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Next Avenue: Comic strip artists find the humor in growing older

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

Older Americans may be ignored by much of the media, but they’re getting a lot of attention these days in one surprising venue: the comics.

Newspaper and online comic strips focusing on the lives of older characters are drawing readers of all generations. Other strips are plucking them out of the supporting cast to become central figures in their story arcs.

Some popular strips, such as Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” are allowing their characters to age by the year, a phenomenon that was once virtually unheard-of. Mike Doonesbury, for example, has aged from college freshman to graying granddad — and he has never seemed more contented with life.

Here are some of the comics and creators at the forefront of this trend:

‘Pickles’

When Brian Crane set out to become a cartoonist in the late 1980s, his goal was to find “something nobody else was doing.” The result was “Pickles,” a strip that centers on a retirement-age couple, Earl and Opal Pickles, and their family, including grandson Nelson, an elementary school student.

“Pickles” made its debut in April 1990 and now appears in some 900 papers around the world, as well as online.

Although legend has it that Earl and Opal were modeled on Crane’s in-laws, he says he drew his inspiration from “in-laws, outlaws, everybody.” Increasingly, he says, that includes his wife and himself.

The humor in “Pickles often involves a bit of bickering between Earl and Opal, although Crane says he’s tried to mellow the two over the years.

“Pickles” by Brian Crane

Brian Crane

In one recent strip, Earl complains that the chicken bouillon in their kitchen cabinet is decades past its expiration date: “This chicken’s great-great grandchildren are long dead, but this is still sitting in our cupboard.” To which Opal replies, “If 20-year-old chicken bouillon were going to kill you, you’d be dead by now.”

Crane says he rarely gets complaints that he’s portraying older people in a negative way — and when he does, they typically come from younger readers.

“My usual response is that I am simply looking to find the humor amidst the trials of getting older,” he says. “My philosophy is that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it.” 

Now 72, with seven children and 21 grandchildren, Crane has plenty of material to draw on and no plans to retire.

“It’s gotten a lot easier,” Crane says. “Now I’m pretty much writing about myself.”

‘Flo & Friends’

“Flo & Friends,” which marks its 20th anniversary this year, carries the subtitle “Aging with an Attitude!” Title character Flo is a 65-year-old raising her teenage granddaughter.

The comic was the brainchild of John Gibel, an Akron, Ohio businessman and active volunteer who wanted to create a strip focusing on older adults. He brought in Jenny Campbell, a local writer and artist, as a collaborator. When Gibel unexpectedly died of a stroke in 2005, at just 56, his family signed the strip over to Campbell, for what she says now was roughly the price of a Starbucks Grande Caffè Latte.

“When I started, I thought ’65, that’s old,’ so I made Flo 65,” Campbell says with a laugh. “I just turned 65 last year, so the strip is becoming more and more autobiographical. The characters have evolved into really good friends of mine.”

Like many cartoonists, Campbell steers clear of politics and religion — “anything that’s going to spawn hate mail. My joy in life is that I have a career where I can make people laugh. I’ve never been into controversy anyway.”

When Campbell takes up some of the more difficult issues older people face in real life, she does it with a light touch. For example, “I don’t mention Alzheimer’s,” she says, “but I do poke a little gentle fun at losing your memory, because that stuff is happening to me. I’m experiencing the same things as my characters.”

When she isn’t busy with “Flo & Friends,” Campbell works the other end of the age spectrum, illustrating children’s books. She also had the singular honor of drawing the cartoon dog and cat that appear on Ohio’s “I’m Pet Friendly” car license plate, which raises money for animal shelters and related causes. The plate on her car reads: IDRUIT.

‘Sally Forth’

A mainstay of the comics pages, “Sally Forth” turns 40 in 2022. The same year, Francesco Marciuliano will mark a quarter-century as its writer. Jim Keefe is the strip’s current illustrator.

The strip focuses on Sally, a 40ish working mother, and her extended family, including her and husband Ted’s parents.

In recent years, the older crew has figured prominently in the strip’s plotlines. Ted’s father died in 2017 after an illness that played out over many months. This year, Sally’s mother, Laura, has been downsizing her home as she prepares to move in with Sally’s sister, Jackie, and Jackie’s husband, Ralph. Ralph, meanwhile, wants to change careers but fears he’s too old to make a go of it.  

“Sally Forth”

Francesco Marciuliano & Jim Keefe / King Features Syndicate

Like many writers, Marciuliano, 54, often draws on his and his friends’ experiences. After his own dad died in 2016, he used the death of Ted’s father to explore dying, grief, and the awkward, unfamiliar situations that survivors can find themselves in.

Ted, for example, has to choose a funeral home by googling for one because no one had made plans beforehand. And in one panel, a well-meaning funeral director suggests that if Ted pays with a credit card rather than a check he’ll earn rewards points. Both came directly out of Marciuliano’s experience.

That story line led to some complaints from people accustomed to a more lighthearted “Sally Forth,” Marciuliano says, but abundant praise from readers who’d lost a parent of their own.

Marciuliano, who also writes humor books and the comic strip “Judge Parker,” says that in portraying his older characters, he tries hard to avoid both “the goody-goody older person” — “twinkly eyed and handing out candy” — and the “cool old person,” the grandma on a skateboard, for example.

Sally’s mom, Laura, who seems poised to play a larger role in the strip, is unlikely to be described as either goody-goody or cool. Sharp-tongued and opinionated, she is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand and takes particular pleasure in tormenting son-in-law Ted. It’s little wonder that she’s moving in with her other daughter.

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‘The New 60’

Longtime admen Andy Landorf and John Colquhoun saw a niche for a strip about a set of friends much like themselves—active 60-somethings, adapting to a new phase of life in a changing world. Both men write the strip, which they launched in 2018, while Colquhoun draws it. (If the characters look a little like the Little Caesars pizza chain mascot, it’s no coincidence. Colquhoun drew him too.)

‘The New 60’ by Andy Landorf and John Colquhoun

Andy Landorf and John Colquhoun

“The New 60” presents a new strip every Tuesday and Friday at thenew60comic.com, on Facebook
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; and via a weekly email. Publishing it digitally gives the creators instant feedback.

“The comments I love are the ones like, ‘Did you put a hidden camera in my kitchen?’” Landorf says. On the other hand, Colquhoun notes, they also get the occasional “OK boomer” put-down from their GenX fans on Instagram when the characters say something that irks them.

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Much of the humor of “The New 60” draws on how the world has evolved since the baby boomers’ youth. In a recent installment, for example, the character Sam goes shopping for a new pickup truck. After the salesman extols one model’s Bluetooth, satellite radio, eight-inch LCD touchscreen, and other new features, Sam says he just wants a simple pickup for chores like hauling lumber.

“Where would I go to find a truck like that?” he asks. “Uh…,” the salesman replies, “1982.”

Greg Daugherty is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was formerly editor in chief at Reader’s Digest New Choices and Senior Editor at Money magazine.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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