Sundays with the Simpsons
By Craig Shutt
It can be tough enough to translate the idiosyncrasies of a comic book into a comic strip (or vice versa), as previous installments of this column have demonstrated. Trying to adapt an animated television show to the pages of a comic book and then adding a comic strip to the mix can be even tougher. The team at Bongo Comics learned that first-hand--by taking some hard lumps--when it created a Simpsons comic strip after earlier getting the Simpsons comic book rolling. "It took us a long time to decide to do a comic strip, because we never came up with a formula for it that we were happy with," says Bill Morrison, editor/art director at Bongo and the man who Simpsons creator Matt Groening trusts to keep all Simpsons products and paraphernalia looking consistent. "We had talked about doing a strip with the licensing people, but we never did one due to a combination of not knowing how to do it well along with not having the time to devote to it."
That changed on September 5, 1999, when the Simpsons' tabloid-size, Sunday-only strip began running in about 50 papers across the country. Produced by Matt Groening Productions with much of the same team that handles the Simpsons comic books for Bongo, it stopped publication in America in September 2000 after a one-year trial.Now, after
several fits and starts in getting it rolling again, the team is anticipating a long life following its reintroduction to American papers in January 2002 in a half-page format.
The comic book and strip are based on Groening's phenomenally popular Simpsons animated show, produced for Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. It began as 48 short cartoons that were shown during The Tracey Ullman Show and graduated to a regular series in 1990 after a Christmas special at the end of 1989. In the spring of 1991, Groening began production of a fan magazine, Simpsons Illustrated, with friends Cindy and Steve Vance and Bill Morrison. The odd-sized quarterly (about one-and-a-half inches shorter than a comic book) was published by Welch Publishing Group, Inc. and featured Simpsons news, cartoons, jokes, trivia quizzes, interviews and puzzle pages. It continued through 1993, when Welch published the one-shot Simpsons Comics and Stories.
The success of that comic led to the creation of Bongo Comics Group, which publishes a variety of comics featuring The Simpsons. The new comics company released its first issues, Simpsons Comics #1 and Itchy & Scratchy #1, on November 25, 1993, and followed three weeks later with Bartman #1 and Radioactive Man #1. During 1994, the company produced one comic every three weeks, with most coming out on a bimonthly basis (a frequency the long-running Simpsons Comics maintained until it hit #50 in the fall of 2000, when the series went monthly).
Despite having a team of writers and artists at hand translating the television series into four-color adventures, the difficulties of condensing the idiosyncrasies of the Simpsons to the size of an American comic strip still seemed too daunting. The impetus for the strip's creation came in 1998 from overseas, when The Times of London offered a tabloid-size page as part of a special Saturday section it was producing. "We jumped at the chance," Morrison said. "It seemed like a lot of fun, and they were giving us a lot of freedom."
The result was a page that sometimes offered a conventionally structured comic but other times used the space to create parodies of movie posters and other popular culture plus horoscopes, games and puzzles. Morrison envisioned the space as a four-color blast of awe-inspiring fun, similar to how Sunday strips were treated in the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. "We had a whole big page to play with, so we wanted to do something different and cool."
Translating the strip to British English from American English wasn't a problem, Morrison said. "Springfield is in America, so we didn't have to change any activities or cultural aspects," he noted. "And since it was only one paper, the editors could contact us if there was a spelling change or something that needed to be done. So we didn't worry about that." The strip was well received in England when it began running January 9, 1999, and soon they were talking to Lee Salem, editor of Universal Press Syndicate. "We had expressed an interest to them in running a strip if they had an interest in doing one," Salem said. "They later told us they were doing one in England, and they'd be interested in doing it in the states as well. We agreed right away."
But the strip had several strikes against it from the beginning in America. First, it was a Sunday-only page in a land where dailies and Sundays typically go together. In addition, Universal offered it to papers on a one-year contract,
which would have to be renewable annually. The strip had been running for many months in England by the time the American version made its debut, Salem noted, so plenty of material was already in the pipeline to keep it ahead of schedule. Still, there were concerns about how long Bongo would be able to continue the strip. Bongo always intended to continue the strip if it proved successful, said Terry Delegeane, managing editor at Bongo, but the size and Sunday-only format had Bongo concerned about American newspaper editors' reactions. "A lot of papers shied away, although some bought it just to take it off the market from their competitors, with no intention of running it."
The initial reaction among cartoonists was not welcoming, Morrison admits. "We picked up a bad reputation, undeservedly, because editors had to bump several strips to make room for us. Other cartoonists got upset and figured we were the 800-pound gorilla doing whatever we wanted. They didn't realize the strip had started across the pond, and it hadn't been our intention to bump them by making our strip larger than theirs." The large size also was difficult for the creators to work with, Morrison says. The space lent itself to four tiers of as many as four panels per tier. "With a few panels less, we could have told a quick joke, and with a few panels more, we could have told more of a story," he explains. "We discovered early on that it's the wrong amount of space to really go either way."
The strip's writers included a number who had worked on the comic books, and they tended to think of the space in comic-book terms. "They'd try to cram a four-page Simpsons backup story into a 12- to 15-panel strip," Morrison says. Others tried to put three or four short gags into one strip, creating a herky-jerky pacing. Morrison cut back the strip to a 10-panel length and stretched one of the gags to fit, an approach he admits went against his natural tendencies. "I really had to fight the idea that I was cheating readers if I wasn't giving them more words. I felt that if it only took me three seconds to read it, it wasn't a good value."
Ultimately, he realized that reading time doesn't equate to value. "There are a number of strips I can read fast where I don't feel cheated," he says. "We decided that less can be more." Some readers definitely agreed, Delegeane said. "Some of my friends said they liked the strip, but it was too wordy and too long. I can sympathize, because I sometimes look at Sunday strips and figure the payoff won't be worth commitment in time." Added Morrison: "It's not the 1930s any more. The old strips had continuity that had readers enthralled, and they hung on every word. But we're just doing a one-day gag, and it can't take 10 minutes to get through it. People don't have the patience any more."
When the strip started in London, Morrison used writers who had experience writing for television, although not for The Simpsons. Later, he switched to people who wrote for the Simpsons comic books, as they understood the rhythm
and pacing of both the Simpsons' action and its quirky dialogue. Neal Alsip, a writer's assistant on the television show who has done some backup stories in the comics, was one of the strip's first writers. Key writers today include Gail Simone, who has written scripts for both The Simpsons and Bart Simpson, and Jesse Leon McCann, who has written a number of Simpsons stories with his partner Robert L. Graff, in addition to a variety of Cartoon Network comic books for DC Comics.
The two writers agree the strip poses challenges. "I find it much harder to do the strip than a comic-book story," said McCann, who has performed stand- up comedy and knew Morrison for many years before starting on the comic book a couple years ago. "But I also have a hard time writing the four-page backup stories for the comic book, because there's so little time to set up the story. But eight panels is even quicker! It's very quick-read, and it's hard to get a strong story with so few balloons and action to work with. There isn't the luxury they have on the show." Simone agrees. "In the comic, we have room to meander and enjoy non sequiturs. However, people like Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson managed to do wonders with eight panels." Maintaining the show's antic quick cuts and inside jokes is difficult in both the comic book and the comic strip, Morrison said. "There are lots of things we can do in animation in a minute that would take five pages in the comic book," he says. "It's too much space to devote to one gag.
And doing the throwaway gags is harder, because they're static on the page." One thing that does work for the team, he noted, is that most people who encounter the comic book or strip already know the characters. "They know the voices, so we can write for Homer or others knowing that the readers will hear the inflection and know how the words are being said. We don't have to worry they're misunderstanding what is meant or how it should be taken." McCann noted
the flipside of this reader recognition. "It can sometimes be a limitation, because we have to keep asking, ÔWould Milhouse really say that?' That wouldn't happen in a less familiar comic situation--and fans wouldn't be so certain they could tell if it rang true or not," he said. "But it's definitely helpful to know I can write Homer saying, 'Woo-hoo!' and know the readers hear it the same way I do."
Similarly, spelling Marge's displeased growl is tricky, but it's made easier because readers know what is meant, he notes. Consulting the television writers is no help, since they've never codified these exclamations for the voice actors. Even Homer's D'oh!, recently inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, is said to still be written in the television scripts as "Annoyed grunt." Simone agrees that because readers have the voices in their head, dialogue is the key to making the comic book and strips come to life. The cast, she said, "can give nuances and depth to the script. We have to rely on the reader's memory of those voices, and so it's very important to get the speech patterns dead on."
KEEP THE FAMILY ALIVE
Despite that familiarity, the comic-strip writers usually follow Groening's basic rule: Keep The Family Alive. In other words, despite the wide-ranging and popular cast of supporting characters, writers should keep the Simpson family in the foreground. Typically, that means featuring Bart or Homer in every strip in some way. "Some people aren't familiar with the entire cast or even the show, but they recognize Homer and Bart through the pop-culture phenomena they've become," Morrison said. The writers also keep in mind that the comic strip comes into the family home with the daily newspaper, while the comic-book audience seeks out the product. "The comic-strip audience may not be hard-core Simpson fans, so clarity is a key element," Simone said. "The jokes should make some sense even to those with only a passing familiarity with the show."
Both the comic book and strip aim for a G rating, McCann noted. "We write for ourselves, but we know Matt and Bill want us to stay away from anything really ribald." But he adds that there's a bit of a "metamorphosis" taking place with the introduction last year of the Bart Simpson comic, which is aimed at younger kids. With that available at the G-rated level, "the regular comic is being allowed to be a little more ribald. But we're still keeping it G/PG." Simone, who writes many of the Bart stories, agreed. "In the Bart book, I enjoy doing more fantasy-oriented stories: Bart as a cowboy, Bart with a shrink ray, that sort of thing. I really enjoy writing with a smart-kid audience in mind." McCann too doesn't feel restricted, he says. As a stand-up comedian, he always disdained comics who pandered. "The bathroom humor and jokes about sex and drugs are easy laughs," he said. "When you do something funny in another area and it gets a laugh, it's more rewarding. That's what I aim for in my humor."
ITCHY & SCRATCHY'S TIME BOMB
The Bongo team learned a hard lesson about the differences between creating Simpsons material for animation and comic strips early in the strip's run in America. On December 19, 1999, the strip featured a Christmas adventure of Itchy and Scratchy, the mouse and cat who star in the extremely violent cartoons the characters watch on the television show. On the show, their bloody activities speed by rapidly, and the primary joke is the way Bart and especially Lisa laugh hysterically at this wildly inappropriate cartoon fare. Showing the cartoons in the context of the animated show is one thing; doing it as a stand-alone comic strip turned out to be something else.
Titled "It's a Wonderful Slice," the strip depicted Itchy the mouse pretending to show a depressed Scratchy the cat what Itchy's life would be like without Scratchy, proceeding into a characteristically over-the-top display of cartoon violence. "I really should have known," Morrison sighed. "We knew from having used them in the comic book that doing Itchy &
Scratchy in animation, where it goes by quickly, is different from having art on the page that is a static, graphic image that you can linger over. It's more disturbing that way. In addition, I wasn't thinking about the fact that it would be read on the Sunday morning before Christmas, with parents sitting at breakfast with their kids. It's a different situation from a comic book, which you read on your own. This is more of a family thing. It definitely was an error in judgment on my part, because it's a different audience reading in a different setting."
In Morrison's defense, the strip had run in London with no adverse reaction, and no one at either Bongo or Universal expressed concerns. Said Universal's Salem, "It ran in London with no trouble. We saw it and decided to keep our fingers crossed that the same would happen here." Ironically, a different strip had been rejected earlier by the Times. It featured pages from an etiquette book by Cletus Delroy, the hillbilly character, with one vignette showing Cletus asking a foreign dignitary, "Parlez vous wife swap?" "They said that was over the line," Morrison said. "We were surprised, because there were other things we thought were edgy or over the line, and they were fine with those." London may have been fine with the Itchy & Scratchy strip, but a few American papers weren't. The Chicago Sun-Times, which had been running the strip for only three weeks, canceled it immediately and ran an apology in the December 21, 1999, editions that called the strip "gross beyond what you'd expect to see in a family newspaper." Editor-in-chief Nigel Wade said he meant "no disrespect" to fans of the television show in canceling the strip. "On TV, it flashes right by. It doesn't register in the same way," he told the Associated Press. "I think the best thing to do was to acknowledge a mistake and cancel immediately."
The Sun-Times wasn't alone, even if it was the highest profile. The Seattle Times also canceled the strip, and the Detroit Free Press was reported to have "expressed concerns" and put the strip on hiatus. Salem says about four or five papers canceled the strip, including The Los Angeles Times, which dropped it a few weeks after the Itchy & Scratchy appearance for "space concerns." Morrison says he was most surprised that the papers killed the strip completely rather than simply not running it that week. "I think the editors were looking for a reason to drop it," he said. "It was big, they were getting complaints about the strips they'd had to eliminate to put us in, and they reacted quickly to eliminate the problem. But still, I feel responsible for causing the problem, because it was my call to let it go out."
SMALLER SIZE CREATED
The strip has run in London continuously since it started and also runs in Czechoslovakia and Italy, where a sizable backlog of pages awaits American audiences. On January 15, 2000, Bongo trimmed the size of the overseas strip to the
traditional one-third page size to better fit the American market's requirements, although domestic papers continued to be offered the tabloid size through the end of the one-year contract. (The Times now enlarges the smaller strip and runs it sideways on its tabloid page.) That size necessitated that the strip focus on linear storytelling rather than games and puzzles, creating a more traditional (and less varied) approach.
The new size and focus have made the strip click, Morrison said. "I think we're really hitting our stride with the strips we're producing now and doing more strips that are quick and funny and have that nice ironic twist that I like." It took a little while for the team to adjust to the new smaller size, he said, "but now I feel that the stuff we're doing is stuff that I'd enjoy reading myself." Bongo and Universal planned to start selling the new, smaller version to American papers at the beginning of 2001, but those plans were delayed while details were worked out.
Bongo announced in its comics that the delay was "unfortunately, due to a necessary timetable that must be followed to market, sell, woo, coax, beg, influence, urge, enlist and cajole the beloved editors at many an excellent metropolitan and suburban publication to print our fine weekly strip." The target date was changed to May 6, with a few papers signing on quickly, but then that launch too was delayed. Several interested papers began to reduce their comic sections, and Universal told Bongo it wasn't a strong market to be selling into, says Delegeane. The syndicate rescheduled the introduction to begin after its fall sales meeting, which was held in mid-September. Universal relaunched the strip last January.
NO DAILY IN SIGHT
Universal's Salem admits that adding a daily strip to the Sunday could make it more popular with American editors. "From our perspective, if they'd do a daily, it would help sell it," he says. "But I think they have enough creative activity on their plates to keep them busy right now." Morrison certainly does. He not only oversees all the comics and strips but every other image of the Simpsons produced for merchandising and publication. He understands the necessity for his role, even if it leaves him little time for his first love, creating strips. He has written and drawn only one Simpson strip, the Charles Schulz tribute that ran February 13, 2000. "I enjoy doing my job, but it's difficult spending my day looking at everyone's work and seeing how much fun they're having."
Certainly, a daily would raise the bar for the creators, writer McCann said. "If I was writing it, I wouldn't be able to do any other work. It would be such a challenge to be funny every day," especially while maintaining the Simpsons' brand of humor. Simone has her doubts that a daily would work in any event. "They don't lend themselves to that format, I think," she said. McCann suggested that the best approach might be to create a combined continuity/humor strip,
along the lines of For Better or For Worse, to maintain the television show's storyline format while injecting daily humor. Although it would be labor-intensive for him especially, Morrison doesn't reject the notion of a daily strip out of hand. "We haven't really talked about one, but if Univesal wanted it, we'd consider it."
Such an undertaking would require more creative talent, a challenge Morrison already encounters in producing consistently high-quality results. "I haven't yet found one person who can do the Sunday strip regularly and find the right tone every time," he said in explaining why several writers work on it. "I'd love to find one person who could do the entire thing, but it hasn't happened. I'm constantly looking for people." In fact, he uses the comic strip as a tryout ground for new candidates for writing Simpsons comic books. "It's much easier for me to fix something in a 10-panel strip than fix up a four-page backup story in a comic book." McCann, for one, doesn't believe the team approach hurts the strip. In fact, he says, it's one of the property's strengths. Groening created the characters and show so it could be produced by a lot of people, as is necessary with an animated show, he pointed out. "By design, it's been a big group effort that many people could contribute to since the beginning," McCann says. "It's been one of the greatest team efforts in comics history. And I hope, in my small way, that I've added to that."
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