Comic sense: Controversial, genre-bending cartoons join J-W lineup

For a guy who writes comics, Scott Stantis sure receives a pile of death threats.

“I was at a public event once where a guy was running up to punch me in the face. I had the quintessential ‘huh’ moment,” Stantis recalls.

“Most of them when you meet them face to face are far less confrontational than over e-mail. People are just jerks on e-mail. I have two sons, and I’ve gotten e-mail that said, ‘I hope both your kids are drafted and killed in Iraq.'”

Other more direct threats to his family resulted in having to post guards outside his house who would check the underneath of his car with mirrors.

Somehow Stantis manages to generate plenty of humor despite all this.

The veteran newspaper cartoonist is enjoying his biggest success yet with “Prickly City.” The strip is a “Bloom County”-esque look at culture with a decidedly right-leaning slant. As such, it makes a lot of readers angry.

“It started off as a strictly conservative strip. But I have a juvenile response to authority. I tend to go after whoever is in charge,” says Stantis, whose day job as editorial cartoonist for the Birmingham News in Alabama also adds to his reputation.

“Prickly City” is one of two new comics that will appear in the Journal-World starting today. These will replace “For Better or For Worse” and “Opus,” both of which have been retired by their creators.

The new comic is built around a sensible, young Hispanic girl named Carmen, and the gullible coyote pup Winslow who is her best friend and sounding board when it comes to hot-button issues.

Stantis, 49, set the strip in the American Southwest because the landscape reminded him of politics.

“It’s bare, and anything that’s out there is going to prick you, kill you or eat you,” he says. “It’s a very hostile environment.”

Art imitating life

The other comic that will begin running in the Journal-World, “Home and Away,” isn’t as much of an edgy magnet for outrage. But the strip is a modern spin on the classic household comic. And in some family circles (circuses?) it might seem rather subversive.

“I’d say it’s about 95 percent based on our lives,” says “Home and Away” creator Steve Sicula.

“I just did a rough for my Sunday strip. My wife was cracking up. She said, ‘I can’t believe you’re including that.’ If you ask her what the strip is about, she tells everybody, ‘He mocks me.’ But I mock myself more than I mock her.”

“Home and Away” concerns typical comics fodder such as juggling kids and careers – but with a twist.

The strip involves Sam and Sandy Szwyk. Sam telecommutes and handles most of the domestic chores, while Sandy is the bread winner who is frequently away on business.

Sicula got the idea when having dinner with his wife, who had just won a sales contest where the prize was expensing a fine meal.

He recalls, “We went to a steak restaurant in Dallas, and the entire time the waiter kept talking to me. He was like, ‘What do you do for a living, sir?’ I could just feel my wife seething on the other side of the table. She’s like, ‘I’m footin’ the bill for this and he’s not giving me the time of day!'”

On the drive home, Sicula realized “there’s got to be a whole lot of people like this. As much progression as we’ve made about doing away with the stereotypical housewife, there’s still a little seed in those people’s brains.”

Launched this spring to about a dozen papers, “Home and Away” functions as a hobby at this point for Sicula. Similar to his comic surrogate, Sicula telecommutes for his day job as national sales manager for ViewSonic, a visual technology manufacturer.

He admits this creative pursuit doesn’t always mesh with his work schedule.

“My writing and drawing often come to a screeching halt,” says Sicula, an Indiana native who now resides in McKinney, Texas. “Unfortunately, that happens more than I care to admit.”

Talents and misconceptions

While both Stantis and Sicula are the same age, the former has been making a living from cartooning for 30 years.

“I looked at my first cartoon the other day, and there’s Jimmy Carter staring back at me,” Stantis says.

The San Diego native – who was best known for creating “The Buckets” prior to “Prickly City” – divulges the most common misconception people have of cartoonists is that they’re funny.

“People just expect to invite you to places and have you say something funny. The process is more a matter of staring at a blank screen or a blank piece of paper,” he explains. “It’s a lot of heavy lifting trying to make something funny or relevant or pointed or even make sense.”

Stantis views himself as a more accomplished artist than writer, “so I work harder at (writing),” he says.

Sicula claims the opposite.

“I’m a much better writer by far,” he says. “I don’t think you’d get much argument from most people. I’ve always loved drawing and doodling, but if push came to shove, I’d rather be a better writer than artist.”

Big influences

Sicula cites “The Far Side” as his biggest comics influence, with current faves being “Zits” and “Pearls Before Swine.” Stantis lists “Peanuts,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Doonesbury” among his influences.

Yet the two creators’ biggest influences are reflected in the strips themselves: home life for Sicula; politics for Stantis.

In fact, “Prickly City” was prompted by an “ultra-liberal salesman” for Universal Press Syndicate who mentioned the company needed another conservative strip.

A lifelong Republican – whose only degree is from the California RNC’s Campaign Management College – Stantis believes his writing is much more balanced between Red and Blue targets than his critics care to admit.

“My wife is a Democrat,” Stantis says. “If I didn’t listen and enjoy the other side, not only would I not have friends, I wouldn’t have sex.”