The funnies get serious 'Gay,' other plots drawn from life, creators say

April 01, 1993|By Staci D. Kramer | Staci D. Kramer,Chicago Tribune

Last week, 17-year-old Lawrence Poirier told his best friend, Michael Patterson, that he was gay. Similar scenes take place regularly these days -- but not in Lawrence's neighborhood.

Lawrence lives on more than 1,400 comics pages nationwide in Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse." His immediate neighbors often include "Marmaduke," "Doonesbury" and mucho macho "Rex Morgan, M.D."

In "For Better or For Worse," he lives near Elly and John Patterson and their three children, Michael, Lizzie and April.

Lawrence and his creator have known for several years that he's gay; infact, he tells Michael he is in love with another young man. He blurted out the truth after Michael repeated a remark made by Lawrence's mother about future grandchildren.

Lawrence isn't the first gay character in a comic strip. That distinction goes to Andy, the lawyer in "Doonesbury" who came out in 1977 while dating Joanie Caucus. Thirteen years later, readers learned that Andy had acquired immune deficiency syndrome in a story line laced with pathos and absurdity and, in 1991, watched him die.

But Lawrence is part of a trend that allows comic strip youngsters to deal with some of the more serious issues affecting their real-life counterparts.

Ms. Johnston, the strip's creator, has been on the cutting edge with stories about shoplifting, the death of an elderly neighbor, .. child abuse, preteen smoking and teen-age drinking. She introduced an Asian family and a teacher in a wheelchair.

Once the "gay" story line concludes at the end of April, she does not intend to revisit the issue. "I wanted Lawrence to be known as a gay individual, but that would not be the important part of his life," she explained by phone from her home in Corbeil, Ontario.

She expected some of the outrage that a few newspaper editors have expressed. As of yesterday, 15 papers had canceled the strip and 47 more had either stopped running it or asked for substitute material.

What about TV? "For all the people who say this shouldn't be in the comics, please write all of the television stations who put garbage on," says Ms. Johnston.

SHe started the strip in 1979 with no agenda other than humor. "I really hoped the characters would all stay the same age and we could license coffee cups but it didn't happen that way. It's more of a saga."

Some days her subjects are as fluffy as a new puppy or a toddler taking her first steps. But, as in real life, more serious topics intrude.

"If one in 10 people are gay, isn't that part of society and isn't that part of the neighborhood?" she asks. "Then shouldn't I write about it in a very caring way?"

Cartoonist Greg Evans takes a similar approach in his strip "Luann." In 1991, he shocked readers with a story about 13-year-old Luann starting her period. Some were outraged, but many, especially teens, wrote in to thank him for dealing with an important topic in a sensitive, yet humorous way.

Last fall, Mr. Evans carefully stepped into another controversy when Luann's older brother, Brad, took along a condom on a first date. It fell out of the wallet as he paid for movie tickets, forcing Brad to explain to his date that he respected her too much to want to need the condom, but enough to make sure he had one.

'Less than ideal' traits

Bill Amend, the Kansas City-based creator of "Fox Trot," doesn't think his father and son characters are ready for that kind of discussion.

"With my own strip I try to create a reasonably realistic reflection of American culture, and so early on I decided I wasn't going to stick with just an idealized cast of characters. In addition to having a blind character, my characters at times display traits that many readers consider less than ideal."

Denise, the blind teen-age girl, is older son Peter's first real girlfriend. Her blindness often plays a role in the strip, but usually the two face the same problems that might happen to any dating teens.

"I think, particularly when you're writing with a younger audience in mind, that if you try to convey a particular message in too heavy-handed a way ,they'll tune it out," he said.

For instance, Mr. Amend could alienate readers by preaching about homework. But if he shows the consequences of a well-liked character putting off an assignment, the message comes through loud and clear.

Sometimes, being realistic means trying to avoid stereotypes. Mr. Amend realized that by making Paige, a teen-age girl, bad at math he was sending a negative message to young female readers.

Recently, in an effort to change the stereotype, he showed Paige dissecting a frog and finding out she was good at it.

"I was criticized for being politically incorrect, having Paige be dumb at math, then yelled at by animal-rights activists for portraying animal dissection as fun," he recalled ruefully.

They aim to please

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