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Comic Strip Characters Have Needs Too : Cartoons: So, Rex Morgan, M.D., is finally popping the question. Writer Woody Wilson says the move is an effort to soften up the doc.

March 03, 1995|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rex Morgan, M.D., to wed?!?

Astonishing but true, the Warren Beatty of the comics pages is finally giving in.

For 46 years, the eligible doctor with the Brylcreem wave and earnest worry line slashed above the brow seemed married to the Hippocratic oath.

Until now.

Over a candle-lit dinner full of pregnant pauses, Rex has been slowly (and by that we mean for weeks) warming toward Saturday's question. The object of his affection? His long-dedicated, infinitely patient assistant, June Gale.

To Woody Wilson, who took over writing the syndicated strip after its creator, Nick Dallis, died in 1991, it's an opportunity to add a dimension to Morgan while nudging him into a broader arena to play off contemporary issues.

But to dedicated fan Sharon Zinnemann, it's an outrage.

" What?!? I don't want to see June shopping for a dress. I hope she says no," says Zinnemann, who settles down with the comics before dipping into the daily O.J. recaps.

"I think June is being compromised in this deal. Here she is hanging around all these years, and he finally decides that this is what he wants to do."

Bottom line, Zinnemann admits: "I hate change."

"It's time," argues Wilson from his Tempe, Ariz., home. "Rex Morgan for many, many years has been sort of the quintessential physician. He has a clinical approach to life. I wanted to make him softer, more flexible. It's sort of ridiculous not to show (June and Rex) in love. Kissing, embracing, them being the team."

But Wilson, 47, is quick to acknowledge the other motivation--the competitive nature of the comics business. "Rex Morgan, M.D." is read by 30 million people in 300 papers.

"We've been able to maintain circulation, but we're not considered to be in vogue with the mainstream newspapers. They are looking for disposable, gag-a-day kinds of strips. For this strip, what brings people back are the characters and the stories. So we have to make them more realistic. Put in situations when they have to be more introspective."

Several long-running strips have taken steps to reinvent themselves of late. It is a risky proposition.

When Mary Worth's facial lines miraculously disappeared, incredulous devotees demanded an explanation. The wrinkles reappeared. But alterations in story line or character development have given other strips a shot of life, or at least let them put a big toe in the great stream called the modern world.

"Blondie got a job finally," says Paola Muggia Stuff, director of the San Francisco Cartoon Museum. "The secretaries in 'Beetle Bailey,' who used to have boobs out to here, have become more tame. And 'For Better or For Worse' dealt with gay issues. So strips do definitely reflect the times. Even these strips that are passed on from generation to generation are becoming more PC."

Dr. Morgan himself has dealt with HIV/AIDS, pediatric tuberculosis, teen sexuality, homelessness and aging.

"You have to bring the reader back every day," says Wilson. "And I'm making it my task to bring in new readers.

"I don't do controversial things just to be controversial. But I've got to stay contemporary."

He hopes that the marriage will provide an arena to discuss modern, domestic issues such as two-career households. (June Gale, he says, will go back to school to become a nurse practitioner.)

"Well, its about time," says Stuff. " 'Rex Morgan' and 'Mary Worth' are the soaps of the strips. I guess they appeal to the same people who watch 'General Hospital' or 'Guiding Light.'. . . I've never been a real soap opera fan, but I have to say, I'm very happy for Dr. Morgan. . . . He probably really needs it by now."

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