The comics section is probably the last place a reader would look for political equilibrium.
It’s light. It’s funny. It’s the comics.
But it’s also Chicago, one of the largest and most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. And that means even the funny pages don’t escape scrutiny when it comes to race issues.
Many papers have struggled to bring color, in the use of strips by and about minorities, to their comic pages. The Chicago Tribune has what associate managing editor of features,
Geoff Brown, calls the “original comics committee,” a group of 11 editors, writers and page designers, to go over what gets in the Sunday comics.
The Sun-Times added “Curtis” and “Clear Blue Waters,” two minority-centered comic strips.
The Daily Southtown has at least one ethnic-based strip and the Daily Herald has a small sprinkling of minority characters in its section.
“It would be an embarrassment not to have strips with a diverse cast of characters,” the Tribune’s Brown said. And not just as specks of color in the background, but as dominant characters.
“If they’re just in the crowd it doesn’t have any impact,” he said.
It’s an awareness that has propelled many Chicago papers to take a serious look at their minority representation, in not only their news sections, but their comics as well. The distributors of strips “realize more and more that newspapers are interested in broadening their comics,” John O’Brien, associate managing editor of the Southtown said. And so the distributors, called syndicates, look for more and more racially specific cartoons to meet the demand, he said.
So when Brown, an African-American, stepped into his role overseeing the comics section in 1999, he made it a point to include more diversity. He decided to do away with segments that had “lost their mojo,” and go with “fresher” cartoonists. One of those was Aaron McGruder, creator of “The Boondocks,” a nationally acclaimed strip that zeros in on black consciousness and political aspects of American culture.
“It’s very important [to include images of color in the comics section], especially in Chicago,” Corey Hayes, 35, who is black, said over his lunch in the Loop. “Traditionally [Chicago has] been so segregated. We need to bring more diversity and awareness.”
Tabitha Last, 35, of Lakeview, is a white female who enjoys the addition of the Boondocks strip. She said that placing minority characters in the comic section is important because minorities are part of everyday life and the comics should reflect that.
“It makes it a little more interesting,” Last said. “It gives it more perspective.”
With that said, Brown said he still receives his fair share of complaints, especially about the notorious comic strip, which takes aim at the unspoken truths of politics and race in America.
And while the numbers may seem small ?” one or two minority comic strips ?” adding a new comic to the pages of an already established comic section can be harder than it looks.
Editors have to contend with loyal readers of existing strips and the availability of space. Editors also have to account for quality. It’s not good enough to just add comics just for the sake of racial diversity.
But the options are increasing, and the landscape of mainly black minority characters may prove to broaden even more.
“Every time I talk to the syndicates I beg them for a Latino strip,” Brown said at the Tribune. “I want one so bad!”