Comic strip kids speak with the conservative's voice

October 29, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

When you pick up the comics, you expect political commentary from "Doonesbury," which over the years has depicted Richard Nixon as "guilty, guilty, guilty"; Dan Quayle as, literally, an intellectual featherweight; and most recently, Oliver North as a paranoid nut wrapped in a Confederate flag.

But "Sibling Revelry"? That rather childishly drawn strip in which a little boy named Stew and his big sister Lori usually quip about juvenile subjects like boogers, baseball and bullies?

Lately, though, the strip's jokes have been on more adult fare -- President Clinton's problems, real or alleged, with marital fidelity, foreign policy and health care reform. The strip, carried by The Sun and just nine other newspapers, has turned into a sort of anti-"Doonesbury," a place where conservatives can get a good laugh and liberals can work up some righteous indignation.

Cartoonist Man Martin pleads guilty, guilty, guilty!

"I'm an out-of-the-closet conservative," Mr. Martin, 35, says in a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta. "There's not a whole lot of conservative voices out there, and the time is so right. It's a field that's not been mined."

Mr. Martin, who has drawn the strip for about five years, says he became piqued that President Clinton seemed to be getting gentler treatment than previous -- and not so coincidentally, Republican -- presidents by his colleagues. He even took a direct shot at"Doonesbury" in one strip, having a character note that while Whitewater was swirling about, cartoonist Garry Trudeau's chosen subject was anti-smoking.

"I think Garry Trudeau has done a splendid job. But if he were taking shots at Clinton, I wouldn't feel I needed to do it," Mr. Martin says. He adds, though, that Mr. Trudeau has occasionally punctured President Clinton and other liberals, depicting the president as a waffle and mocking political correctness on college campuses.

He realizes he is David to Mr. Trudeau's Goliath -- "Doonesbury" runs in 700 newspapers -- and isn't trying to start a duel of pens and quips. "I don't nearly have the coverage he has, I'm not going to balance him out," he says. "If something happens in my life, it's in my strip. I've been obsessed with politics lately."

Mr. Martin, whose first name is short for Emanuel, says he's gotten just a few letters from people angry about his political stance. His distributor, Universal Press Syndicate, says it hasn't received any complaints from newspapers. (The Sun has received a couple of complaints from people who were surprised that a strip they thought was geared toward children was starting to take strong political stances.)

"I've kind of wondered what the reaction has been to it, because he does on a fairly regular basis put in political content," says Lisa Tarry, an assistant editor at Universal Press Syndicate, which, coincidentally, also distributes "Doonesbury."

Ms. Tarry says "Sibling Revelry" started basically as a general interest strip -- roughly based on Mr. Martin and his older sister -- and became more political during the 1992 elections. "Then it sort of dropped off [from politics] for a while, and now it's picked up again. It may not be what editors are expecting," she says.

Mr. Martin says he understands such concerns. "I feel I have changed the rules in the strip, but at the same time, I feel the newspaper is filled with these subjects all the way through," he says.

He says he'll continue to draw and write whatever obsesses him on any given day, and the strip will veer between kid jokes and political jokes. And, with Mr. Martin currently studying to become an English teacher -- with just 10 clients for his cartoon, ranging from the Dublin Sunday Press in Ireland to the Dallas Morning News to the Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze, you have to start thinking about a day job -- expect some jokes in the future about the public education system.

But Mr. Martin says he'll continue "Sibling Revelry" as long as he has takers -- and he'll take an equal opportunity stance toward his targets. A coming strip, he notes, will take on that noted Clinton foe, Rep. Newt Gingrich, the combative Republican from Georgia.

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