E&P’s Features Of the Year

By: Dave Astor

Newspapers hope that publishing cartoons and columns leads to a third “C” word: circulation. And there’s no doubt that the four winners of E&P‘s first Features of the Year contest attract readers.

After all, the comic of the year — “For Better or For Worse” by Lynn Johnston of United Media — wins more newspaper reader polls than any other strip.

The Miami Herald/Tribune Media Services (TMS) commentator Leonard Pitts Jr. — chosen as the year’s best columnist — was deluged with more than 30,000 e-mail messages from readers praising his Sept. 12 piece about the terrorist attacks on America.

The top editorial cartoonist — Clay Bennett of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and United — pulls readers into editorial pages with powerful imagery.

And “My Pet World” columnist Steve Dale — who was honored for best special feature — attracts wide notice from the 60% of Americans with animals in their homes. Many readers contacted the TMS writer after his moving reports about dogs helping humans at the World Trade Center disaster site.

Yes, this quartet is being honored partly because of their varied responses to Sept. 11 (even Johnston did a poignant Nov. 11 remembrance of the Twin Towers tragedy). But it was their body of work for all of 2001 that was considered by E&P‘s panel of editors. In the following stories, see why these four feature phenoms finished first.


‘Better’ Is Best Of Comics

Lynn Johnston started “For Better or For Worse” way back in 1979, but still managed to keep things interesting in 2001 with the wedding of Elly Patterson’s son Michael and a new relationship for Elly’s widowed father, among other scenarios.

How does E&P‘s comic creator of the year maintain the quality of her strip — which mixes autobiography, fiction, realism, and humor — after more than two decades? One explanation involves the alchemy of turning a cartoonist’s experiences into cartoon content.

For instance, the motivation behind the story of Elly’s dad dating was wish fulfillment on Johnston’s part. Her real-life father was a widower, and, one night, during a heart-to-heart talk, he asked the cartoonist what she thought about him possibly dating someone. “I told him I would love to see him happy and in love again,” Johnston recalls.

Her father died of lung cancer before getting into a relationship. But his 80-year-old cartoon alter ego is happily dating a woman named Iris, and even spent a night at her place. Were they, ahem, intimate? “It’s their private business,” chuckles Johnston. “I don’t pry!”

Indeed, the “For Better” characters are so believable that people see them as real. This year, Johnston received numerous letters from readers upset that Elly’s daughter, Elizabeth, is dating a cad. “They’re saying, ‘Get out of this, Elizabeth. He’s wrong for you!'”

And Johnston, who, with staff help, answers all of her reader letters — sometimes running into the hundreds a day — still gets growls from fans angry about the 1995 death of Farley the dog. But the Canadian creator, who also did a sequence about Elly’s mother passing away in 1998, doesn’t plan any more deaths in a comic where the characters never stop aging.

Johnston can promise that because, she tells E&P, she’ll end “For Better” in six or seven years — after which she might spend her time getting her comic collections translated into other languages, writing short stories, and continuing her charitable work.

Cartooning With An Illness

Meanwhile, Johnston has hired several staffers to help her with such tasks as inking backgrounds and adding gray tones to the daily strips and color to the Sundays. Johnston was diagnosed with a neurological condition called dystonia in 1995, and, while it’s a mild case that’s helped by medication, the cartoonist doesn’t have as much energy as before.

“It really has slowed me down,” says Johnston, 54. “I can thoroughly identify with people who have a chronic illness. It makes me realize I’m not getting any younger” — which helps her relate more to the aging characters in her comic.

Millions of readers respond to various characters in “For Better,” which wins far more newspaper polls than any other strip or panel. “Lynn is an amazing artist, but it’s her strength as a writer that’s the engine of the comic,” says Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator of Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library. Caswell considers Johnston’s feature to be “among the best” family comics of all time.

“For Better” appears in more than 2,000 papers via United Media, which took over distribution in 1997 after Johnston spent 18 years with Universal Press Syndicate.

Two 1999-launched strips also received strong consideration for E&P‘s comic-of-the-year honor. They were “The Boondocks” by Universal’s Aaron McGruder, who did incisive post-Sept. 11 commentary about such topics as why America is hated in some parts of the world, and “Get Fuzzy” by Darby Conley of United, which doubled the bitingly funny comic’s clientele to 250 newspapers this year.


A Powerful Piece, Post-9/11

What did Leonard Pitts Jr. do when the number of e-mail messages praising his Sept. 12 column reached 30,000? “I stopped counting,” says E&P‘s columnist of the year.

But Pitts emphasizes that he greatly appreciated the response to his quietly impassioned piece, which acknowledged America’s many flaws while noting that the country is “strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals” and would “pay any cost … in the pursuit of justice.”

Addressing the men who attacked America, he wrote:

“Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause.

“Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve.

“Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.”

Two months after the column saw print, Pitts says: “You write so you can strike a chord. You write so that you can touch people.” And he’s glad he did.

Still, The Miami Herald/Tribune Media Services writer does have some mixed feelings about receiving so many laurels — and seeing his client list jump 10% to 150 newspapers — because of a tragedy in which thousands died.

Other Topics Temporarily On Hold

Pitts, 44, also has found that writing almost exclusively about Sept. 11 and related matters the last two months has made it a bit difficult to return to other topics. “I’m just now trying to find my rhythm again,” says the former music critic, who comments about culture, race, family, relationships, social issues, and more.

John Timpane, commentary-page editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, was impressed with Pitts’ 2001 output before and after Sept. 11. “It was his best year,” says Timpane. “He had a lot of material to work with, and seemed especially energized by the events of the last two months. He allowed himself to be angry, but also warned us against the excesses of where anger can lead.”

Timpane adds, “His voice is so fresh, no matter what he’s writing about. He uses clear, forthright, muscular American English. The guy is obviously a brilliant person, but he just talks to you.”

Pitts — a self-described “independent thinker,” rather than liberal or conservative — won the 2001 American Society of Newspaper Editors award for outstanding commentary. He also has been honored by groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists and American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. The Maryland-based writer was a 1992 Pulitzer Prize finalist, and there’s buzz about his Sept. 12 column making Pitts a strong candidate for a 2002 Pulitzer.


He Has Depth and Dimension

For Clay Bennett, E&P‘s editorial cartoonist of the year, it’s all about being at the Monitor and at the monitor.

Bennett has just begun working out of The Christian Science Monitor office in Boston. He joined the paper in early 1998, but lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., until moving north about 10 days ago.

Meanwhile, Bennett continues to spend lots of time in front of a computer monitor. After drawing his editorial cartoons the old-fashioned way, he scans them in and adds cyber-effects and color that help give his work a unique, almost three-dimensional look.

“With computers, my cartoons get so much closer to what I see in my mind’s eye,” says Bennett. “Of course, computers don’t think up any ideas for you!”

That’s the job of the organic monitor known as Bennett’s brain, and, here again, the creator differs from many of his peers. While some cartoonists hit you over the head with blunt commentary and others try to make you laugh out loud, Bennett goes for a thoughtful, seemingly gentle approach that’s often a velvet sheath over a sharp point. Also, the United Media commentator relies more heavily on visual images than most American cartoonists, using few — and sometimes no — words.

It’s Been a Year Like No Other

For Bennett and other editorial cartoonists, this was a year like no other. It began with the final rumblings of the hotly contested presidential election, and is ending with the horrifying images of a post-Sept. 11 world. The Bush-Gore deadlock was “so monumental, you thought it could never be topped. Then you get something that eclipses it,” says Bennett, the 43-year-old son of a military man.

Bennett’s first post-Sept. 11 cartoon showed the smoking World Trade Center towers with an American flag as part of their sides. Then, as time went on, his commentary became more nuanced. For instance, Bennett did one cartoon — titled “The Candlelight Vigil” — showing a wary Uncle Sam figure hoping the flame on his wick won’t ignite hatred and bigotry in a besieged America.

Robert Laird, Op-Ed page editor at the New York Daily News (one of Bennett’s 100 client papers) lauds the cartoonist’s ideas and art.

“His take on events is often very insightful and different,” Laird says. “We see lots of cartoons from various syndicates, and it’s sort of startling to see how several cartoonists will come up with the same idea. That never happens with Bennett.” He adds that Bennett’s cartoons are “very visual, very sculptural. They just jump off the page at you. You don’t see that from anyone else.”

Bennett, who worked for the St. Petersburg Times from 1981 to 1994, has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the past three years.

Finalists for E&P‘s Editorial Cartoonist of the Year included three past Pulitzer winners: Steve Breen of The San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service, Ann Telnaes of Tribune Media Services, and Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News and Washington Post Writers Group.


Tales From the ‘Pet World’

When readers think of pet features, they think of service information: What do I do when Fido won’t stop barking? How do I get Purrcy to stop scratching the sofa?

Steve Dale offers that kind of content, as well as stuff about canine cookbooks and overgrown bird beaks. But it’s his reporting that sets him apart from most other animal writers. This was especially apparent after Sept. 11, when the Tribune Media Services (TMS) columnist did several powerful pieces about search-and-rescue dogs at the World Trade Center disaster site, about pets trapped in nearby apartments, and more. These were among the columns that made “My Pet World” E&P‘s special feature of the year.

One piece profiled a dog named Servus, who, when sniffing for survivors, stopped breathing after falling into ashlike debris. Dale wrote that Chris Christensen “hauled his 70-pound partner over his shoulders, and somehow managed to run down the treacherous hill, hollering, ‘I need help.’ His pleas didn’t go unnoticed. Reaching the bottom, he laid the lifeless dog down … and was instantly surrounded by over a dozen firefighters, police officers, and thankfully at least one human nurse.” Servus, who had previously twice saved the life of Christensen (a police officer from Missouri who drove to New York), ended up recovering.

Dale did his reporting from Chicago, sometimes calling 30 or 40 times before reaching interview subjects on their cell phones at Ground Zero.

Afterward, he received numerous letters from readers wanting to know how they could help these courageous canines financially and in other ways. “It was clear that these dogs struck a chord,” says Dale, who, like fellow TMS writer and contest winner Leonard Pitts Jr., has some mixed feelings about receiving so much positive attention from covering a tragedy.

Knight Of the Iguana and More

His weekly feature piece (there’s also a weekly Q-and-A component to “My Pet World”) isn’t just about disasters. This year, Dale covered topics ranging from rescuing wayward iguanas to new vaccine protocols for cats.

Dale’s many fans include Cat Writers’ Association (CWA) President Kim Thornton, who says: “One thing I like about Steve’s writing is his enthusiasm for his topic. He never lets that get in the way of good journalism, though. When I read one of Steve’s columns, I know that it’s been thoroughly researched.”

The columnist, who has won many awards from the CWA and other groups, runs in more than 100 papers. Dale — a free-lance writer for the Chicago Tribune before entering syndication — also talks about pets on his radio shows, during TV appearances, on the Internet, in magazine articles, and in his books.

“The more I write about companion animals, the happier I am,” says Dale, who, not surprisingly, is a pet owner himself. Two of the 54 million dogs and one of the 66 million cats in the United States belong to the columnist, as does a lizard.

To see the last 10 “Syndicate World” columns, click here. Previous columns may be purchased in our paid archives. Search for “Astor” in the “Author” field.

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