STEVE KELLEY AND JEFF PARKER have a shorthand term for their shared strip. “We both,” Parker says, “often refer to ‘Dustin’ as a ’sitcomic.’ ”
That word for the work by the verbal craftsman and visual draftsman is entirely apt.
“Dustin” centers on the titular 23-year-old college grad who has “boomeranged” back home, living with his lawyer dad, radio-host mom and ambitious teen sister. In writing the strip, Kelley focuses on finding the situational comedy among the members of the Kudlick family, as well as the minor characters who work in service to the laughs.
The strip’s blend of written and pictured wit has been recognized by the National Cartoonists Society, and “Dustin” — distributed by King Features Syndicate — has amassed a client list of about 320 papers since its January 2010 launch. Today, “Dustin” adds The Washington Post to that list. (To make room, “Tank McNamara” moves to online-only at washingtonpost.com/comics.)
“I think ‘Dustin’ owes its modest success to the fact that at its core is a modern American family ...., “ Parker tells Comic Riffs — albeit a family that also happens to reflect a symptom of these economic times.
“It’s interesting to note that Dustin himself wasn’t consciously created as an archetype of the growing number of unemployed young adults returning home as refugees of the recession,” Parker tells us. “But instead, Steve and I view Dustin as an oddball, idealistic dreamer who chooses not to surrender to life at the grindstone just yet. He’s sort of a round peg for a square cubicle.”
Yet many real-life boomerang 20somethings have related to Dustin, the artist says. “They perceived his situation as not so much of a choice as it is a plight,” Parker tells Comic Riffs. “So we’re more sensitive to what many kids his age are experiencing these days.”
“We created the strip around believable characters and relationships that are naturally at odds with each other and, as a result, produce humor,” Kelley tells Comic Riffs.
Dustin’s move back home, Kelley says, “strains the natural order of things. [Mom] Helen is the sunny optimist to [dad] Ed’s obsessive practicality. Meg, the family’s teenage daughter, is studious and driven — her father’s daughter — and an obvious foil for her free-spirited older brother.”
Kelley emphasizes that to keep the writing fresh, he employs what he calls an “open windows” approach, which permits him to bring minor characters into the scene at his whim.
“Dustin works temporary jobs — everything from tow-truck operator to nude model for a community college art class,” Kelley says. “Ed is a lawyer who represents a motley array of clients, and Helen hosts a call-in radio show. With ‘Dustin,’ pretty much anything is possible.”
As with some other popular strips by two cartoonists — including ”Baby Blues” (Jerry Scott and Rick Kirkman) and “Zits” (Scott and Jim Borgman), each member of the comic team is highly complimentary of (as well as complementary to) the other’s talents.
“Jeff moves the camera around constantly, forever challenging the confines of his two-dimensional playground,” Kelley says of the engaging artwork of Parker, who also draws political cartoons for Florida Today.
“Steve’s joke-writing is expert, and his smart, subtle humor is a perfect match for this type of strip, and the real glue that holds it all together,” Parker says of Kelley, who is also a veteran stand-up comedian (he has appeared numerous times on “The Tonight Show”) and editorial cartoonist (Kelley was among those just let go by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as the historic paper recently ended its print edition.)
“I like to say, ‘While I may have a sense of humor,’ “ Parker tells Comic Riffs, “ ‘Steve has a sense of funny.’ “
And so, as a result, does their boy Dustin.
“Whenever I mention the premise of ‘Dustin’ to people,” Parker notes, ”many will say, ’I have a ‘Dustin’ at home.’
“’Yeah,’ I reply, ‘but ours is funny.’ “