Barbara Brandon's talking heads have a modern message

November 03, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Where is Barbara Brandon coming from anyway?

Well, she'll tell you, she is coming from the point of view of a young black woman in modern America -- a prevalent perspective, to be sure, but not one that she feels has necessarily permeated the consciousness of mainstream America.

And beginning today she is coming to the pages of 20 newspapers -- including this one -- which will carry her comic strip featuring the faces and voices of black women.

"Where I'm Coming From" is the name of the weekly strip, which will appear in People each Sunday, but to call it a comic implies an association with the likes of "Peanuts" or "Doonesbury" or "Sally Forth." And as unlike each other as those comics are, "Where I'm Coming From" is a different genre altogether.

"I'm influenced by Jules Feiffer," Ms. Brandon, 32, says on the phone from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., and indeed the sometimes sarcastic, sometimes profound, sometimes amusing talking heads are reminiscent of the Feiffer characters whose barbed comments have been running in American newspapers for 35 years and are often found on the editorial pages.

"I'm not that concerned with people falling off their chairs laughing," she adds. "I'm more concerned with getting out a point of view."

That point of view often focuses on the racism and sexism that she sees around her, Ms. Brandon says, but not always. "I can also talk about doing the laundry, and getting those awful hairs growing out of your chin."

Each strip features one or two of her stable of 12 characters, who are largely modeled on herself and her friends. Either in dialogue or solitary reflection they offer comments on their relationships, their jobs, their lives. Boyfriends seem to be a dominant theme. For example, Jackie, the emotional, on-again, off-again girlfriend of Victor, muses in one frame: "So what if Victor assumed I take him back?! What's troubling me is that he was right."

That Barbara Brandon should turn to the medium of cartooning to express her message makes sense when you know her background. Her father is Brumsic Brandon Jr., now a political cartoonist, who drew the strip "Luther" from 1969 to 1984. "Luther" was about an inner city black child, and Ms. Brandon remembers helping her father with lettering and borders and other technical as- pects of the strip when she was young.

It was her father who helped her slip through a side door into the world of cartooning. She had first drawn "Where I'm Coming From" in 1982, sold it to Elan, a magazine aimed at black women, only to see the magazine go out of business before it had a chance to run the cartoon. She next approached Essence, a more established black women's magazine. Editors there liked the cartoon but felt it didn't fit their format. However, they were impressed with Ms. Brandon's personality and offered her a job as a fashion and beauty writer.

She took the job and put the strip on a back burner, fulfilling her artistic instincts with some free-lance illustrating and record album covers. Then in 1988 her father received an award for his pioneering work as a black cartoonist, followed by a letter from an editor at the Detroit Free Press asking him if he could recommend other black cartoonists.

Ms. Brandon remembers: "My father said, 'Barbara, are you going to talk about this or are you going to do it?' " She sent samples of "Where I'm Coming From" to the Free Press and they were interested. But she wasn't sure.

"Me and my big head," she laughs. "I said to myself, 'One paper, that's nothing.' I put them off for several months and sent it out to the syndicates."

But the syndicates weren't buying and Ms. Brandon soon realized, "Hey, I need to be published more than anything," and in June 1989, the weekly comic debuted in the lifestyle (not comics) pages of the Free Press.

By 1990 Universal Press Syndicate was interested, its interest piqued by the very same things that had turned off other #F distributors a couple of years earlier.

"We were attracted by the different format," says Elizabeth Andersen, associate editor for Universal. "The fact that it was a weekly, heads only, all black women. We felt that there's nothing out there like it and admired the originality."

For a year Ms. Brandon worked under a development contract with Universal, submitting eight cartoons a month for the not-exactly-livable wage of $200 a month. She helped support herself by working behind the scenes at New York fashion shows and by this summer -- with the help of her sister, an entertainment lawyer -- she had negotiated a contract that splits proceeds from the strip 50-50 between her and Universal.

She declines to say what her income will be now, but says it will cover considerably more of her expenses than the development contract did. And Universal is already talking about merchandising offshoots -- a book, a calendar, perhaps a mug.

Most of the papers running "Where I'm Coming From" are putting it in their lifestyle rather than comics pages. It's an appropriate placement, Ms. Brandon feels, because her characters are commenting about what life is like for contemporary black women.

"I'm looking at it as a way to record the history of black women, a way to show what place we had in this world," she explains.

But she doesn't think that her audience should be limited to black women.

"I hope white women can look at it and realize we're not that different, we're involved with the same issues," she says. "Black men can identify with the racism. White men -- they're the hardest to get to. But isn't that always the case?"

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