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Sunday comics plan unique 9/11 tribute

By Katie McLaughlin, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sunday funnies this weekend will feature 9/11 rememberance theme with 93 cartoonists participating
  • Comics editor Bruce Burford: "Comics have a role to play in the national discourse"
  • Online gallery available Sunday at CartoonistsRemember911.com

(CNN) -- When you open your Sunday paper this weekend, you'll notice a common thread in the comics section.

Nearly 100 cartoonists -- including the cartoonists behind Family Circus, Blondie, The Amazing Spider-Man, Doonesbury and others -- are dedicating their strips to those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

Brendan Burford, comics editor for King Features Syndicate, told CNN that the idea for Cartoonists Remember 9/11 came about because the artists -- who all produce their strips independently -- wanted to express sympathy and solidarity with the victims.

"And so," said Burford. "Ten years later it just made sense. There's some continuity here. We wanted to use the comics platform, and September 11 just happens to fall on a Sunday this year, which is the biggest day for us in the comics business -- the largest canvas to work with. Cartoonists came together and did a great job. The messages are very tasteful and appropriate and we're very pleased with it."

Burford noted that there was no apprehension about committing to the project among the artists, who walked the fine line between respect and conveying the "It's okay to laugh again" message.

"I instructed artists to try and stay close to their DNA and not go outside what is typical of their strip," Burford told CNN. "That being said, if you've got a strip that's very zany and silly, you don't want to be zany and silly on this day."

One example that Burford gave was Mother Goose & Grimm. "It is a bit zanier kind of a comic strip, and cartoonist Mike Peters has this wonderful, very funny image of Grimm, who's a dog, saying 'Oh no you, please, first' to a bunch of firemen at a fire hydrant. In other words, he's being deferential to the firemen to use the hydrant instead of the dog using it for what a dog would use it for. But it resonates and it works and I don't think that anyone would be offended by it either."

Does Burford anticipate any backlash from people who might think the idea is inappropriate? Or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, folks of the persuasion that tragedy and the funny pages just don't mix.

"Saturday Night Live" had a similar situation. For the first post-9/11 episode on September 29, 2001, the cast returned to 30 Rockefeller Plaza's Studio 8H after the unexpected hiatus. They were joined by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, of whom executive producer Lorne Michaels asked, "Can we be funny?" Giuliani's reply -- "Why start now?" -- gave Americans the sigh of relief they needed.

"I think it's a matter of cartoonists having a good handle on their craft," said Burford. "We've done a couple of special messages in the comics over the years. We did a special Earth Day celebration and everyone found a smart way to celebrate that in their comic. Last fall, we did a breast cancer awareness thing where we colored all the Sunday comics pink for a day and we put a 'Cartoonists Care' awareness on the comics and everyone was very comfortable with it. I think cartoonists know the sort of dialogue that they have with their readers, and even if it's not going to be a day where it's a joke or funny, they know how to communicate with their readers through the comic and most of them -- with that in mind -- were able to do something very good here."

Burford also pointed out that "People turn to the comics for a laugh, but they also turn to the comics for reflection on the world around them. I think the reason people love them in the first place is because they remind them of themselves, or they remind them of someone they know. It's the reason people clip them out and put them on their refrigerators. With that spirit in mind, the comics have a role to play in the national discourse -- the conversation that's going on. And, frankly, the only thing we're going to be talking about this coming Sunday -- and already in the days leading up to it -- is the 10th anniversary of 9/11."

People turn to the comics for a laugh, but they also turn to the comics for reflection on the world around them.
--Brendan Burford, comics editor for King Features Syndicate
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CNN also spoke to cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, creator of the comic strip "Mutts." McDonnell didn't think twice about participating in the collaboration.

"Comic strips are part of the American dialogue," McDonnell told CNN. "We come into people's homes every day via the newspaper and I thought this was a good opportunity for us to just be part of that discussion."

Mutts centers on a Jack Russell Terrier and a Tuxedo Cat who are best friends and often features their owners, various other humans, and other critters in their suburban neighborhood.

"Since the Sunday comic is in color," said McDonnell, "I actually re-did a strip I did for the one-year anniversary of 9/11 -- just bigger and in color -- which is my dog character, Earl, looking at his owner, Ozzie, and saying 'Heal' and I thought that, 10 years later, it was still appropriate. We're still in the process of healing."

Bruce Tinsley, creator of the comic strip "Mallard Fillmore," admitted to CNN that he isn't typically eager to participate in comics-wide events.

"I'm not usually much of a joiner," Tinsley told CNN. "I'm the one guy who makes fun of all the trash that the Earth Day demonstrators leave on the Capitol Mall instead of doing something in reverence of Earth Day."

"My cartoon usually stands out as maybe being in opposition to the politics of the rest of them, but this is something I think we can all unite behind."

Mallard Fillmore is a personified duck who works as a conservative reporter for a D.C. news station. Fillmore works among humans, however, and the fact that he's a duck -- as is often the case with anthropomorphic characters -- never comes up.

Tinsley recalled that in the weeks following September 11, 2001, "the first thing I had to deal with was the notion that some subjects are trivialized by being in a cartoon strip. I don't think that's as much the case as it used to be, but a lot of people feel like the subject is too serious or there's a sense that it just shouldn't be in the comics -- that it's making fun of the event just by the medium itself."

Tinsley opted to tell a true story that, according to the artist, "kept coming back and wouldn't let me go."

"About two and a half years ago," he continued, "I met the mother of a young man who was getting ready to be deployed to Afghanistan and he was a Marine. She said he decided to become a Marine on 9/11. He was watching the footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and he said right then, when he was 11 years old, 'I'm going to join the Marine Corps. I'm going to become a Marine,' and it shocked his parents -- they had no assurance that he was going to do that, it was just something this 11-year-old boy said, but he stuck with it. He kept it alive and now that young man is serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. I've never met him -- I've kept up with him through his parents -- but I'd be honored to meet him someday."

Tinsley subsequently heard similar stories, and knew that this weekend's remembrance theme was the perfect opportunity to highlight what he sees as a positive change that came from 9/11: "A generation of Americans was created that wanted to serve their country and do something about it. When you read about how 9/11 changed all of our lives, it's usually something that's not necessarily a positive change. But in this case, I thought, this is certainly not the horror that the perpetrators of 9/11 intended."

Tinsley used the young Marine's real name in the strip. "He's a kid from Columbus, Indiana. It's a very simple strip and I decided to make most of the cartoon black and white. I think most people see the Sunday funnies, especially, as a very light-hearted medium, and there's all that color and everything, and I thought I'd leave the color out."

"The personal aspect of this just kept coming back to me. Everybody knows a kid, can identify with a kid, or has some contact with a kid who has, for one reason or another, gone into the armed forces. In this case, that kid's story kept coming back and wouldn't let me go."

Tinsley said he's honored to be fortunate enough to tell the young man's story.

"I'm the one who's thanking him and all of the other young people like him that have made that decision," said Tinsley.

The cartoonists' works -- 93 strips in all -- can be seen in papers and news sites worldwide this coming Sunday. King features will be joined by Creators Syndicate, Tribune Media services, Universal Press Syndicate, and Washington Post Writers Group.

The collaboration will also be available online Sunday at http://cartoonistsremember911.com/, and comic strip exhibits paying homage to the victims are planned at art museums in New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

 
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