'Sunshine Club' Comic Creator Howie Schneider Dies

By: E&P Staff "The Sunshine Club" cartoonist Howie Schneider of United Media died yesterday from complications due to heart surgery, according to a Provincetown (Mass.) Banner obituary.

Schneider, born in 1930, was also known for the long-running "Eek and Meek" comic he did for United from 1965 to 2000. Schneider began "The Sunshine Club," which focused on a group of older characters, in 2003. He also did editorial cartoons for the Provincetown Banner.

The cartoonist was the subject of an April 15, 2004, profile by Dave Astor on this Web site. Here's that story:

Howie Schneider feels that the many newspapers looking for younger readers shouldn't ignore their older audience. That's one reason why he created "The Sunshine Club -- Life in Generation Rx," a humor strip which entered syndication last fall with United Media.

"Seniors represent an enormous and growing group in this country" -- and many are loyal newspaper readers, said Schneider, who did the "Eek and Meek" comic from 1965 to 2000. The "over-65" cartoonist added that the oldest baby boomers will reach retirement age in just a few years, making the senior category even bigger.

Older characters appear in a number of comics, but usually as part of a cast that includes younger characters, noted Schneider. "The thing that makes mine different is that it's focused just on a community of seniors," he said.

Many seniors have similar lifestyles and interests. Schneider cited about a dozen examples of this, including: "They have a lot of time on their hands, they may no longer be earning money, they talk about EKGs and blood tests, and their favorite movies are out of date."

There's potential for humor in all those situations, as when Schneider did a "Sunshine Club" strip in which one senior character says: "They're not making movies for us any more." Another replies: "That's why they give us discounts." But the comic also offers universal humor many younger readers might relate to. "There's nothing that can't be looked at through the lens of the aging," said Schneider.

Indeed, the ideas flowed when Schneider came up with the concept for his comic. "I filled three sketchbooks in two or three weeks," he recalled. Then he showed his work to 30 seniors to make sure that the material -- which included things like a character talking with his late wife and a reference to early-bird specials at funeral homes -- wasn't offensive to that audience. The seniors weren't bothered.

The comic's main characters include friends Uncle Bunty and George, the Bovines married couple, Edna (who doesn't understand her children), Willard (who rails against changing times), Fran the flirtatious widow, the TV-watching Badgers, the wise and lovable Professor Noodle, and others. All of them are drawn -- in a minimalist style -- as animals. Why? "I didn't want to do stereotypical old people with gray hair and wrinkles," said Schneider. "I indicate age in subtle ways -- the leaning of the body, not looking too energetic... ."

How energetic is the comic's client list? "The Sunshine Club" has about 60 newspapers -- a respectable total in an economic climate that has made many editors reluctant to buy new features. United said subscribers include the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Detroit Free Press, and Las Vegas Sun.

One reason the Free Press began running "The Sunshine Club" last December was because "the aging populace is obviously a big part of newspaper readership," noted John Smyntek, the paper's special features and syndicate editor. He said it's too soon to say how Free Press readers will take to Schneider's comic; Smyntek explained that many readers resent a new strip when it first starts (partly because it often bumps an established comic), then feel more neutral about it after six months or so, and then might warm to it after a year.

"I'm a late convert to niche strips," added Smyntek, who said many of the comics introduced during the past few years are geared toward specific audiences. So, the editor said with wry exaggeration, "it was either move with the crowd or have empty spaces in the comics section!"

The award-winning Schneider, who resides on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, doesn't have much empty space in his artistic life. He's also an editorial cartoonist for the Provincetown Banner, a sculptor, and a children's author/illustrator who has done books solo and with his wife, writer Susan Seligson.

But Scheider is glad to be doing a comic again four years after "Eek and Meek" ended. "You get in the habit of looking at the world through these little droplets of humor," he said. "If you don't have characters' mouths to put observations in, you feel frustrated. It's like taking away a ventriloquist's dummy."


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