Cartoonists to Protest Lack of Color in the Comics

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

You could call it a sit-in, of sorts. Perhaps a sketch-in would be more appropriate, a comic call to arms, with cartoonists of color protesting for greater presence in newspaper pages. Protesting in the best way they know: drawing about it, en masse, all on the same day.

Because, these artists say, "Candorville" does not equal "Boondocks" or "Curtis" or "Wee Pals" or "Herb and Jamaal." And "La Cucaracha" does not equal "Baldo" or "Gordo" and especially not "Cafe con Leche."

But for one day -- this Sunday -- 11 cartoonists of color will be drawing essentially the same comic strip, using irony to literally illustrate that point. In each strip, the artists will portray a white reader grousing about a minority-drawn strip, complaining that it's a "Boondocks" rip-off and blaming it on "tokenism." "It's the one-minority rule," says Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha"). "We've got one black guy and we've got one Latino. There's not room for anything else."

Plans for the protest began with Cory Thomas, a Howard University grad whose strip, "Watch Your Head," deals with college life at a predominantly African American university. Thomas, Trinidad-born and D.C.-bred, says he was frustrated by the number of times his strip was turned down by newspapers that didn't feel the need to sign him up, because, well, they already had a black comic strip. Most editors, he says, only allow for one or two minority strips, viewing them all as interchangeable. Never mind that his strip is a world away in sensibility from the scathing sociopolitical musings of Darrin Bell's "Candorville" or the family-focused fun of Stephen Bentley's "Herb and Jamaal."

So Thomas drew a strip addressing that, and then enlisted the help of Bell. From there, they got others to agree to participate: Bentley, Jerry Craft ("Mama's Boyz"), Charlos Gary ("Cafe con Leche" and "Working It Out"), Steve Watkins ("Housebroken"), Keith Knight ("The K Chronicles"), Bill Murray ("The Golden Years"), Charles Boyce ("Compu-toon") and editorial cartoonist Tim Jackson. Alcaraz, who says he found out too late to meet his deadline, will be chiming in on Feb. 11.

(Full disclosure: Both "Candorville" and "Watch Your Head" are syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. The Post runs four comic strips by cartoonists of color: "Candorville," "Watch Your Head," "Baldo" by Hector D. Cantu and Carlos Castellanos, and "Curtis" by Ray Billingsley, which runs during the week but not in the Sunday pages.)

"I'd be shocked if an editor ever looked at a new white strip and said, 'We already have a white strip,' " Bell says.

Still, others argue that it's not that simple. For one, there are demographics to consider, says Rick Newcombe, CEO of Creators Syndicate, which syndicates "B.C.," "Herb and Jamaal," "Working It Out" and "Cafe con Leche."

"In defense of newspaper editors," says Newcombe, "it's only natural to buy [comic strips] according to categories. You might have one according to sports, or one according to office etiquette or work. But I agree with the cartoonists: It should be colorblind."

Observes Lee Salem, president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate, which includes on its roster "Doonesbury," "Baldo" and Nate Creekmore's "Maintaining": "There are only so many spaces on the page. News editors are going to have to face 'How much uproar am I going to have if I drop a strip I currently run and replace it with a new strip?' "

If racial quotas are a factor, "it's a minor one," says Salem, whose syndicate launched "Boondocks." "I tend to think that quality prevails."

In a contracting industry, where space is at a premium, it is that much harder for any cartoonist looking to make a mark. Then, too, newspapers struggle -- as do all media -- with minority representation in their newsrooms. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the percentage of minority journalists working in daily newsrooms declined slightly from 13.82 in 2006 to 13.62 in 2007.

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