This week’s minorities in cartoons entry is Ronald-Ann Smith, a recurring character in Berkeley Breathed’s comic strips “Bloom County” and “Outland.”
Ronald-Ann (named after then-President Ronald Reagan) is a grade-school aged African-American girl with a highly optimistic view of the world. This comes in spite of her impoverished environment (the strip says she’s from the “wrong side of the tracks” of Bloom County, and her doll’s head was shot off in drug-related gang wars). Ronald-Ann often spent time around “Bloom County”‘s biggest star, Opus the penguin.
After “Bloom County” ended, Breathed shifted to his new Sunday-only strip, “Outland,” with Ronald-Ann as its main star. Eventually, however, Ronald-Ann was soon displaced by the return of Opus (and some other “Bloom County” characters), and eventually disappeared from the strip altogether (save, at least claims Wikipedia, a brief cameo toward the end of the run of Breathed’s following and final newspaper strip, “Opus”).
I’m sure everyone’s been following the brouhaha here in Wisconsin between organized public-sector labor (which—in interest of disclosure—includes Yours Truly) and newly-elected Republican governor Scott Walker’s bill in the state legislature to eliminate collective bargaining for almost all public-sector unions. (One guess which side of this debate I’m on.) All of which has led me to think about examples of how unions are portrayed in animation and comics… a few examples I’ve thought of:
Unsurprisingly, “The Simpsons” have poked fun at unions on various occasions (including their downsides/problems with corruption). Still, unions’ most prominent role came in the fourth season episode “Last Exit to Springfield.” In this episode, Homer becomes the head of the power plant’s union to try to keep the plant workers from losing (on a whim of Mr. Burns) their dental plan, so he won’t have to pay for braces Lisa needs. This leads to the usual amusing range of classic-Simpsons humor, including the union going on strike (which Mr. Burns deals with badly). One of the best parts is the brief parody of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Unions and/or strikes appeared twice in this strip: in the first storyline, Santa Claus’ elves go on strike, only to be fired by President Reagan (parodying the famous air traffic controllers’ strike of the early 80s, where Reagan fired said controllers). The second, longer storyline had the strip’s characters’ union walk out and go on strike over their comic’s “working conditions.” The executive in charge of the strip promptly decides to replace the striking characters with scabs (including a cameo by a parody of political cartoonist Pat Oliphant’s little corner-of-the-strip bird as Opus’ “replacement”). Unfortunately for our heroes, they didn’t win this labor fight (never mind that within their universe and in real life, their strip went defunct several years later…).
Apparently, despite decades of loyalty to his employer, Clark Kent’s been on strike at least once: “Superman” #271 from 1974 features Clark, along with his fellow WGBS-TV employees, went on strike. (From 1971 through 1986, the “Daily Planet” was owned by Galaxy Broadcasting, with Galaxy’s headquarters/flagship station WGBS-TV integrated into the “Daily Planet” building. Clark was reassigned as WGBS’ evening news anchor.) Clark’s boss, Morgan Edge (owner of Galaxy), was empathetic to the strikers’ demands, but told them said demands would have to be cleared with his fellow head honchos first. Since Clark wasn’t squeezing coal into diamonds for cash and/or hitting up his friend Bruce Wayne for loans, I’ll assume the strikers were successful.
AfterElton, a website dedicated to covering LGBT people in various media, published an article today about gay and lesbian characters in comic strips today, or rather, their lack of such representation. Lawrence of “For Better or For Worse,” despite being at best a secondary character in the strip, was heavily cited as one of the *bigger* gay and lesbian characters in mainstream comic strips today (Mark in “Doonesbury” and a few characters in “9 Chickweed Lane” being the others).
The article pointed out several decent reasons why gays and lesbians aren’t represented in comics (declining newspaper readership leading to conservative decision-making, conservative attitudes toward what to put on the comics page in general, too many conservative readers who’d complain, etc.), though I’d also add how stagnant in general too many newspaper comics are, presumably a byproduct of said conservatism. Some comic strips, like “FoxTrot” and “Pearls Before Swine”, point out such examples (ancient comic strips taking up too much space, etc.), though even back in the 80s and 90s, “Bloom County” and “This Modern World” noted such problems with newspaper comics as well.
As the article’s comments section points out, webcomics, while not directly addressing the problems of *newspaper* comics, might be one means of liberalizing the comic strip form overall, since being published online allows for a more liberal range of topics covered and types of characters presented. For example, “The Boondocks” was originally a webcomic, before getting published in newspapers in the late 90s and first half of this decade. Webcomics also have the advantage of appealing to more narrow/obscure readership interests (such as the webcomic “Shortpacked!”, which features various jokes about action figures and collectibles that probably wouldn’t appeal to the readership of, say, “Blondie” or “Hi and Lois”). Perhaps daily newspapers’ websites could start offering some sort of webcomics sections/selections to read in their online comics sections, in addition to the usual “Hagar”, “Garfield” and “Dilbert” offerings, as a way of freshening things up…