Something funnies is going on here Comics: Just for laughs, cartoon creators pull an April Fool's switcheroonie on their readers.

April 01, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Have you looked at today's comics yet?

Maybe you should. Just turn the page, read over your favorites, and then come back. We'll wait for you. Go on.

Back? Good. And we'll bet that little thought balloon over your head right now reads, "What the !! have they done to my funnies?!?"

This isn't the usual comics page funny business, but an April Fool's prank. Specifically, it's The Great April Fool's Day Comics Switcheroonie of 1997, a cunning stunt in which 46 cartoonists switch strips for a day.

"There's going to be a lot of wide-open eyeballs, and 'What the heck is this?' " says "For Better or For Worse" creator Lynn Johnston.

Did "The Family Circus" look a little odd this morning? That's because it wasn't the work of "Circus" ringmaster Bil Keane, but of "Dilbert" programmer Scott Adams. Next to it you'll find Keane's version of "Dilbert," in which Billy is unleashed on the world of cubicle humor. Now we know why there are child labor laws.

In all, 19 of The Sun's strips have been April Fool-ed. "Beetle Bailey" is being done by Jeff MacNelly ("Shoe"), "Garfield" by Dean Young ("Blondie"), "For Better or For Worse" by Mike Peters ("Mother Goose and Grimm"), and "Hi and Lois" by Greg Evans ("Luann"). Perhaps the subtlest switch is "Sally Forth," which finds writer Greg Howard going back to the drawing board while Craig MacIntosh, who normally supplies the art, handles the gag writing.

Credit -- or blame -- cartoonists Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott ("Baby Blues") for this little bit of madness. They were the ones who came up with the concept of the Switcheroonie and who did all the organizing that made the thing happen. Although, to be honest, they had some very willing co-conspirators.

"Rick got in touch with me and asked, what would I think of the idea?" says Keane, from his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. "This was before he approached any of the cartoonists. I told him I thought it would be a great idea. You're just supposed to do the [other person's] feature the way you would do your feature, the way you think their feature should be done.

"It's a perfect trade-off, and it's orchestrated to where it all happens at the same time. Nobody gets hurt, and there's always an excuse on April Fool's Day for any kind of bizarre switch of something."

"I'm proud to be involved in anything that plays tricks on the public on April Fool's Day," says Bill Griffith, author of "Zippy the Pinhead," from his home in San Francisco. "Some people are probably going to read their familiar strips, and if they're done by the other artist as a parody, they might not quite see it. Or at least not see it at first, which would be a good April Fool's joke.

"I hope someone collects the letters from various newspapers -- the ones that are from confused readers -- because I'd love to see them," he adds. "Anybody who perpetrates a practical joke wants to see the result of the joke, wants to see the victim squeal."

"I'm not sure just what the [comic strip] editors think of it," says Johnston, from her home in Corbeil, Ontario. "I know that one syndicate was really not too keen [on participating], and our syndicate is fairly keen to try almost anything. But it will be interesting to see what people think. Some people might say they didn't like it, some people might say they thought it was great fun, but it will cause some conversation. One way or the other, it will make people notice the strips.

"And we had fun."

Naturally, having fun was the prime motivator for most of the artists. "We all know each other quite well," says Johnston. "As gag gifts -- for birthdays and other events -- we'll all try and draw Snoopy, or whatever. Because a character is so much like an individual signature that it gives you a lot of respect for the other person, just trying to copy their character.

"So when Rick came up with this idea, a number of us thought, 'Well, that would be a lot of fun.' Fun for us. Whatever the audience thought about it was secondary; it was fun for us."

For one thing, it gave these merry pranksters the chance to stretch their imaginations beyond the confines of their usual gig.

"When they asked, 'Who would you most like to trade places with for a day?' I picked 'Dilbert,' " says Keane. "Because it's at the other end of the spectrum from 'The Family Circus.' He deals in corporate humor and cubicles and the Internet and downsizing and computers, etc., and 'Family Circus' is all the warm, identifiable, family, children-underfoot humor. They're different worlds.

"If I did a guest shot on 'Blondie' or 'Hi and Lois' or 'Baby Blues' or 'For Better or For Worse,' it wouldn't be that much of a change from what 'The Family Circus' is every day."

"My choice was to do 'Apartment 3-G' or 'Rex Morgan, M.D.,' " says Griffith. Unfortunately, he wound up drawing "Bizarro" (which The Sun doesn't run) instead. "They gave us choices, and I guess people had already taken my choice."

"It was a lottery, to begin with," explains Johnston.

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