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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : 'Drabble' Rouser : Kevin Fagan of Mission Viejo, a syndicated cartoonist, relates to his characters. In fact, he draws inspiration from everyday events.

October 08, 1995|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some days, ideas for Kevin Fagan's syndicated cartoon strip "Drabble" flow like spilled ink.

Other times, it seems the ink well has run dry.

"I went to my dentist last Monday, and I was talking to him about it," says Fagan. "He said, 'What are you working on this week?' I said, 'I have no idea. I just have no idea at all.' "

Fagan was still waiting for inspiration to strike later in the day when he left for a doctor's appointment. Taking a seat in the waiting room, he waited. And waited. As the minutes turned into more than an hour, he picked up the spiral note pad he uses to jot down ideas.

"I just started writing down ideas about what it's like to be sitting in a waiting room waiting for doctors," he says. "By the time I left, I had my week's worth of cartoons."

No one told Fagan it would be easy being funny. Not on a daily basis, turning out a cartoon strip that appears in more than 200 newspapers--including The Times--365 days a year.

But after 16 years, the Mission Viejo cartoonist still gets a charge when comic inspiration strikes and he breathes three-dimensional life into his two-dimensional drawings of the Drabble family: Father and mother Ralph and June (better known as "Honeybunch"), brothers Norman and Patrick and baby sister Penny.

"When I get a really good story line," Fagan says, "it's almost euphoric, and I can't wait to run out to the drawing board and start putting it down."

When "Drabble" debuted in the spring of 1979, the then 22-year-old Fagan was billed as the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America.

At the time, the former Saddleback College student newspaper cartoonist identified most with his main character Norman: a shy, insecure and occasionally bumbling college student who lives at home. Fagan calls Norman a "dork," not unlike himself at that age: "The girl that Norman hangs out with, Wendy, is kind of based on a couple of girls I knew in college who would never give me the time of day."

Fagan, now 39, has been married for eight years, has three young children and lives in a two-story tract house in one of the newer sections of Mission Viejo.

And as middle age creeps up on him like a pair of baggy boxer shorts, Fagan now finds himself identifying less with Norman and more with Norman's dad, Ralph: a paunchy mall security guard who is given to loud floral sport shirts and silent Oliver Hardy glares--after Norman does something particularly stupid, a frustrated Ralph looks out at the reader as if to say, "Can you believe what I have to put up with?"

The doughnut-loving mall cop, in fact, has become Fagan's favorite character.

"Ralph's kind of taken over the strip, kind of like the way Snoopy took over 'Peanuts,' " he says. "Now it's pretty much about Ralph and Ralph's life. Not that Norman's gone, but Ralph has emerged as the funniest character."

Unlike Norman, who knows that he's a goofball, Fagan says that Ralph doesn't know that he's a goofball--and that makes him all the funnier.

Over the years, four collections of Fagan's cartoon strips have been published in paperback, and "Drabble" has carried on a flirtatious relationship with Hollywood: Director Ron Howard toyed with executive-producing a live-action TV version of the strip in the early '80s, and animator Bill Melendez, who produced and directed the "Peanuts" TV cartoon specials, has test-animated "Drabble" and, Fagan says, is now shopping the project around to the networks.

"Drabble" also recently joined other United Media syndicate strips on the Internet, and Fagan has signed a deal for a series of "Drabble" greeting cards.

*

The adventures--and misadventures--of the Drabbles come together in Fagan's studio: a remodeled section of his oversized garage.

The walls are covered with framed cartoon originals, gifts from fellow funny-page artists Fagan has met and traded autographed strips with. There's Jim Davis' "Garfield," Bil Keane's "The Family Circus," Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse," Mort Walker's "Beetle Bailey" and nearly two dozen more.

There's also a strip autographed by "Sparky," as "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz is called by his friends.

Fagan first met Schulz in 1985 and has visited the cartoon superstar's studio in Santa Rosa. Schulz owns an ice-skating rink there, and the Fagans have made it a family ritual to attend the ice show Schulz produces every year. One year, after Fagan's wife, Cristi, admired the carousel horses used in the production, Schulz had one sent to the couple. It's now displayed in their living room.

Schulz, who says he enjoys spending time with the Fagans, is a big fan of "Drabble."

"I think it is consistently one of the funniest strips around," says Schulz. "One of the reasons for its success beyond it being consistently funny is that although it's a family strip, it is original in its approach. . . . The humor is never nasty. They are all good people, and I think this is very important these days."

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