By: Dave Astor
“Rudy Park” readers are starting to suspect today that a major character has died — a rare event in the comic-strip world.
The outspoken but kindly liberal Mort Park collapsed three days ago while arguing with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — the latest real person to visit the Internet caf? managed by Mort’s nephew Rudy.
No one’s more upset about Mort’s fatal heart attack than “Rudy Park” artist Darrin Bell and writer Matt Richtel, a New York Times reporter who uses the pen name Theron Heir when scripting the United Media strip.
“Matt and I are both broken up about this,” Bell told E&P.
“I might send myself an angry e-mail asking, ‘How dare you let Mort die?,'” Richtel joked ruefully during a phone interview.
Which leads to the obvious question: If Richtel and Bell are so upset about Mort’s demise, why not let him live?
“It may sound strange, but sometimes these things are out of a creator’s control,” replied Richtel, who covers technology and telecommunications out of the Times’ San Francisco bureau. “Characters can take on a life of their own — or a death of their own.”
Richtel added that Mort is 84, and the stress of arguing against things like Bush-administration policies put a big strain on his heart during the past few years.
Bell said Mort has been “living on borrowed time” since the part-humorous/part-topical “Rudy Park” — which has more than 80 newspaper and online clients — began more than five years ago.
“When we first planned to introduce Uncle Mort in 2001, it would’ve been a three-day story,” said Bell, who also writes and draws the “Candorville” comic for the Washington Post Writers Group. “He was to say a few words and then die, and then we’d explore how Rudy and the gang reacted to that. But those few words created such a vibrant character that he seemed to come to life. We became attached, and couldn’t let go.”
Meanwhile, Mort and the cantankerous Sadie Cohen fell in love in “Rudy Park.” She and others in the comic’s cast will mourn Mort’s death in the coming weeks, and readers will be able to send condolences to RudyPark.com.
Richtel said Mort’s demise will help the strip keep evolving, unlike the many syndicated comics that remain essentially the same for decades. And the writer — author of a novel called “Hooked” due out this June — said the death of a character strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a symbolic way to show the toll that war is taking on people.
Given that deaths are rare in “the funnies,” did Richtel think of any other comics when planning Mort’s demise? He mentioned “Doonesbury,” and the 1990 death of AIDS patient Andy Lippincott in that Universal Press Syndicate feature.
“There was so much humor and sadness at the same time,” recalled Richtel. “Garry Trudeau is absolutely a master at walking that line.”
Of course, things aren’t always what they seem in a comic. Richtel reported that Mort’s DNA was merged with a monkey’s DNA, so a talking animal with some of Mort’s personality may make a future appearance in “Rudy Park”!