Comic change-up

Sports fanatics, talking animals and resurrected legends populate new strips

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed is pleading for your patience.

When the creator of Bloom County put the legendary strip to bed in 1989 – and then dispensed with its Sunday-only spin-off, Outland, in 1995 – he didn’t realize its central character – a talking penguin named Opus – would rouse his comic muse a decade later.

“I never intended to go back to cartooning,” says Breathed, who snagged the Pulitzer for Bloom County in 1987. “But the war started, a lot of things were happening in the world, and I just missed having a voice.”

So Breathed’s pudgy penguin plodded back onto the comics page in 2003, but his illustrious return came with conditions befitting his star status: He only leaves his dressing room once a week, and when he does, he demands a lot of breathing room.

Opus draws a portrait of his creator, Berkeley Breathed.

Consequently, Opus will be the first talking animal you see when you grab your Journal-World funnies today; the penguin bumped Snoopy from the cover.

Breathed equates the switch to “Jon Stewart replacing Walter Cronkite” and pleads, once again: Have patience.

“My strip is at a distinct liability in that it doesn’t appear every day,” he says. “Comic strips, when they worked in the past, if they became beloved at all, it’s because they were there in people’s lives on a daily basis. … A once-a-week strip doesn’t endear itself to people as would a daily strip – if comics can endear themselves to people at all anymore, which is questionable.”

Maybe. But a new generation of cartoonists – like the six who do the five comics we’re introducing this week – are trying to erase that doubt. In fact, they’re wearing their pencils to nubs in an effort to make the comics page a more sought-after destination.

They believe – as did most readers who responded in our recent comics surveys – that certain strips have lost their edge, fallen completely out of touch with contemporary culture or just plain aren’t funny any more.

“I don’t want to read a comic that looks like it’s from 1952 and people have beehive hairdos,” says Darby Conley, creator of Get Fuzzy, one of the fastest growing strips in the country.

Get Fuzzy, by Darby Conley

While we can’t guarantee the absence of funny hairdos in these new strips – after all, they’re populated by monkeys, penguins, cats, mutts and bachelors – we’re confident the cartoonists who create the comics you chose to replace the outgoing standbys will do their best to grab your funny bone and shake vigorously.

To help you better understand where these guys are coming from, we spoke to each of them about their influences, their sense of humor and the ins and outs of the characters they bring to life on paper.

‘Opus’ by Berkeley Breathed

Among comic fans, especially those who came of age in the “Breakfast Club” era, Berkeley Breathed packs star power. “Bloom County” (1980-1989) dared to tackle topics avoided by even the most experimental or political strips, and it did so at a time when “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show” and “Doonesbury” were the only other players in the satire game.

“Opus” is no “Bloom County.”

“If it was being run today, it would be futile for me to apply the same ‘Bloom County’ approach to political satire to the Bush administration because he has successfully connected mockery of the Bush administration’s principles to disloyalty to the nation,” Breathed says. “I would probably lose half of my newspapers today if I, by name, did the same thing to Bush as I did to Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan.

You can find all of these strips in today’s Journal-World comics supplement, with one exception. Bo Nanas, by John Kovaleski, only runs Monday-Saturday.

Here’s a look at the schedule for the rest of the funnies:

Opus, by Berkeley Breathed, Sunday only

Get Fuzzy, by Darby Conley, daily

Girls & Sports, by Justin Borus and Andrew Feinstein, daily

Off the Mark, by Mark Parisi, single-panel, daily

Give ’em a week or two. See what you think. And let us know.

Direct your comments to Mindie Paget at 832-7187 or You can also send remarks to 645 N.H., Lawrence, KS 66044

“The times have changed, and it has everything to do with declining circulation and an aging readership who are reluctant to give political satire the kind of patience that it deserves and instead immediately leap to accusations of treason.”

The lovable penguin who occupied the heart of “Bloom County” has no political viewpoint, Breathed says, nor is he passionate about any particular causes. He simply gets preoccupied with obsessions – in one strip, it’s the phenomenon of teens wearing saggy pants – and then he reacts. In the case of the droopy britches, he assists the jeans’ “unfinished transit” by resituating their waist lines around two boys’ ankles.

Then he runs as fast as his wee avian legs will carry him.

Since shelving “Outland” (1989-1995), Breathed has published six illustrated children’s books and dabbled in “Hollywood projects,” including concocting the faux comic strip for the 2003 film “Secondhand Lions.” Between those projects and his new family – Breathed lives in Southern California with his wife and two children – the cartoonist has time for just one “Opus” a week.

“You have plenty of examples of comic strips being phoned in, essentially, by cartoonists who have been doing it a long time – and you can tell those strips,” he says. “I quit two times before, and it’s essentially out of fear of becoming that.

“The only way I can guarantee that not happening is if I make the workload reasonable. … I figure a little bit of Opus is better than none at all.”

‘Bo Nanas’ by John Kovaleski

John Kovaleski and his primate cartoon star, Bo Nanas, have been through the comic gauntlet.

Out of 400 entries in the 2002 Fine Toon Fellowship, the Washington Post Writer’s Group chose Kovaleski and one other cartoonist to jump through 18 months of hoops – national seminars, meetings with other cartoonists and editors, rigorous reviews – and then unanimously selected “Bo Nanas” for syndication.

So after 20 years as a graphic designer doing not-so-gratifying work for other people, Kovaleski is finally his own boss – if not for setting deadlines, then at least for dictating who touches his monkey.

As for the evolution of Bo, Kovaleski just woke up one morning with the idea of building a strip around a talking simian.

“I was trying to think of a name for him, and we were walking down the beach and my wife stopped and said, ‘His name is Bo Nanas,'” Kovaleski recalls. “Which also happened to be how the produce guy in the public market in Rochester would call out to get you to come look at his stuff. He would stand there and go, ‘Bonanas, bonanas, get your bonanas here!'”

The title character’s shtick is as fun-loving and kooky as his name. In Kovalesky’s hands, Bo becomes the stand-in for the bizarre encounters we’ve all experienced, a magnet for strange people. Despite his primate status, he’s the most human character in the strip, Kovaleski says.

He’s surrounded by a supporting cast that includes his landlady, Mrs. Yannes (which makes for cheap but endlessly funny rhyme gags in conversations between Mr. Nanas and Mrs. Yannes); The Hot Dog Guy, a food service statue who’s happy to sell Bo a frankfurter but isn’t interested in idle chit-chat; and Brittney of the Squirrel Scouts, a “bubbly, 7-year-old girl with the heart of a 50-year-old con man.”

When he’s not imagining new scenarios for Bo, Kovaleski, who now lives in Gettysburg, Pa., creates freelance greeting cards, magazine illustrations and children’s publications.

His fans enjoy the simplicity and universality of “Bo Nanas.”

“I hear everything from people who just enjoy the fact that a talking monkey is out there, to people who like that it’s a little bit odd, a little bit surreal, a little bit different than most of the comic strips they’re reading,” Kovaleski says. “And that it’s not so odd that somebody isn’t going to find themselves reflected in it.”

‘Get Fuzzy’ by Darby Conley

Take any feisty feline you’ve ever known, inject him with the snarkiness of a Gen X “Daily Show” fan and park a permanent scowl on his face, and you get something close to Bucky Katt, the hilarious and slightly sinister kitty at the center of Darby Conley’s “Get Fuzzy.”

Now put that sassy fur ball in the same apartment with the sweetest, most naÃive dog you’ve ever known (Satchel Pooch) and a single man with both a wry sense of humor and a high tolerance for chaos (Rob Wilco).

Trust us: Hilarity ensues.

Since its 1999 launch, Conley’s twisted little strip has been picked up by more than 500 papers around the world, and more than 875,000 “Get Fuzzy” books have been sold.

Conley, an illustrator and former elementary school teacher, always wanted to be a cartoonist. Born in Concord, Mass., he spent most of his childhood in Knoxville, Tenn., but returned north to attend Amherst College. While he was getting a fine arts degree, he drummed up cartoons for the school newspaper.

“They were ‘Far Side’ rip-offs, essentially,” he admits.

Eventually, he developed his own style, informed by some great cartoonists, including the author of “Opus” and “Bloom County.”

“Berk Breathed’s a legend,” says the 35-year-old Conley, who now lives in Boston with his long-time girlfriend. “He’s a third of why I got into this job in the first place.”

The other two-thirds? Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” and Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts.”

“I remember learning how to read specifically to figure out what that dog was saying,” Conley says of Snoopy. “It was my first obsession.”

At 35, Conley’s obsession has turned to making deadlines, drawing strips so well they’ll be respected in 20 years, and recording all his punch lines as soon as they occur to him.

“I walk around with a voice recorder,” he says. “You’ll forget a joke in like five seconds.”

Although Conley describes his humor as “South Parky” and crude, satisfied readers from 13 to 75 send him fan mail. Perhaps that’s because, just as Rob and Satchel tolerate Bucky’s bizarre behavior because they know he can’t help it, readers respect the fact that it’s Conley’s nature to capitalize on the sophomoric to achieve sophistication.

‘Off the Mark’ by Mark Parisi

Like most contemporary cartoonists, Mark Parisi first got excited about comics as a youngster reading “Peanuts.” But it was a fellow far stranger than Charles Schulz who made him realize he could make a career on the funnies page.

Off the Mark, by Mark Parisi

“I had always wanted to cartoon, and I tried to draw character strips, but it wasn’t my type of humor. I couldn’t figure out how to write a joke around characters,” Parisi says. “When Gary Larson came out, I thought, ‘I can do that.’ … He kind of redefined the whole comic panel, so I think there are a whole slew of writers out there now who wouldn’t be there if Larson hadn’t opened that door.”

Parisi is referring, of course, to the esteemed creator of “The Far Side.” His own panel, “Off the Mark,” often draws comparisons to the now-defunct vehicle for talking bovines.

“I just do the humor that comes naturally, and it’s that type of humor,” says Parisi, who self-syndicated his column from 1987 until 2002, when it was picked up by United Media. “I think I’ve differentiated myself enough, but I still get that comparison.”

Unlike the other four new comics selected by Journal-World readers, “Off the Mark” does not revolve around a cast of characters or a storyline. Each panel stands alone, attempting to communicate its humor in a single frame.

The ideas come from all around Parisi. Sometimes he riffs off of fairy tales, nursery rhymes or well-known songs – using the words in a new context to give them unexpected meaning.

A recent panel depicts a party at which folks with bewildered expressions watch as a man who appears to have just thrown his hat to the floor walks toward another fellow with a sheepish look on his face. It reads: “Just as Karl is about to be designated as a ‘Jolly Good Fellow,’ it’s learned that somebody would deny.”

“For me, the writing is key,” says Parisi, who has a graphic design degree from Salem State College. “I think a cartoon works best if you can’t understand the joke if you just read the caption or just look at the drawing, but if you look at the drawing and that leads you to the caption … and then it kind of hits. I see some cartoons, and it could just be a standup comic reading the lines.”

‘Girls & Sports’ by Justin Borus and Andrew Feinstein

In the world of Justin Borus and Andrew Feinstein, history repeats itself – over and over again.

The Denver natives met in high school. Borus had a crush on one of Feinstein’s friends, and he needed some advice.

“We talked about her for maybe five minutes, and then I think we spent an hour talking about the Denver Broncos,” Feinstein says, chuckling. “Our first-ever conversation was about girls and sports.”

Fast-forward a few years to the summer before their senior year in college. Although Borus and Feinstein attended separate schools, they went on a summer business program in Denmark, where they sat next to each other on bus rides to major corporations.

“We’d talk about all of our exploits from the night before in the Danish nightclubs,” Feinstein recalls. “After going back and forth with these stories, finally one of the girls on our bus turned around and said, ‘Will you two PLEASE shut up. All you do is talk about girls and sports. It’s driving me crazy.'”

An idea was born.

Borus and Feinstein started drawing a comic called, you guessed it, “Girls & Sports.” They put it in college newspapers at their own schools and those of their friends. Now the strip appears in more than 100 mainstream publications nationwide.

You can learn a lot about its creators by reading it. Bradley, a former college jock and boyfriend of JoAnn, is based on Borus. Marshall (based on Feinstein), is a fellow sports fan and nightclub-hopper. He also happens to be Bradley’s best friend. As such, he endures lots of unsolicited relationship advice from Bradley, which tends to bring him bad luck on dates.

Unfortunately, Borus and Feinstein say, most of the strips are based on first-hand experience.

“It’s amazing how usually the best jokes take us just a few minutes to write because they’re something we experienced the night before or the day before and it just kind of writes itself,” says Borus, 28.

Their worst dates in recent memory: Borus let a woman order a bottle of wine at dinner, thinking she’d opt for the cheapest one. Imagine his surprise when the bill came for well over $200.

Feinstein went out with a girl who told him she was a doctor. At dinner, he went on and on about the crying kid in the corner and how parents should leave their children at home. Turns out, his date was a pediatrician.

“I put my foot in my mouth on many occasions,” says Feinstein, 29.

If “Girls & Sports” is starting to sound like a comic for men: It is. But it’s also suited to the fairer sex.

“For them it’s like reading the opposing team’s playbook,” Feinstein says. “They get an insight into guys.”