Comics: Meet the Artist
With Woody Wilson
Cartoonist "Rex Morgan, M.D.," "Judge Parker"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Dec. 6, 2002; 1 p.m. ET
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by Woody Wilson, who co-cartoons "Rex Parker, M.D." and "Judge Parker."
Join Tobin and Wilson online Friday, Dec. 6 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Rex Morgan, M.D.," "Judge Parker," and the art of cartooning.
Submit questions either before or during the discussion.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Suzanne Tobin: Hi, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our artist is actually the writer for two strips, Woody Wilson, who pens the story lines for both "Rex Morgan, M.D." and "Judge Parker." Woody is joining us from his office in Phoenix, where it's 75 degrees and sunny. Welcome, Woody, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Woody Wilson: Very glad to be with you.
Alexandria, Va.: Hi Woody,
Not being the original creator of either comic strip, what has the biggest challenge been for you to keep the strips "relevant" while remaining true to their original intent?
Woody Wilson: The challenge has always been keeping the reader engaged. I try to do that the same way my late boss, Dr. Nick Dallis, did it. I try to write well-researched stories which are both informative and interesting. Having Graham Nolan as the artist helps immensely because he gives the strip a current look. All I have to do is make the characters believable. That is what Rex Morgan, MD has always been about.
Potomac, Md.: How long have you been writing comics for?
Woody Wilson: I have been writing comic strips for nearly 20 years now. I met one of the founders of Universal Press Syndicate in 1978 and told him I was interested in creating a comic strip. It all started from there.
Bethesda, Md: We haven't seen much of baby Sara since the nanny storyline right after she was born. Is she going to get a more prominent role in the strip as she grows up? And what sort of a mother is June, who goes gallivanting around in basements with toxic waste anyway?
Woody Wilson: Yes, you will see more of baby Sarah as soon as she gets a little more interesting. And June will be staying home more to look after the baby. Stay tuned. By the way, you're not the first reader to ask that questions.
Baltimore, Md.: Is Judge Parker ever going to die? Or is it considered poor form to kill off the namesake of the strip?
Woody Wilson: No, I don't think our readers would stand for killing off Judge Parker. I am trying to bring him back more in recent years.
NoVa: Not so much a question about your strips, but a general question!
Why do serial strips punctuate everything with and exclamation point!
Event to the point of: Shh! The baby's sleeping!
Woody Wilson: It is a tradition in the comic business, particularly with these "continuity strips". It give emphasis to the dialogue. I've tried it without the exclamation points and it's just not exciting enough.
Leesburg, Va.: I know Rex Morgan is a big proponent of health care insurance reform, but it seems like he doesn't tackle some of the "hot" issues like AIDS. Do you have any plans to do a storyline on that in the near future?
Woody Wilson: Actually, we were the first comic strip to tackle the HIV/AIDS issue in 1995. It was a story about an emergency room physician who gets HIV from a needle prick. I think it's probably time to revisit the topic.
Great Mills, Md.: As near as I can tell every single line of non-interrogative dialog "spoken" by every single character in every single Rex Morgan comic ends with an exclamation point (sometimes three). Even mundane dialog. "Good Morning! I'm going to have coffee!!!" What's up with that? Does everyone in Rex's world shout constantly?
Woody Wilson: Like I told another reader, it's a tradition that gives the dialogue some urgency.
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India: Healthcare as a subject is often considered dry and unappealing except to proponents and involved individuals. What guidelines do you set yourself in crafting the illustrations for Rex Morgan's steady pace mainly vis a vis the slam-bam action of other daily cartoon strips?
Woody Wilson: You have to tackle these complicated subjects within a storyline that keeps people engaged. I don't want to preach, but health care reform is THE most important policy issue facing Americans today. To ignore it would be irresponsible.
Sterling, Va.: Where did you get the idea for the last storyline with the temporary secretary in "Judge Parker"--I think her name was Pat? I had trouble following it--it all seemed a bit convoluted to me with her having the goods on some shady politician or whatever who we never actually saw in the strip. Did I just miss something or do you often have storylines revolving around characters who never make an appearance in the strip?
Woody Wilson: Good question. Sometimes you just have to use a little technique to keep the story from getting a little cluttered with characters. We already Sam, Randy, the blonde bombshell, her husband, etc. I tried to move the story a little quicker. Sorry, you had trouble tracking.
Lyme, Conn.: Do you find any difficulty finding distinct voices for characters? Are there particular characters you find trouble doing?
Woody Wilson: Not really. I just sit down and create character. They come from the newspapers, friends, people I know, etc. I try to give them certain quirks and traits. Obviously, some are better than others.
Suzanne Tobin: What do you think is going to happen to the strips when you retire? Do you have children or apprentices waiting in the wings to take over the strips?
Woody Wilson: Very good question. No, I do not intend to retire. My late boss worked almost until the day he died at 79 years old. My son is a musician and my daughter is an actress. I don't see them apprenticing like I did. This is a wonderful job that I can do from anywhere on the planet, and I intend to keep doing it as long as my fingers and brain hold out.
Rosslyn, Va.: I haven't noticed Randy, Judge Parker's son, with any romantic interest or even a storyline centered around him? Is that deliberate? Is he just meant as a minor character to Sam and Abby? Or will you be focusing more on him in the future?
Woody Wilson: Randy's wife to be, Mimi (you might remember her) will be making an appearance shortly. We still need to marry him off. Randy will have an increasingly larger role as the strip continues. We will need a younger Judge Parker....!
Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.: My late mother was a great lover of the serial strips...I remember when I would call her to see how she was, she would reply, '"Oh, I'm just so worried about poor Abby. I just don't think that Sam Driver is ever going to make an honest woman of her." And then she would laugh.
I remember those comics being a bond between us, and just want to thank you for that.
Did you have any similar sorts of experiences with the comics while you were growing up that eventually steered you toward them professionally?
Woody Wilson: Yes! I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. These strips were my connection with the outside world, especially Apartment 3-G, which my late boss created. I loved the stories, the twists and turns. And the reader feedback is what I love most about this job. It is a wonderful irony that I am working on the strips I loved the most when I was a kid.
Washington, D.C.: Since you didn't originate either of the strips, I was wondering, do you have anything original that we could have a look at?
Woody Wilson: Stuck waaaaay back in my porfolio are two strips that never saw syndication. The Little Company and P.S. The Little Company was way ahead its time. It was the first strip about a professional woman with a house husband. The other strip, P.S. was a gag-a-day about a postal worker and the people on his mail route.
Washington, D.C.: What are some of your favorite comic strips?
Woody Wilson: I like Baby Blues for the quality of gags. I like all of Mort Walker's work and the strips that are created in his studio. I like Doonesbury, Non Sequitur, and dozens of others too numerous to mention. What I don't like are the baby boomer continuities without a decent story.
Suzanne Tobin: Mimi? Geez, I confess, I don't even remember a Mimi character? When did she debut in the strip? It must have been before I got this job, at least I hope it was, or my senior "moments" are extending into senior "years" before I'm even 50!
Woody Wilson: We brought in Mimi, Randy's girlfriend in about 1994. She came from a family who "owned" a cult-like religion. She is blonde, beautiful and smart. I'll bring her back next year.
Arlington, Va.: Can you give me the background on how Neddy and her sister came to be adopted by Sam and Abby? I was in graduate school and working full-time for several years, and I think I must have missed it.
Woody Wilson: Neddy and Sophie were homeless kids. They were living in a tent on Abbey's farm with their grandfather when Abbey found them. The grandfather died and Abbey adopted the kids, who, as it turns out, were filthy rich in their own right. That was about 1993. Abbey and Sam needed kids in their lives and I didn't want Abbey to do the pregnancy thing.
Shepherdstown, W.Va.: What town in West Virginia? I grew up in Parkersburg and my parents are from Oak Hill.
Woody Wilson: I, too, grew up in Parkersburg. My dad still practices law there. I was back in West Virginia last month.
College Park, Md.: When are the newspapers going to finally let go of some of the strips like yours that have been around forever so that we can give some new comics a chance? Don't you think your strips have had their day and it's time to move aside and give them the opportunity?
Woody Wilson: No, I don't think our strips have seen their "days". We put out good work and our readers appreciate the stories. Take a look at the new strips...are they funny? Interesting? Our strips have kept readers coming back to the newspaper day after day, year after year. Besides, there are only a handful of us left. There are plenty of mediocre strips that can go before my two strips.
Morgantown, W.Va.: Small town boy makes good! It's always reassuring to hear not all the success stories come out of New York or LA. Did you attend WVU? Go Mountaineers!
Woody Wilson: Briefly. My dad went to WVU law school and is a big booster.
Suzanne Tobin: I know you're an avid golfer, and I thought it was interesting that Rex started taking golf lessons in recent years. Are you going to give him golf as a hobby, or was that just a vehicle for the storyline about the golf pro who was losing his memory?
Woody Wilson: Not really. I concluded that golf was a little too mundane for Rex. I might give him another hobby...skeet shooting.
Silver Spring, Md.: Why do serial strips repeat the last frame the following day? Do you think readers won't remember what is happening?
Woody Wilson: Actually, we never repeat the last frame from the previous day. We will do a recap panel on Monday that brings the reader up to date from the Sunday strip. Some papers elect not to carry the Sunday strip, so we have to review what happened on Monday without losing any of the plot line.
Arlington, Va.: I have inferred that comic strip artists are often at odds with editors of news media which publish their strips. Consequently, the action and dialog become less controversial, but not as interesting. Do you or your colleagues suffer from morale/creativity problems owing to various forms of censorship? Thanks for sharing.
Woody Wilson: No, we just do our thing. It's up to the syndicate to deal with the editors. I have to say that King Features has never interfered with anything I've done...and we've done some controversial stuff. I have an editor in Orlando, who is wonderful, but I rarely hear from her. On the flip side, there are just some subjects that you can't do on the comic pages.
Alexandria, Va.: Attn: Dr.Morgan
Don't take John by cab to a hospital. You don't have his health plan's preapproval. Rather, have the hospital send over oxygen, I.V. fluid, antibiotics, and steroids. John
most likely has either meningococcemia or Legionella pneumonia (first discovered following a Am. Legion convention at a hotel in Philadelphia.)
Mr.Wilson: Why did Rex, June, Berna, Melissa and even Heather all undergo plastic surgery several years ago? Can't they accept that aging is natural? Why does
June still not have wrinkles? Botox?
Woody Wilson: No, John Woods doesn't have another of those illnesses. He has something completely different. Keep guessing. Remember, he was hunting on his brother's farm. As for the re-do of the characters, we got a new artist who updated the looks of all our characters. At first, the readers were appalled, but they are coming around now.
Brookland, Washington, D.C.: Neddy and her sister are wealthy is their own right? Then why were they living in a tent?
Woody Wilson: They had a rich relative who left them a fortune. Trouble was, nobody knew about it.
Suzanne Tobin: Skeet shooting?
Woody Wilson: Yes -- besides playing golf, I'm a skeet and sporting clays shooter.
Dallas: So what education or background did you have that prepared you for this career? I mean, I don't think there are any colleges or trade schools with courses on "Writing for the Comics Pages," are there?
Woody Wilson: I was a Newspaper journalist and just sort of drifted into this work because I wanted a job where I could work at home. The idea hit me about 23 years ago and became something of an obsession. It's what happens when you work very hard to achieve a dream. As for the writing of these stories, I had a very good teacher in my late boss, Dr. Nick Dallis.
Suzanne Tobin: What do you think of the plans that have been put forth recently about prescription drug coverage for seniors?
Woody Wilson: Prescription drugs for senior citizens is a must do for the new congress. There are millions of seniors without suplementary programs. Every day they have to make a choice about whether they can buy their meds or drive their cars. It's the same with the problem of those without medical insurance. These are huge problems in this country that must be addressed before the baby boomers hit the system.
Springfield, Va.: I have been reading serial comics (including Rex Morgan and Judge Parker) for close to 50 years. It seems that the "Morgan" characters don't age at all. Melissa is I think Younger now than she was 50 years ago. The Parkers age very slowly. I remember Randy was probably 17 or 18 when I started reading back in the mid to late 50s. Is there any plans to age characters more realistically.
Also -- It seems that serial comics are falling farther and farther out of favor with comic page editors. I cringe every time one is dropped for some "modern" strip that has no message, is not funny, etc. In the Post, we lost Apt. 3-G several months ago, and a few years ago it was Steve Roper. Do you have any plans to keep your strips alive and popular enough to survive?
Woody Wilson: No, the only character I plan to age is Sarah Morgan. As for our strips falling out of favor, it's more of economic problem than anything else. We do try to keep our strips current and entertaining, but my two strips have been around a long time. They've had 50 years of price increases and the newer strips are much, much cheaper. If you are an editor concerned about the bottom line, you will cut the story strips. It is up to me and our artists to make sure our readers are devoted enough to protest when that happens.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I seem to recall you appearing on Capitol Hill and lobbying a few years ago on some medical issues. What influence do you think a comic strip artist could possibly have on politicians? Where do you get your information from on health care issues?
Woody Wilson: Yes, I was on Capitol Hill for National Asthma Awareness Day. I had won an award and was just there signing comics. No, I don't think our comics can impact politicians...but we can educate readers on certain topics. My goal is to put pressure on policy makers by making the people more aware. And, when you have a potential readership of 30 million people, you can do some educating. I get my information from a myriad of places; medical journals, newspapers, the Kaiser news service, etc. I am deluged with information on health care.
Garrett Park, Md.: I have been reading Rex Morgan and Judge Parker since I can remember. Don't let the MTV generation, like the College Park questioner earlier, convince you to step aside. They have the attention span of a gnat. There are those of us who are willing to wait more than a few seconds for gratification. Keep up the good work!
Woody Wilson: I love you!
Oakton, Va.: Why do certain strips last for 50, 60, 70, 80 years? If a TV show lasts three that's a good run.
Woody Wilson: It doesn't cost as much to produce a comic strip.
Fairfax, Va.: Do you ever regret your decision to become a cartoonist, or is this something you've always known you wanted to do?
Woody Wilson: Never. I love this job! I work with the two best artist in the business and I have the freedom to travel and work. My wife and I lived in Barbados for nearly two years because I could work there. It's a wonderful life!
Alexandria, Va.: As a liberal, leftist physician. Rex probably believes in assisted dying, etc. Could you kindly have him euthanize the pigs and other animals in Pearls before Swine? Thanks.
Woody Wilson: Rex is not a liberal,leftist physician. Fact is, I'm a registered Republican. The issue of access to health care should not be a partisan issue. As for assisted dying...that might make for a good story. However, Rex is not licensed to practice in other comic strips. Stay tuned.
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much, Woody, for taking the time to answer our readers' questions. And don't feel bad about us sitting here in the snow while you're basking in the sunshine. Join us again in two weeks when "Comics: Meet the Artist" branches out to our online strips. Dan Piraro, of "Bizarro," will be joining us then. So if you haven't had the pleasure of reading his work, go online to washingtonpost.com and check it out! See you then.
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