By: M.L. Stein
‘Farley’ creator puts his commentary in the news hole
CAN “FARLEY,” A local comic strip featuring a hat-wearing reporter-come-columnist, his feathered roommate, talking bears, a feral cat and a street-corner guru, make it in San Francisco?
Hands down, by all indications.
“Ninety-nine percent of the reaction has been favorable,” said the strip’s creator, Phil Frank.
And when Baba, the guru, inserts his real fax number in the San Francisco Chronicle strip, he gets dozens of messages. They’re answered by Frank, who looks suspiciously like Farley, his main character.
The strip, unique among daily newspapers, has been running in the Chronicle since 1986. It began as a syndicated feature, “Travels with Farley,” in 1975.
Farley, a newshound who wears a perpetually gloomy expression and a droopy mustache, writes for the Daily Requirement, a switch from his former employer, the afternoon Daily Demise.
The six-day strip is strictly local, landing drolly on timely San Francisco issues such as a transit strike, parking, the installation of street toilets, the mayor’s up-and-down popularity and politics.
When Farley isn’t chasing sources, the panels are taken over by Baba, the bears, the cat and sometimes feral pigs. Orwell, the neutered cat, recently lost his job as security chief for Socks, the White House feline.
The four bears, ardent San Francisco Giants fans, operate a restaurant, the Fog City Dumpster, for their animal friends. The Fog City Diner, one of the city’s most popular eateries, was so enamored of the allusion that it displays original “Farley” strips on its walls.
Another of Frank’s spoofs didn’t go over as well. When his pigs opened a bank called First Feral Savings and Loan, the president of First Federal Savings and Loan didn’t get it and asked the cartoonist to drop the name.
“I did,” Frank said, laughing. “I felt there wasn’t much else I could do since his bank was holding the paper on my house.”
In another instance, Frank was the aggrieved party. Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, came up with a character dubbed H. Ross Parrot, which Frank believes was lifted from one of his characters.
“We protested and thought at first of taking action,” he said, “but who wants to go to court against Sesame Street?”
So far, no journalist has complained of being ripped off.
The fictional Farley, who lives in a bachelor pad with Bruce, a wisecracking raven, has an on-again-off-again romance with Irene, a blonde meter maid. She would like to get married, but Farley can’t work up a commitment.
When Baba asked readers to fax him on whether Farley should take the big step with Irene, the machine overflowed with opinions, Frank recalled.
Whatever their views, Frank is unlikely to join the pair.
“Marrying Irene would take a lot of fun and tension out of the strip,” he explained.
Baba has other interests besides advising Farley on his personal relationships. He is a confidante of Mayor Frank Jordan, who summons up the guru’s image in an office mirror whenever he has a tough problem he needs help with.
Frank often uses his characters, human and otherwise, to take pokes at the city’s officialdom. The artist, who frequently sits in on Board of Supervisors meetings for research, commented about politicos: “I have a kind of tenuous relationship with them. My job is to make them the butt of jokes, but because it is a cartoon, I don’t think anyone gets really incensed.”
Still, it’s significant that Farley appears on the jump page of the Chronicle’s main news section, not on the comics pages. The positioning attracts a lot of readers who normally avoid the comics, Frank said.
That was the idea that helped convince Chronicle executive editor Bill German to buy the strip eight years ago, according to Frank, who began as a contributor but now is on staff.
At the time he approached German, Frank was turning out a strip for a weekly paper in nearby Sausalito, where he lives.
He said German’s first reaction was that nobody else was doing a daily local cartoon. “I said, ‘That’s why you should be doing it,’ ” Frank recalled.
By putting Farley in the news section, Frank reasoned, the strip could be locally focused with a short lead time to pick up on current happenings and make quick changes on breaking stories. He pointed out that the comics page is locked up a week in advance, making such moves impossible.
Recently, Frank, who can sub a cartoon up to the night before its appearance, made a last-minute switch when a predicted transit strike was called off, forcing him to kill a strip.
“In six years, I’ve only been caught short once on a topical theme,” he said.
Frank, 51, holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in graphic design from Michigan State University, where he taught journalism for two years.
He had several years of experience before he hooked up with the Chronicle. He penned the “On Campus” cartoon for Allied Features for four years before developing “Travels With Farley,” first for First Communications and then for Chronicle Features, Field Enterprises and the North American Syndicate.
Under his arrangement with the Chronicle, Frank can free-lance elsewhere if his work does not contain any “Farley” characters.
An avid conservationist, he produces illustrated books for Innovative Communications on subjects such as water, energy, pollution and resources. His cartoons also appear in the magazines Road & Track and Wine Spectator, among others.
Frank has a studio in his home but does “Farley” in the pilot house of a houseboat owned by a friend.
“When I write, I don’t want any phone calls,” he said.
His only companion during those times is a stuffed raven ? named Bruce, of course. Frank takes care to point out the bird is on loan from the California Fish and Game Commission, since state regulations prohibit the stuffing of ravens by the public.
Drawing a San Francisco strip gives him more satisfaction than syndication did. “Generic humor isn’t as interesting as concentrating on a local scene,” he observed.
Chronicle managing editor Dan Rosenheim agreed, saying, “Farley is done with wit and insight into what’s happening in this town. The strip strikes an irreverent but amusing break to the usual ponderous flow of news.”
Frank knows of no other newspaper with a daily local cartoon ? the Detroit Free Press carries a daily panel with a local focus by Guindon ? but he believes there should be.
“There are certain cities, Boston and Seattle, for example, where a daily local cartoon strip might go over very well,” he said. Frank has one piece of advice for papers considering such a strip: Put it on a news page.
?( “Ninety-nine percent of the reaction has been favorable,” said the strip’s creator, Phil Frank.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Frank often uses his characters, human and otherwise, to take pokes at the city’s officialdom.) [Photo & Caption]