Published March 03. 2013 4:00AM
Probably few regular features in a daily newspaper resonate more in a "personal relationship" context than a favorite comic strip.
Charles Schulz died 13 years ago, but reruns of "Peanuts" continue to headline comics pages all over the world. Yes, this is testimony to the greatness of his work but also to the loyalty of fans. Followers of Bill Waterson feel the same passion; many of them consider the abrupt conclusion to his "Calvin and Hobbes" series a historically dark day.
Norm Feuti understands this dynamic more than most. A native of Pascoag, R.I., Feuti is the writer/illustrator of two nationally syndicated comic strips. He started in 2006 with "Retail," a strip that explores the ongoing and uneasy relationship between customer and sales clerk. It's based on Feuti's amusing yet trying 15 years in various retail jobs.
His newer strip is "Gil," a realistic and humorous look at the modern world through the eyes of a young boy growing up in a single-parent home. It was picked up for syndication and debuted in 2012.
Along with Gil - who's 8 years old, slightly chubby and enamored of comic books and superheroes - major characters include his hardworking mom, Cheryl; his mostly absent and ne'er-do-well father, Frank; Gil's best pal, neighbor and confidante, Shandra; and his nemesis, a mean-spirited classmate named Morgan.
"Gil" debuts today in The Day's funny pages, replacing "Wizard of Id," and will run seven days a week.
From his home in Attleboro, Mass., Feuti answered five questions.
Q. While very funny, there is a decided tone of melancholy to "Gil," and I wonder if this is a consistent trait in the comic strips about kids that resonate the most with adult readers. Do you have a sense of your demographics and do you as the author consciously impart the sense of nostalgia?
A. I think most newpaper comics nowadays are read by adults, but I try to write "Gil" for both kids and grown-ups. I'm 42, and I'm sure the strip reflects my own demographic more than anything - and, yes, the tone of melancholy is intentional. When you think about your own childhood, the tendency of course is to idealize it as this magical time, and it is, but there are always troubles, too. When you grow up, hopefully you look at surviving those troubles as a sort of badge of honor that helped make you who you are. I try to capture a little bit of that, but I also try to keep the tone light and funny - and of course I want "Gil" to appeal to younger people, too.
Q. "Retail" is obviously based on the years you spent in those types of jobs. How much of your own DNA would we find in Gil - and, over time, do any or all of your characters begin to develop their own characteristics? And does this happen whether you like it or not?
A. Any cartoonist will tell you that a lot of a character's personality comes from his or herself. Sure, a lot of Gil was me, but I'm also a parent reflecting my experiences in that spirit. Yes, characters do grow and develop their own personalities. You create that character with a firm sense in mind of what they're about, but the more you write them, the more the original ideas maybe don't make sense anymore and they run off on you.
Q. Historically, getting a comic strip into syndication is similar to a ballplayer getting to the major leagues - or, in an artistic context where talent helps but there's a huge element of luck, a rock band signing a big recording contract. Walk us through the process of getting into syndication.
A. (Laughs) It was a long process just to get to the point where we even thought about syndication. I worked in retail for about 15 years and, all along, I loved drawing and was a fan of comic strips. I guess you could say it was a pipe dream of mine to actually do it, but I never really went after it.
In 2001, we had a daughter and my wife had insurance, so it was easier for me to go part-time and be the at-home parent. My wife said, "When the baby's asleep, why don't you start trying to do the comic strip?"
I told her I wouldn't know where to start, but she doesn't take "no" for an answer. She got online and did research and said: Here are syndicate guidelines and this is how you approach them. Do a month's worth of strips and start sending them out. There. You don't have any more excuses.
Q. And then the work really starts?
A. Exactly. "Retail" was actually the first idea I went with. I did a month's worth of strips and got some encouraging feedback from Tribune Media Services and King Features. Neither ended up going with it, but I had no idea how rare it was to get any feedback at all from a submission - much less positive feedback.
Over the next four or five years, I kept submitting various ideas, and one caught the eye of the same editor at King Features. He said, "Hey, go back to that 'Retail' idea." He had some good suggestions, and I went back and incorporated them. Next was a phone call: "Keep trying, you're almost there." In 2005, they offered me a contract.
I was very lucky. You look back and realize that, in most fields, there's a clear A-to-B path you follow. You do it and there's the job. In any creative field, though, you do the hard work and hope it pays off because there are only so many ways through the door.
Q. Which comic strip was the most influential to you, not just as a reader but as someone aspiring to be in the business?
A. I'm tempted to say "Calvin and Hobbes," but what first turned me on was "Bloom County." When I was 12, my mom's boyfriend gave me a book that was a compilation of "Bloom County" strips. Something in that book really clicked and made me want to be a cartoonist. Not just the characters and the ongoing stories that would appeal to most fans, but I started paying attention to comics of all kinds. I was fascinated by the funny, social and political possibilities, and early on I started learning how the business worked: How you got syndicated and what the technical and artistic processes were of actually producing a strip seven days a week.