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Comics will salute essential workers by hiding symbols in their Sunday strips

“Loose Parts” creator Dave Blazek, who has endured personal loss during the pandemic, is among creators who will say “thanks” to essential workers in their comics. (WPWG 2020)

Dave Blazek’s job is to make you forget life for a few seconds and laugh. Through his syndicated comic, “Loose Parts,” he offers quirky observations and absurd scenarios — but lately, a pressing question has popped into his personal thought balloons as a daily gag cartoonist:

Should he let “the new normal” of pandemic life in 2020 invade his strip’s silly, sealed-off world?

“I understand that the coronavirus — and all that it has changed — is tremendous fodder for ideas, and it certainly has the benefit of common experience that so many cartoons tap deep into,” Blazek says. “But I just decided to not address it in ‘Loose Parts.’ ”

Instead, Blazek is among at least 70 cartoonists who plan to pay visual tribute to first responders and other essential workers in their print and online color art on Sunday. The coordinated “cartoon gratitude” campaign will feature a handful of icons embedded into the strips, to thank everyone from medical personnel (symbolized with a cartoon mask) to scientists (a microscope symbol) to teachers (an apple) to food workers (a fork).

The idea began with “Baby Blues” co-creator Rick Kirkman, who contacted some of his fellow cartoonists about coordinating a campaign while sheltering in place. Kirkman’s syndicate, King Features, and the National Cartoonists Society helped boost the initiative, as did Andrews McMeel Syndication.

June 7 marks the weekend that the NCS was set to hold its Reuben Awards convention in Kansas City, Mo.; the event was canceled because of coronavirus-related concerns.

Kirkman hopes readers will get into the spirit of the “big thank-you search” for symbols — like an “I Spy” game. “Each time they find one,” he says, “it’s a little vibe of gratitude for the people it represents.”

He hopes that feeling of gratitude in turn will spur readers to give to charities aiding people during the pandemic. Some of the cartoonists will cite specific charities in their comics, and participating strips (including “Mutts,” “Rhymes With Orange,” “Speed Bump” and “Pearls Before Swine”) will be viewable online at ComicsKingdom.com and GoComics.com.

Blazek decided to use the symbols, including a “hidden” cart (a nod to grocery workers) and a steering wheel symbol (for delivery and transportation workers), in his “Loose Parts” strip, which is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.

For the Valley Forge, Pa.-based cartoonist, thanking essential workers hits intensely close to home. Blazek’s father-in-law, Ray Beach, died of covid-19 in Lancaster, Pa., and his daughter Olivia Blazek is a doctor doing her residency in Charlottesville.

“One of the more searing memories of my life will be watching my wife say her final goodbye to her dad over an iPhone held up by a nurse we never saw,” Blazek says. “There was a part of my brain that was eminently aware that someone who knew none of us was holding that phone in silence.”

Blazek says he thinks not only about how difficult the pandemic is for patients and their families, but also about “how oddly disorienting it must be” for health-care workers, too.

Kirkman says he feels a debt to people who are trying to save lives and keep essential services functioning. “But you can’t go around and thank all of them personally and stuff money in their pockets,” he says, so perhaps charity donations sparked by the comics will make a difference.