloppy and chaotic they looked at first glance. They’d struck the same balance as the best three-piece rock ‘n’ roll bands of the same general era: Keep it simple enough that the fans can think “I could do that!” and keep it complex enough that they could not.
Doonesbury and its heirs (Sylvia, Bloom County, Cathy, The Far Side and Dilbert being a few of the more prominent) placed the joke in the forefront and made the artwork of negligible importance. Had these strips existed during the 1930s New York newspaper strikes, they might have been improved by having Fiorello LaGuardia read them over the radio. A few strips begun in the 1980s—notably Zippy and Calvin and Hobbes—took their craftsmanship seriously, but the former never shook its reputation as a cult oddity, and the latter disappeared to the same Never-Never Land as too many other things too good to last do.
Frank Cho takes his drawing very seriously. His Liberty Meadows is the slickest-looking new comic strip in years. While there are other superlative illustrators on the comics page, most of them (such as Jim Borgman, the late Jeff MacNelly and Lynn Johnston) are fully a generation older. The comics pages are losing the interest of the demographically desirable under-30 crowd; one of the few notable newspaper strip artists in that age bracket is Cho, a man who is openly hostile to the “family-friendly” tone infecting most new strips. (To newspaper comics editors, the term family friendly has little to do with the suitability of a strip for children, or whether they actually like a given strip; it has to do with editors second-guessing what they think subscribing parents might least object to having their kids see, regardless of a strip’s actual creative merit. Li’l Abner, Terry and the Pirates and Pogo probably wouldn’t survive if their respective creators had introduced them in today’s climate).
For this reason, syndicates seek out family strips, despite a glut of them and the fact that three of the four most anthologized and merchandised strips of the past decade aren’t structured around a family. (Dilbert, Garfield and The Far Side feature few Hallmark moments, while Calvin and Hobbes often mocked them.) Shouldn’t editors looking for the “next big thing” take this into account when weighing the merits of proposed features?
“You’d think!” Cho said. “The syndicates just don’t get it. They’re baffled by the breakaway strips. It’s very frustrating.” He mentions that most syndicate editors adopt a fairly conservative stance, making it difficult to conduct comic-strip business with the Mothers Against Indecency when most of one’s characters could function quite nicely as biker tattoos.
This is Frank Cho’s dilemma. Presently, Liberty Meadows is syndicated to 30 newspapers, pretty good for a strip that’s only about two years old, but the break-even point for a comic strip tends to be closer to 40 client papers. “Luckily for me, that includes some really big papers like the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press,” he said.
For a time, the Post (one of his original client papers) dropped off that list of 30 papers. So many readers complained about the strip’s tone (the strip’s detractors use “puerile” and “aggressive” a lot) that they dropped it cold. An even more insistent group demanded that it be brought back; the “family-friendly” (yet sterile and impersonal) Rugrats had replaced it. An inoffensive adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon, Rugrats scored low among younger Post readers in a survey, while the paper’s over-65 set preferred it to Liberty Meadows. Level heads prevailed, and Liberty Meadows regained its spot in the Post lineup. Score one for the Post’s ability to correct a misstep.
The central fact of Cho’s career is that he draws very well. He has little patience for his professional peers who don’t, and he’s not shy about saying so, regardless of how well-established they are. Consequently, Frank has found himself at the center of some unfortunate public spectacles. The 1999 Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md., prevailed upon Cho to act as a judge for its Ignatz Award. Unimpressed with the candidates for “Outstanding Artist” and “Outstanding Book,” Cho nominated himself in these categories (Liberty Meadows is anthologized as a monthly comic book). Fans of his strip, which plugged the convention for a week before the convention began, voted for him as a bloc, and he won the Ignatz. No existing rules were broken, but a new one was implemented: Future Ignatz judges are now barred from self-nomination.
Later that year, in his constant quest for getting his strip into more papers, he publicly recommended that Liberty Meadows replace Peanuts upon Charles Schulz’s retirement. This stratagem riled a lot of fans, as it appeared to profit crassly from Schulz’s illness. Cho had underestimated Schulz’s beloved-icon status, as well as the severity of his illness (Schulz died the following February). If Cho’s instinct for public relations was on par with his knowledge of line weight and composition, he’d be a household name here and abroad.
In 1990, the High Point Beacon (a Beltsville, Md., high school newspaper) featured the occasional strip by young Frank Cho. He drew beautiful girls and Neanderthal gym teachers with a verve and clarity that kids his age shouldn’t be allowed to wield. (He also shaded his drawings with pencils, which don’t reproduce well on the printed newsprint page; as the camera operator at the printing company that printed the Beacon, I vividly remember having to reshoot those panels as halftones to hold those shades.) His work popped up a couple of years later, in the Prince George’s County Community College student paper, The Owl. He still used the same themes of heartbreakingly beautiful girls who were unattainable to animalistic men, but this time he learned how to shade with a Micron 0.2 pen. One strip depicted (the then-unnamed) Brandy and Dean. Dean, the pig, poured his heart out to Brandy (a 19-year-old cross between Jennifer Connelly and a Vargas pin-up), hoping she might reciprocate his love in some manner. She replied, “I just noticed how much your ears look like Spam…”
Infatuation and rejection are never more than arm’s length away from each other, still one of the strip’s themes. Originally titled Everything but the Kitchen Sink, the strip found a long-term home in the University of Maryland’s student daily, The Diamondback, during the paper’s summer 1994 semester. The following fall, its title became University2, and the strip remained an extremely popular Diamondback feature for the next three semesters, until Cho graduated.
The strip’s main characters emerged during that time, and many of them are still around in the strip’s current version. Brandy remains a gorgeous young woman, the object of Frank’s unquenchable affection. (That’s “Frank” the character, not “Frank” the Cho.) She’s slimmed down quite a bit from her college days, a result of syndicate editors’ numerous Post-It notes containing instructions such as “Reduce breast size” or “reduce buttocks.” Frank was originally an anthropomorphic duck with the same haircut and glasses as Cho. (Frank Cho’s Korean given name is “Duk,” hence the waterfowl imagery. There’s also a wiener dog in the strip named Oscar; perhaps a subconscious reference to his American name, “Frank”?) Since the general public is squeamish about interspecies romances even on the metaphoric level, the duck became a young man in the syndicated strip, a skinny bundle of neuroses and insecurities. He’s an animal doctor at the Liberty Meadows preserve for “creatures who have lost their natural habitats—or their minds.” Sparks fly between Brandy and Frank, but so far only sparks.
Truman, a duckling in the syndicated strip, is a visual remnant of the college version’s main character. Dean, the pig, is now the kind of frat-boy caricature that swills beer from a can well before lunch time and wears his baseball cap backwards. (This little piggy’ll never pour his heart out to a gorgeous, flint-hearted dame again!) Leslie was originally “Leslie the Laughing Lima Bean,” perhaps the most malevolent-looking creature since Grendel’s Mother; he’s since been toned down and transformed into a bullfrog. Ralph, a “midget circus bear” with a Stimpy-like nose (and who was originally a gerbil), rounds out the cast of primary characters.
Making the transition from college strip to nationally syndicated strip required a couple of changes. At the University of Maryland, Cho often dropped off his strips a couple of hours before the paper went to the printer. Needless to say, those days are gone. “I stay three and a half weeks ahead on the daily and seven weeks ahead on the Sundays,” he said. Also, the strip was infamous for having three or four identical panels, perhaps with minor changes. Few artists since Warhol have leaned so heavily on the photocopier as an art tool. But now that Cho has a national reputation to uphold and no morning classes, there’s much less of that. And blowing off the strip in favor of some highly detailed drawing and a note saying, “No joke today, I just felt like drawing a chimp” is something he rarely does anymore. And the punchlines these days consist of a lot more than Dean getting kicked in the crotch or whacked on the snout by some sorority babe. Usually.
The strip’s humor is, well, puerile. But it’s a good kind of puerile, a confrontational antidote to decades of Family Circus-style homilies and high-minded attempts to elevate the public’s consciousness. Reading Liberty Meadows won’t make anybody a better person for the experience, but wouldn’t it be creepy if reading a comic strip could actually achieve that? Civil courts of law sometimes mandate “sensitivity training” as part of certain types of settlements; are court-ordered Wee Pals and Sylvia strips taped up next to the company coffee machine such a farfetched prospect? Thank God for puerile humor. As a child, Cho’s parents were “very neutral” about his fascination with comics. “I was raised in a very strict Asian household,” he said. “They were pretty careful not to take one side or another about it, just making sure I wasn’t saving all my lunch money and spending it on comic books.”
Most cartoonists of his generation and level of talent find their calling in comic books rather than newspaper strips, and in fact Cho would have preferred to work in comic books. He was particularly taken with an old library copy of Detective Comics #509, drawn by the late cartoonist and bodybuilder Don Newton. (Newton’s extensive knowledge of human musculature was put to very good effect in the late ’70s and early ’80s, drawing a variety of superhero comics for Marvel and DC Comics. Ironically, his dedication to bodybuilding and health food also contributed to his early death; he drank only unpasteurized milk and died from complications from resulting croup.) Shortly thereafter, Cho discovered another Frank—this one, Frazetta—and Norman Rockwell.
While Cho loved the comic books, two of the big three comics publishers passed on his work pretty early. “I wanted to draw for Marvel or Image or DC,” he said. “Marvel and Image, I talked to them and they just said, y’know, ‘Come back when you’re a little older.’ ” So in hindsight, it’s obvious why both of those companies suffered depressed sales: They wouldn’t hire Frank Cho.
“For DC, I did this sample page for Lobo and it turned out pretty well,” he said. “One of the Batman editors is a fan of mine, and we agreed that I’d do a ten-page ‘Poison Ivy’ story for him. I’m just waiting until I have a really good story for that. Just waiting until the time is right.” But before he had a chance to concentrate on a career in comic books—before he had a chance to graduate from college, even—he landed a 15-year contract with Creators Syndicate. He’s naturally wistful about the “path not taken” of comic-book publishing (although Liberty Meadows is now anthologized in a comic book and Cho drew a Wonder Woman pin-up for a recent issue of Justice Society of America), but the industry pros who have done both comic books and comic strips tend to prefer doing the strips, hands down.
Some readers may wonder just how much raunchier Liberty Meadows could possibly get. Fortunately, Cho’s initial stabs at merchandising can answer this question to most normal citizens’ satisfaction. A compendium of his college strips, titled University2: The Angry Years, demonstrates just how far Liberty Meadows tends to drift over the line without credible adult supervision. His well-intentioned potshots at other comic strips belie his private persona, which I found to be unfailingly polite. He frequently rags on other strips, regardless of whether they are still in print. In one infamous sequence, he had “Mark Derail” visit Liberty Meadows. Derail showed up in a skirt and garter belt and pranced maniacally through the meadows. He was kidnapped by a deranged cow and held captive, spoofing the film Misery. Fans of Mark Trail had all they could take and cited this storyline as a reason why Liberty Meadows should get booted out of the Washington Post; for a couple of months, it was. In a later storyline, the fictional Frank had a blind date with Cathy Guisewite’s eponymous character and was driven so nuts by the woman’s neuroses that he tried to sneak out of the restaurant by squeezing through a tiny men’s room window. “That was going to run for four weeks, but I had to chop it in half,” he said. “What I found out was, if you use the image [of another comic strip’s character] once, that’s OK, but if you use the image repeatedly, you’re into copyright infringement.”
Following is a gallery of covers to the Liberty Meadows comic book; click to enlarge them. The feature story continues below.
But isn’t that covered by the “fair use” loophole parodists have been using since the genesis of Mad magazine? “Yeah, that was my opinion, but the syndicate lawyer’s opinion was kinda different…. I was gonna turn it into a Fatal Attraction kinda thing.” But Creators Syndicate was so fearful of the wrath of Cathy Guisewite that they purged most of the storyline from its website and replaced it with reprints of the first couple of Liberty Meadows strips.
Misery with Mark Trail, Fatal Attraction with Cathy…maybe next we’ll see Eyes Wide Shut with Rex Morgan, M.D., or Saving Private Bailey. A few things are for certain, though: Whatever he does next will be entertaining and rude, and his syndicate will panic a lot and cave in even more because they’re stuck with this lunatic for another 11 years. I ask him if he anticipates even younger cartoon punks nipping at his heels any time soon…or has that already begun?
“Happening right now?” he asked. “No. I don’t see any younger cartoonists than myself in the current cartoon syndication field. I’m counting on and praying that younger and better cartoonists will follow my lead and set a new standard for comic strips, funnier and better-drawn.” Shortly after this interview took place, Aaron McGruder’s strip, The Boondocks, took the comics pages by storm. McGruder, Cho’s junior by a couple of years, is a fellow University of Maryland Diamondback alum. By all indication, edgy comics have a secure future.