Comic-strip dilemma: Address coronavirus, or not?

The "Curtis" comic strip.
(Ray Billingsley / King Features Syndicate)

Lag time makes it hard for some artists to predict where pandemic is headed


In the 35 years that Greg Evans has been drawing and writing the comic strip “Luann,” he’s tackled many difficult topics. Date rape. Menstruation. Cancer.

The novel coronavirus? Evans, a San Marcos resident, is observing his own form of social distancing.

For now, he doubts his characters will address the pandemic directly or wear protective masks. “I think readers want a variety on the comics pages,” he said. “I don’t think they want to see everybody talking about the coronavirus all the time.”

Lalo Alcaraz, the Lemon Grove native who does “La Cucaracha,” finds the subject unavoidable. “We’re having this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “We’re all in it together, we all have the same reference points. For me, it needs to be in there.”

In one of his strips, a clerk in a coffee shop expresses relief that a masked patron is a robber and not someone infected with the virus. In another, a parent with a school-age daughter stuck at home realizes how hard it is to be a teacher.

So it goes on the funny pages of America’s newspapers, as artists (and readers) wrestle with whether the comics should be an escape from the giant elephant in everyone’s living room, or a reflection of it.

Most strips so far haven’t mentioned the pandemic, and it can be jarring to see characters eat in restaurants, fly off to weekend getaways, work in offices, and chortle at parties with friends and neighbors while so much of the real world is shut down.

Some of the virus-avoidance is because of the individual nature of each strip. If it’s a gag-a-day comic like “Dennis the Menace,” how do you make jokes about something that’s killing people? If it’s a strip like “Luann,” with story lines that unfold over weeks or months, how do you introduce this new wrinkle into the plot without it appearing forced?

But a lot of the disconnect has to do with timing. Comic strips run in the daily newspaper, but they aren’t done the day before. They typically have deadlines up to eight weeks in advance.

“It is a hard curveball to try to hit,” said Jerry Scott, a San Luis Obispo writer who co-produces the strips “Zits” and “Baby Blues.” “With the news cycle being what it is right now, eight weeks might as well be eight years. I hesitate trying to be too current.”

When the novel coronavirus arrived, Scott and his collaborators (Jim Borgman with “Zits” and Rick Kirkman with “Baby Blues”) scrambled to replace strips that showed large gatherings of people. Although they weren’t addressing the pandemic head-on, they also didn’t want it to seem as if Jeremy, the high school kid in “Zits,” or the MacPherson family, in “Baby Blues,” were flouting rules aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

“We’re respecting the social-distancing idea and keeping everybody close to home,” Scott said. “But in the strips we’re doing now (which will run in July) we haven’t put masks on anybody because we don’t know how long those will be mandated. It seems like part of the job now is to be a bit of a fortune-teller.”

Positive feedback

Francesco Marciuliano, a New York writer, does “Sally Forth” with Minnesota illustrator Jim Keefe. They had put together a series of strips to run in late April about girlfriends Hillary, Nona and Faye going to a school dance. But as that time on the calendar approached, school in most places moved online, and dances got canceled.

Their first thought, Marciuliano said, was to add lettering to the finished strips saying something like, “This was written before the virus,” to give themselves wiggle room with disappointed readers.

“But it just didn’t feel reflective of what’s going on,” he said. “We decided we couldn’t do a strip that’s so far removed from what’s happening on a daily basis.”

They scrapped a months-worth of comics and did new ones that include the virus, he said. So this week, the Forth family launched an “Amazing Race”-like competition to fight boredom at home. Last week, a different character tried to talk about the pandemic with her mother, who struggled to offer more than just “everything will be fine” platitudes.

Connecticut-based cartoonist Ray Billingsley also pivoted to the virus for his strip, “Curtis.” He said the key has been “keeping the story line going without it getting too preachy or dull.”

In one series, Curtis learns that his teacher has tested positive for the coronavirus. In another, he complains about not being able to go to a movie theater or pizza parlor. His dad stops the whining by telling him, “Anne Frank and her family spent two years in an attic.”

Billingsley said he got that idea from a conversation he had with a friend, who was also bemoaning the stay-at-home rules. “What we’re going through is terrible, people are dying, but we’ve been through worse,” he said. “I think it can be helpful to remember that.”

In e-mail messages and social-media posts, readers seem supportive of his approach, Billingsley said. Alcaraz, whose politically pointed strip sometimes draws angry backlash, said he’s been getting positive feedback, too.

“I’m not saying it’s unusual; it’s just that haters usually are more motivated than fans,” said Alcaraz, who on Monday was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial cartooning. “I guess everyone is at home in front of a laptop and they are writing me messages.”

Alcaraz said it helps that he has a shorter turnaround than most cartoonists — about 10 days — which makes his strips seem fresher. He and his assistant, Joaquin Junco, are already talking about comics that will address the gradual easing of societal restrictions that are just starting in California.

“I think everybody’s tired of bad-hair-day jokes, anyway,” Alcaraz said.

The response to “Luann” has been mixed, according to Evans, who writes the strip now with his daughter, Karen. “Some readers say they really enjoy that the strip isn’t talking about the coronavirus,” he said, “and others are wondering how Luann and everybody else can ignore this global, historical phenomenon while they go blithely about their lives.”

In the end, he said, “you have to do what feels right for your characters and for your story.”