MISSION VIEJO — In his brief introduction to Kevin Fagan's fourth collection of "Drabble" cartoons, veteran cartoonist Bil Keane says, " 'Drabble' makes me laugh out loud more often any other comic strip.
"Maybe it's because everyone in my 'Family Circus' is so normal that Norman and his dad seem uproariously funny.
"Maybe it's the way it's drawn.
"Maybe it's the quiet Laurel and Hardy zaniness of the gags."
Or, he says, "maybe I just like stupidity. . . ."
Whatever it is, the relationship between Norman Drabble and his father, Ralph, provides the theme for Fagan's latest cartoon strip collection, "Dad, I'm an Elvis Impersonator!" (Topper Books; $6.95).
The new "Drabble" book features dozens of cartoons that the Mission Viejo cartoonist culled from strips that ran primarily in 1989 and 1990. "Drabble" is carried by 200 newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times.
Fagan will sign copies of his new book--and answer questions about cartooning--from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Little Professor Book Center, 24315 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills.
Although he agrees with Keane that Norman and Ralph Drabble are "a bit like Laurel and Hardy," Fagan says it's difficult for him to describe Ralph and Norman's father-son relationship.
"Actually, Norman and his dad are a lot alike--more than either one would be willing to admit," said Fagan, 34. "Norman's always kind of driving his dad crazy because, I guess, he has higher expectations for him than Norman's been able to realize.
"And, of course, Norman's character is kind of dim. But I think that's what makes him funny. His dad gets disappointed with him, but his dad is maybe one IQ (point) above him. Or below him. It's that one point that causes the problem."
Fagan said he came up with the idea to have Keane write the introduction for the new book after Keane's son, Jeff, a Laguna Beach resident, asked him if he could have an original "Drabble" cartoon to give to his father for Christmas last year. "He told me how much Bil loves 'Drabble,' " Fagan said.
From that grew the idea for the "important message" on the back cover of the book.
Fagan said he and his three older brothers were sitting around last Christmas talking about how Bil Keane was going to write the introduction when his brothers suggested that they write the introduction for his next book.
If the Fagan brothers were cartoon characters, a light bulb would have appeared above Kevin Fagan's head: "Hey," he said to his brothers, "we've got the whole back cover!"
Recalls Fagan with a laugh: "Their eyes lit up, and they sat around and began working on it."
The result is "An Important Message from the Author's Brothers," in which James, Michael and Timothy Fagan jokingly observe that "our family history has been rewritten (for profit, we might add) as a comic strip. Our little brother earns a living by trashing the childhood memories the rest of us hold dear. . . . This collection of cartoon art focuses on the relationship between Norman and his Dad. Kevin continues here with a misguided portrayal of his own family as stooges. . . ."
It is signed, "Love, James, Michael, and Timothy Fagan (a.k.a. Norman, Norman, and Norman Drabble").
"The joke in the family is that Ralph bears a strong resemblance to our dad," said Fagan, who concedes that a lot of the humor in "Drabble" is "inspired by stupid things I did with our dad, or that my brothers did with our dad."
One thing Fagan has incorporated into the strip, he said, is the look Ralph gives Norman. Fagan calls it The Glare.
"It makes Norman feel like 2 feet tall," he said. "My dad didn't have to yell or hit us. He just had this look on his face, and we immediately knew we had goofed up.
"There's another strip in the book where Norman is embarrassed to tell his dad he did something stupid for fear that his dad would give him The Glare. And in the end, instead of giving him The Glare, he just smiles as if to say, 'You're so pathetic I can't believe it.'
"That's our dad."
Once billed as the nation's youngest cartoonist--he was 22 when "Drabble" made its debut in 1979--Fagan said he was saddened to hear this week that "Moon Mullins," the classic cartoon strip drawn by Ferd Johnson of Newport Beach, was coming to an end Sunday after 68 years.
Of course, Fagan acknowledged, "Moon Mullins" had an unusually long run.
"I'll take 68 years," he said with a laugh.
Like Johnson, Fagan said coming up with ideas is the hardest part of the job.
"You always want to stay funny and fresh," Fagan said. "You don't want to repeat yourself. So the search of ideas, for me anyway, is the time-consuming part of it."
In fact, Fagan said, he was trying to come up with ideas for upcoming strips when the phone rang.
"But I don't mind being interrupted," he said, "because I'm having a hard time getting started on the week I'm working on. I thought it would be funny if Norman saved (his girlfriend) Wendy's life."
"So," he said with a laugh, "I'm just thinking about how to do that."