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Changing Places on the Comics Page

12:00 AM, Jul 26, 1999 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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It hardly matters where you go. In newspapers across the continent -- from the Bangor Daily News to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Seattle Times to the Miami Herald -- there appear on the inside pages ten, twenty, even thirty comic strips. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times may survive without them, but most papers find comic strips a vital feature -- and sometimes a mainstay of reader loyalty.

It's a curious phenomenon, when you think about it, these little picture stories stacked on top of one another, each a separate universe of narrative and character. Instead of stepping one frame over into the next panel of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, why can't Charlie Brown step one frame down into Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury? How come Garfield never strays into Dilbert? I've always thought Prince Valiant is just what's missing in Cathy, and Apartment 3-G would be much improved by a visit from Dennis the Menace.

This spring, a pair of popular Canadian cartoonists decided to do something about comic-strip atomism. Who says that each narrative universe is inviolable? What prevents comic-strip crossover? And so, between April 26 and May 1 -- in the pages of the Toronto Globe and Mail, a major newspaper in Canada -- the comic strips Fisher and Back Bench intermingled stories for the paper's surprised readers. A character from Philip Street's Fisher, which looks at the problems of yuppies and Generation X, found himself in Graham Harrop's Back Bench, which looks at political life in the House of Commons in Ottawa. At the same time, the characters in Fisher read about this strange voyage in a newspaper in the company of a Back Bench character.

This is not, however, the first time in the history of comic strips that characters have crossed the boundaries of their respective realities. One significant historical crossover occurred in 1921, between the Dutch Bulletje en Bonestaak ("Fatty and Beanstalk") of the socialist newspaper Het Volk and the British Jopie Slim and Dickie Bigmans of the London Evening News. Bulletje and his constant companion Bonestaak, who traveled the world in search of adventure, met up with the English duo -- but only in the Dutch papers. As the comics specialist Wolfgang Fuchs notes, the crossover was probably never mentioned in Britain.

Then too, there was Sam's Strip, called the "comic fan's comic strip" by Maurice Horn in his The World Encyclopedia of Comics. Started by Mort Walker (creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois) and Jerry Dumas in 1961, the strip brought all the classic cartoon characters together at a never-ending series of conventions, offering such peculiar possibilities as a conversation between Pogo and Krazy Kat.

The matching of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny in the 1996 movie Space Jam was only the most recent in a long series of attempts to unite live action with animation -- including the famous dance scene between Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse in the 1945 Anchors Aweigh. Perhaps the most impressive attempt at mixing live characters with cartoons, however, was the 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was as well a massive example of crossover. Characters from hundreds of old newspaper comics, comic books, and animated cartoons gathered in a magical land called Toon Town. The film included such scenes as Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and Warner Brothers' Bugs Bunny sky-diving together, and the piano duet between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck stands as one of the great animation achievements of all time.

But there was an element in the combination of Fisher and Back Bench that made the Canadian crossover a novelty, for rarely before had newspaper cartoonists collaborated on one another's strips. The combined work of artists in comic books is quite common. In 1996, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, the publishing giants of the industry, had a well-publicized four-issue crossover series. Major characters of both companies fought against one another for control of the universe, offering stirring battles between Superman and the Incredible Hulk, Batman and Captain America, and Green Lantern and Silver Surfer.

But most newspaper cartoonists simply don't have the time. It's hard enough to draw a daily pen-and-ink strip as well as a weekend color strip with their own characters. Fisher's Street (who lives in Toronto) and Back Bench's Harrop (who lives in Vancouver) took almost a year of phone calls and faxes to pull off their collaboration.

In the end, they decided each cartoonist would draw his own panels, leaving a space open in each strip for the other's submission. When I reached Harrop for comment, he was quick to give Street credit for the idea. Mentioning his excitement at seeing his own work appear in another strip, Harrop noted that it was a complicated procedure and admitted that he was nervous about how the final product would look. Street observed that the fact that both comic strips are exclusive to the Globe and Mail gave readers "a special feeling towards them" that helped them identify the visiting characters.

The irony of the comic-strip crossover lies in its proof that even those little atomistic narrative universes stacked on the comic pages of the newspapers can have their illusions -- that even fantasy worlds can have their fantasies. And the successful collaboration of Street and Harrop proves that the logistical problems are not insur-mountable; all it takes is a little extra dollop of creativity from newspaper cartoonists. My own fantasies include seeing Garfield holding a football for Charlie Brown and the liberal cast of Doonesbury discussing politics with the conservative cast of Mallard Fillmore. That would be something really worth reading -- from Bangor to San Diego, Seattle to Miami.

Michael Taube is a columnist for the Moncton Times & Transcript in Canada.