Brendan here. It’s time to talk about one of the biggest concerns we faced while considering GIL for mainstream newspaper syndication. Gil’s dad, Frank. Some of you may recall Gil’s dad (who I don’t believe Norm had named Frank yet) from the web comic version of the strip. When GIL was running online, Norm had fewer concerns with how far he took the behavior of Frank and how he depicted him, knowing that his audience was one that opted to come to his website. The daily newspaper reader is a little different, and we have to step a bit more carefully.
The newspaper comic strip readership is broad and represents many different types of people with many different sensibilities. When we use language that is questionable by some or choose representations of characters and/or their world that might be received negatively, the readers definitely let us hear about it. Or they will let the editor of the newspaper hear it – and frankly, they don’t want to hear it, so they often eliminate the problem before it can occur by not buying a comic or asking for a replacement.
There was no doubt that Norm’s original treatment of Frank would present problems in succeeding in syndication – we would not be able to get past those editors who don’t want the negative feedback from their readership. We didn’t want to compromise Frank’s situation as a somewhat neglectful father, divorced form Gil’s mother, but we also know that we needed to paint a picture of him that would somehow thwart the perception that reduces him to a “deadbeat dad”.
Frank is still an underachiever who had he taken a drivers test on fatherhood would not have passed, but we’ve softened his portrayal a bit, and even injected his character with some pathos.
Rather than get too deep into this myself, I’ll allow Norm to detail some of the specific differences between Frank in the old web comic and Frank as he now appears in the fully developed version for mainstream syndication.
Norm here. Newspaper comic strips are all about boundaries. They are restricted both in content and physical dimension. They have to be drawn in a specific size, they have to be brief, and they have to be family friendly. You can argue whether those restrictions are a good or bad thing, but if you want to sell a comic strip to newspapers, those are the rules.
I’m of the opinion that a quality comic can be made in any format, under any content restrictions. Making a G-rated comic strip that is also funny and relevant isn’t impossible – it’s just hard to pull off. I’m up for the challenge!
After I made the decision to give GIL a second crack at newspaper syndication, I had to figure out how to handle Gil’s dad within this new paradigm. I poured over the old web strips that Gil’s dad appeared in. and asked myself a question that I usually rely on instinct to guide me through. What am I trying to say with this character?
The answer: I’m trying to convey a sense of what it’s like when the only male role model you have growing up is a broken one.
My parents divorced when I was very young, and my sister and I were raised by our mother. I have no memory of our father actually living with us. He’s battled his share of demons throughout his adult life, and has remarried a few times. Throughout my childhood, the time I spent with him was really just time spent playing with his other kids. As a result, we’ve never really bonded, and he’s always been kind of a stranger to me.
Most of my friends growing up had similarly absent fathers with varying problems. Some were drunks, some were racists, some were violent, and some were all three. This is what Gil’s dad was in the original version of the strip. He was a conglomerate of all the damaged fathers I remember from my youth.
The trick now was to remove some of those harsh elements from Frank without neutering his character altogether. I needed to humanize him, but keep him flawed. I chose to do this by putting myself in his shoes and trying to imagine myself as a derelict father. I took all of the personality flaws and bad habits I’ve ever had (or still have), exaggerated them to the point of dysfunction, and then gave them to Frank as the new catalysts for his poor decisions in life. The results were a pleasant surprise.
In many ways, the web version of Gil’s dad was just a Frankenstein of the typical ignorance and crudeness I witnessed growing up. Replacing that with the extrapolation of my own old demons not only made Frank more palatable to a general audience, but also created some credible depth to his character, and I’m happy with the direction the character has taken as a result. Not only did it allow me to preserve the dynamic between Gil and his dad, but it helped me better understand who Frank is as a character and why he acts the way he does.
For me, limitations often spark my creativity. They force me to focus in on what’s important – whether it be a drawing, or a character, or the wording of a joke. Restrictions aren’t necessarily negative things.
Please feel free to share your feelings on this topic. Next week we’ll start talking about how we put together the sales brochure that the syndicate sales reps show to prospective clients. See you then!