You could call it a sit-in, of sorts. Perhaps a sketch-in would be more appropriate, a comic call to arms, with cartoonists of color protesting for greater presence in newspaper pages. Protesting the best way they know: drawing about it, en masse, on the same day.
Because, these artists say, "Candorville" does not equal "Boondocks" or "Curtis" or "Wee Pals" or "Herb and Jamaal." And "La Cucaracha" does not equal "Baldo" or "Gordo" and especially not "Cafe con Leche."
But for one day -- this Sunday -- nearly a dozen cartoonists of color will be drawing essentially the same comic strip, using irony to literally illustrate that point. In each strip, the artists will portray a white reader grousing about a minority-drawn strip, complaining that it's a "Boondocks" rip-off and blaming it on "tokenism." "It's the one-minority rule," says Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha"). "We've got one black guy and we've got one Latino. There's not room for anything else."
Plans for the protest began with Cory Thomas, a Howard University grad whose strip, "Watch Your Head," deals with college life at a predominantly African American university. Thomas, Trinidad-born and D.C.-bred, says he was frustrated by the number of times his strip was turned down by newspapers that didn't feel the need to sign him up, because, well, they already had a black comic strip. Most editors, he says, only allow for one or two minority strips, viewing them all as interchangeable. Never mind that his strip is a world away in sensibility from the scathing sociopolitical musings of Darrin Bell's "Candorville" or the family-focused fun of Stephen Bentley's "Herb and Jamaal."
So Thomas drew a strip addressing that, and then enlisted the help of Bell. From there, they got others to agree to participate: Bentley, Jerry Craft ("Mama's Boyz"), Charlos Gary ("Cafe con Leche" and "Working It Out"), Steve Watkins ("Housebroken"), Keith Knight ("The K Chronicles"), Bill Murray ("The Golden Years"), Charles Boyce ("Compu-toon") and editorial cartoonist Tim Jackson.
Alcaraz, who says he found out too late to meet his deadline, will be chiming in on Monday.
"I'd be shocked if an editor ever looked at a new white strip and said, 'We already have a white strip,' " Bell says.
Still, others argue that it's not that simple. For one, there are demographics to consider, says Rick Newcombe, chief executive of Creators Syndicate, which syndicates "B.C.," "Herb and Jamaal," "Working It Out" and "Cafe con Leche."
"In defense of newspaper editors," says Newcombe, "it's only natural to buy [comic strips] according to categories. You might have one according to sports, or one according to office etiquette or work. But I agree with the cartoonists: It should be colorblind."
Observes Lee Salem, president and editor of Universal Press Syndicate, which includes on its roster "Doonesbury," "Baldo" and Nate Creekmore's "Maintaining": "There are only so many spaces on the page. News editors are going to have to face 'How much uproar am I going to have if I drop a strip I currently run and replace it with a new strip?' "
If racial quotas are a factor, "it's a minor one," says Salem, whose syndicate launched "Boondocks." "I tend to think that quality prevails."
In a contracting industry, where space is at a premium, it is that much harder for any cartoonist looking to make a mark. Then, too, newspapers struggle -- as do all media -- with minority representation in their newsrooms.
Cartooning has always been an intensely competitive business; it can take years before even the most talented artist takes off. Charles Schulz labored for years before "Peanuts" caught on with the public. Then there's the fact that not all cartoonists are created equal. Some simply are more talented than others, says Aaron McGruder, whose hard-hitting strip, "Boondocks," was a big hit between 1999 and 2006, syndicated in more than 300 papers.
"I don't look at it as a purely racial or racist issue," says McGruder, who is African American. "I'm sure it's a factor. But I'm not convinced. Despite the hurdles and the issues of race, I was given more than a fair shot. Nobody ever mistook my strip for 'Curtis.'
"The industry itself is struggling. It's like they're the black passengers on the Titanic protesting to get to the top deck, and overlooking the fact that the whole ship is sinking."
Which is to say that this is also about economics: The more newspapers one's strip appears in, the fatter the paycheck. Observes Bentley, who's been drawing "Herb and Jamaal" for more than 20 years: "We're all in this because we want to have a voice within the paper. But this is also for us to make a living. We can't make a living if there isn't enough to sustain a life."
For nearly six years, Gary has enjoyed success with his race-neutral strip, "Working It Out," a satiric look at office politics featuring mostly white characters. The strip runs in 40 papers, a respectable number for a strip that's relatively new. Last April, he launched "Cafe con Leche," which is based on his life and explores married life between an African American and a Latina. Only two papers have picked it up, the Indianapolis Star and the Florida Sentinel Bulletin in Tampa, an African American paper.
"I doubt it's going to inspire some kind of change or some nationwide revolution or anything," says Thomas of Sunday's comics sketch-in. But he added that if nothing else, it might bring "a little visibility, get people to think about it."