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For Comic Strip Authors In The Trump Era, 'No Art Should Live In A Vacuum'

Jan 21, 2018
Originally published on January 21, 2018 4:33 pm

Like President Obama before him, Trump's presidency is having an effect on areas seemingly outside of politics, including the worlds of professional sports, movies, theater — and perhaps a newer addition: comics.

We're not talking political cartoons on editorial pages or the politically-charged Doonesbury, but the previously lighthearted strips that gently follow issues like teen romances. Recently, these comics have become — dare we say it — more "woke," with topical story lines and critical issues playing out on the panels.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke with two syndicated comic strip authors, Francesco Marciuliano of Judge Parker and Hector Cantu of Baldo, to discuss the shift in subject matter and how it relates to today's political climate.


Interview Highlights

On how Judge Parker has changed

Marciuliano: Judge Parker, as it keeps going, the focus keeps going more and more on the female characters because it seemed certainly the case that that was the voice that needed to be heard. And that happened as a reaction to the Trump Administration. I don't know if all this would be happening to such a great fantastic degree if it wasn't Trump in the White House.

On how Baldo has changed

Cantu: You know, I'm always asking myself, if Baldo was real and his friends were real, what would they be facing right now? So, you know, it's a comic strip — sure, we're supposed to have fun, we're supposed to make people laugh, feel an emotion, get some kind of reaction from people by the last panel — but you can't ignore reality.

On whether the comics are part of a larger movement

Cantu: You know, there has to be some kind of stand, and I don't think comic strips are necessarily immune from that. Especially a comic strip that is about a Latino family. I cannot have a Latino family — and this sounds really weird, but — living in this fantasy land. There is some reality there. And I think it helps me as a writer to deal with that reality.

Marciuliano: You can't avoid it. And, you know, it's a tired cliche now ... What it really is is we've just entered another dimension where everything is defined by one person who is certain to have his voice in everything possible, so you can't avoid him. So if you're going to write a strip where you actually care about your characters there's no way that they can live in a vacuum. No art should live in a vacuum.

NPR's Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, as we have been thinking back over President Trump's first year in office, we also wanted to think about the ways President Trump is having an effect on areas seemingly outside of politics. For example, a lot has been written about athletes becoming more outspoken. We noticed something similar on the comics pages.

We're not talking about "Doonesbury," which is known for a political take or the cartoons on the editorial pages. Rather, we're talking about strips that mainly focus on lighter fare, like the antics of teens and dilemmas like lost homework. Even some of these have become, dare we say it, more woke, with edgier storylines about issues like immigration and prison conditions, those playing out in the real world.

To talk about this, we called two syndicated comic strip authors. Francesco Marciuliano writes "Judge Parker," which follows the adventures of a small-town judge and his crowd. He joins me from NPR's New York bureau. Thank you so much for coming.

FRANCESCO MARCIULIANO: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And from Dallas, Texas, Hector Cantu is the author of "Baldo," which follows the daily life of a Latino teenager and his family. Hector Cantu, welcome to you also.

HECTOR CANTU: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I've been reading both of your scripts for a long time. And, Francesco, I'm going to start with you. You just recently took over "Judge Parker," but that strip was created in 1952. So for people who aren't, you know, addicted to it like I am, how did the strip start out? And what was your vision when you took it over in - what? - 2016?

MARCIULIANO: Well, I believe the strip started out almost like it was a radio play based on, as you said, a small-town judge and his family. And in strip time, we're later that same day right now. No, I'm kidding. But we - yeah. And now - right now, it just seemed - at first, I tried a dynasty over-the-top approach when I took it like the '80s soap operas I used to watch. And then as the year went on, it certainly decided that that was not going to be the case for the strip.

MARTIN: Well, it's become really edgy in some ways. I mean, for example, one of the female characters goes to prison. She was set up by her male colleagues. Big topics like criminal justice reform and the way people are treated in prison, hair standing on end. Where did that idea come from?

MARCIULIANO: Well, initially, it just came from - when I took over the strip, there were about 35 subplots going at the same time. So I had to focus on a few. "Judge Parker," as it keeps going, the focus keep going more and more on the female characters because it seems certainly the case that that was the voice that needed to be heard. And that happened as a reaction to the Trump administration. I don't know if all this would be happening to such a great fantastic degree if it wasn't Trump in the White House.

MARTIN: Hector, what about you? Now, your strip, "Baldo," has been to this point kind of the life of a typical teenager who happens to be Latino. This year, it seems though, his Latinoness and that of the people around him seems to have taken on more importance. And you even took on the issue of immigration directly. Tell me about that. Now, you've been writing "Baldo" since 2000 - since the year 2000. So, you know, lots of things have happened since then. Why now?

CANTU: You know, I'm always asking myself if "Baldo" was real and his friends were real, what would they be facing right now? So, you know, it's a comic strip. Sure, we're supposed to have fun. We're supposed to make people laugh, feel an emotion, get some kind of reaction from people by the last panel. But you can't ignore reality.

So when this DREAMers story idea came up, it was a natural for me. Baldo's friend Cruz is going to be a DREAMer. And he's going to be, you know, if I was a Latino high schooler, I'd have friends who were DREAMers. And I'm not going to ignore that. You know, we can be having fun every day on the comics page, but there are people out there going through some very serious issues. And it's kind of hard for me as a cartoonist, as a writer to ignore that.

MARTIN: Well, the way you are introduced to this is really interesting because it just happens all of a sudden. I mean, to this point, you know, Baldo's mainly - his main thing is like, how can he not do his homework, you know what I mean? And hanging out with his friends and not doing his chores and his dad trying to get him to do his chores. But Cruz wants to show up to work at his - at a garage where apparently he works.

CANTU: He wants to visit.

MARTIN: And there's an immigration officer there. And it's like bam, you know.

CANTU: He turns and walks away.

MARTIN: He turns and walks away. And that's how you find out. Tell me about that. I mean, was that a struggle with you and your writing partner? Would you - did you debate this? Was this something you kind of took a deep breath before you did it or what?

CANTU: The what you want to write is things that come naturally. You want the story to be very organic and just just flow out. The idea was an immigration officer comes to Baldo's employment and starts questioning Baldo and his friend about their legal status because they've gotten tips that illegal workers are at this place of business.

So by the third day, I'm thinking, OK, what's the next step in this story? And I said, you know, I'm going to throw Cruz into the mix. He's going to walk up and he's going to turn around and walk away. And I'm going to come back to this. And so sure enough, we wrapped up that first week. The second week is where Baldo was walking with Cruz on the way home. And he reveals - he tells him that he is a DREAMer.

MARTIN: Do you feel that you two are part of - I don't know - part of a movement? Do you feel like you're part of a change maybe?

CANTU: You know, there has to be some kind of a stand, you know. And I don't think comic strips are necessarily immune from that, especially a comic strip that is about a Latino family. I cannot have a Latino family - and this sounds really weird - but living in this fantasy land, you know? There is some reality there. And I think it helps me as a writer to deal with that reality.

MARCIULIANO: Francesco, what about you?

MARCIULIANO: All I can tell you is - very much what Hector's saying, that you can't avoid it. And, you know, it's a tired cliche. It's a reality show. What it really is is we've just entered another dimension where everything is defined by one person who is certain to have his voice in everything possible so you can't avoid him. And if you're going to write a strip where you actually care about your characters, there's no way that they can live in a vacuum. No art should live in a vacuum. No art has to be a polemic. No art has to make a grand statement.

But if, you know, you - there are strips that seem like they're going to always be 1955. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know. But I would think if it wasn't reflecting anything, the strip would kind of just be stuck in amber. It wouldn't be alive. So while I'll never make a political statement because I can't, I will have them react to everything that's a fallout from it. And it's not simply on a Trump level. It's on every level. And you can't go, well, I don't get to be angry because I just want peace. Unfortunately, if you focus on the choir right now, we all lose.

MARTIN: That was Francesco Marciuliano. He writes "Judge Parker" and "Sally Forth." And Hector Cantu is the author of "Baldo."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER'S "DIFFORD-TILBROOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.