Older Americans may be ignored by most media, but they’re getting a lot of attention these days in a surprising place: comic books.
Online diaries and comics about the lives of older characters attract readers of all generations. Other bands drop them from the supporting cast to become central figures in their story arcs.
Some popular comics, like Garry Trudeau’sDoonesburyallow their characters to age from year to year, a phenomenon that was once virtually unheard of. Mike Doonesbury, for example, went from college freshman to grizzled grandfather – and he’s never seemed happier with life.
Here are some of the comedians and creators at the forefront of this trend:
When Brian Crane decided to become a cartoonist in the late 1980s, his goal was to find “something no one else was doing”. The result was “Pickles”, a comic book centered on a retirement-age couple, Earl and Opal Pickles, and their family, including grandson Nelson, an elementary school student.
“Pickles” debuted in April 1990 and now appears in some 900 newspapers around the world, as well as online.
Although legend has it that Earl and Opal were modeled after Crane’s in-laws, he says he was inspired by “the in-laws, the outlaws, everyone.” Increasingly, he says, that includes himself and his wife.
The humor in “Pickles” often involves a bit of bickering between Earl and Opal, though Crane says he’s tried to soften the two up over the years.
In a recent comic, Earl complains that the chicken broth in their kitchen cupboard is decades past its best before date: “That chicken’s great-great-grandchildren are long dead, but this one is still in our closet. To which Opal replies, “If a 20-year-old chicken broth were to kill you, you’d already be dead.”
Crane says he rarely receives complaints that he portrays older people in a negative light – and when he does, they usually come from younger readers.
“My usual response is that I’m just looking to find the humor amid the trials of aging,” he says. “My philosophy is if you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”
Now 72, with seven children and 21 grandchildren, Crane has plenty of material to draw on and has no plans to retire.
“It got a lot easier,” Crane says. “Now I pretty much write about myself.”
“Flo and Friends”
“Flo & Friends,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is subtitled “Aging with an Attitude!” The main character Flo is a 65-year-old woman raising her teenage granddaughter.
The comic was designed by John Gibel, an Akron, Ohio businessman and active volunteer who wanted to create a comic book focused on seniors. He brought in Jenny Campbell, a local writer and artist, as a collaborator. When Gibel died suddenly of a stroke in 2005, aged just 56, her family turned the tape over to Campbell, because what she says now was about the price of a Starbucks Grande Caffè Latte.
“When I started I was thinking ’65 is old,’ so I did Flo 65,” laughs Campbell. “I just turned 65 last year, so the strip is becoming more and more autobiographical. The characters have become very good friends of mine.
Like many cartoonists, Campbell avoids politics and religion – “anything that can generate hate mail”. My joy in life is that I have a career where I can make people laugh. I’ve never been controversial anyway.
When Campbell tackles some of the toughest issues seniors face in real life, she does so lightheartedly. For example, “I don’t talk about Alzheimer’s disease,” she says, “but I don’t really care about losing my memory, because that kind of thing happens to me. I live the same things as my characters.
When she’s not busy with “Flo & Friends,” Campbell works on the other end of the age spectrum, illustrating children’s books. She also had the singular honor of drawing the cartoon dog and cat that appear on the license plate of Ohio’s “I’m Pet Friendly” car, which raises money for animal shelters. and related causes. The plate on his car reads: IDRUIT.
A mainstay of the comic book pages, “Sally Forth” turns 40 in 2022. The same year, Francesco Marciuliano will mark a quarter of a century as a screenwriter. Jim Keefe is the current illustrator for the strip.
The strip focuses on Sally, a working mother in her forties, and her extended family, including her parents and those of her husband Ted.
In recent years, the older crew has featured prominently in the strip’s storylines. Ted’s father died in 2017 after an illness that lasted several months. This year, Sally’s mother, Laura, has downsized her household as she prepares to move in with Sally’s sister, Jackie, and Jackie’s husband, Ralph. Ralph, meanwhile, wants to change careers but fears he’s too old to take a chance.
Like many writers, Marciuliano, 54, often draws on his experiences and those of his friends. Following the death of his own father in 2016, he used the death of Ted’s father to explore death, grief, and the embarrassing and unfamiliar situations survivors can find themselves in.
Ted, for example, has to choose a funeral home by Googling one because no one had made any plans in advance. And in one panel, a well-meaning funeral director suggests that if Ted pays with a credit card rather than a check, he’ll earn rewards points. Both are straight out of Marciuliano’s experience.
That story led to complaints from people used to a lighter “Sally Forth,” says Marciuliano, but plenty of praise from readers who had lost a relative.
Marciuliano, who also writes comedy books and the “Judge Parker” comic strip, says that in portraying his older characters he strives to avoid both “the good-good old person” – “the sparkling eyes and the distribution of sweets” – and the “cool old person”, the grandmother on a skateboard, for example.
Sally’s mother Laura, who looks set to take on a bigger role in the strip, is unlikely to be described as nice or cool. Sharp-tongued and opinionated, she is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand and takes particular pleasure in tormenting her son-in-law Ted. No wonder she’s moving in with her other the girl.
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‘The New 60’
Longtime publicists Andy Landorf and John Colquhoun saw a niche for a comic strip about a group of friends who look a lot like them – working sixties, adjusting to a new phase of life in a changing world. The pair write the comic, which they launched in 2018, while Colquhoun draws it. (If the characters look a bit like the Little Caesars pizza chain mascot, that’s no coincidence. Colquhoun drew him too.)
“The New 60” features a new strip every Tuesday and Friday on thenew60comic.com, on Facebook FB,
Instagram and Twitter TWTR,
; and via a weekly email. Digital publishing gives creators instant feedback.
“The comments I like are those like, ‘Did you put a hidden camera in my kitchen?’ says Landorf. On the other hand, Colquhoun notes, they also occasionally receive “OK boomer” criticism from their GenX fans on Instagram when the characters say something that irritates them.
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Much of the humor in “The New 60” is inspired by how the world has evolved since the baby boomer youth. In a recent episode, for example, Sam’s character goes to buy a new van. After the seller touts Bluetooth, satellite radio, an eight-inch LCD touchscreen and other new features in a model, Sam says he just wants a simple pickup for tasks like hauling Of wood.
“Where would I go to find a truck like that?” he asks. “Uh…”, replies the seller, “1982.”
Greg Daugherty is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was editor of Reader’s Digest New Choices and editor of Money magazine.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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