Dustin: A New Beginning

Posted by on November 17th, 2010 at 9:11 AM

I read several articles about Dustin, the new comic strip by Steve Kelley and Jeff Parker, before I saw any of the strip itself. The eponymous Dustin is “what trend-spotters call a boomerang kid”: he’s an unmarried, unemployed 23-year-old fresh college graduate who, instead of going out and being employed, comes back home to live with his parents—ostensibly to save money until he is established in the workforce.

Kelley, a political cartoonist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and a sometime stand-up comic, wrote an article about Dustin for his own paper, opening with a comedian’s gambit: the head line says, “Two Heterosexual Males Start a Family Together.”

Then he says: “Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain.” The two heterosexuals are he and Parker; the family, he goes on, is the Kudlick family, Ed and Helen and their two children, Dustin and Meg. Kelley continues: “You must be thinking, whoa, Steve, that is such an original premise. Husband, wife, two kids—does your sizzling creativity know no bounds?” More stand-up shtick.

The more I read about the strip, which began January 4, the more it looked like one of those concoctions whipped up to appeal to a predetermined demographic. A typical syndicate machination. Do a strip about a single mother and her two kids because there are lots of single mothers with kids out there who will positively dote on the strip. Do a strip about a guy working in a retail store because there are lots of guys working in retail stores out there.

In a recession running 10 percent unemployed, a comic strip about one of the young unemployed is sure to find a huge readership. Sure enough—here’s the syndicate publicity from King Features:

“As the national unemployment rate for 20-24-year-olds soars, 80 percent of 2009 U.S. college graduates, dubbed ‘boomerang kids,’ have returned to their parents’ homes after graduation according to CollegeGrad.com. A growing trend around the country, the Boomerang Generation takes center stage in the hilarious comic strip—Dustin, which provides a comical and unique look at an all too familiar situation.”

As usual, the creators supply a voluminous backstory for what David Colton at USA Today dubbed “a reality-based strip,” quoting Kelley, who calls it “a sitcom on a comics page.” Dustin’s father, Ed, is a grumpy lawyer; his mother, Helen, is a radio show host who loves to shop; his sister, Meg, is an over-achieving 16-year-old.

Dustin’s mother is a radio show host? Why all this biographical data for a comic strip family? More demographic formula, no doubt. Calvin and Hobbes this strip isn’t. It’s a cast of characters going through their prescribed paces—or so I thought.

But I was more than slightly off-base as I discovered when I checked in at King Features’ website and read 3 weeks of the strip. Terrific art, funny gags. Here at last, I enthused, a well-drawn and thoroughly risible comic strip.

Looking at the strip in action, I saw the reason for the heaped-up backstory: every one of its elements—the mother’s passion for shopping, guests on her radio show, the daughter’s over-achieving, not to mention the interaction between genders, ages, and roles in the family—provide opportunities for jokes, just what a stand-up comic like Kelley, who writes the strip, revels in.

Dustin’s unemployment is not just a blatant appeal to a current demographic. (In fact, Kelley has been working on the strip for six years: he began work long before the recession set in, creating the demographic with a vengeance.)

Each of Dustin’s temp jobs gives Kelley a new stretch of social landscape to mine for jokes. Dustin works as a meter maid for a week: jokes about his uniform and his little bitty patrol vehicle. He works as a caddy: jokes about finding lost golf balls in the rough—and whole golf club bags, submerged in the water hazards.

Said Parker: “We can inject a lot of fresh air into the strip with characters that come and go and don’t stay around.”

Adds Kelley: “Dustin takes temporary jobs that last a day or two, a week, or—to be honest—until the jokes run out. He then quits or is fired and the process begins anew. Among other things, he serves as a meter maid, a private investigator, an ice carver’s apprentice, pet sitter, golf ball retriever, Starbucks barista and a balloon-tying clown at a child’s birthday party.”

About his drawing partner, Kelly says: “He’s considered one of the best draftsmen among all political cartoonists,” Kelley said. “He was good at mimicking the style of anyone you named.”

In addition to his editorial cartoons for Florida Today, Parker drew Blondie with Dennis LeBrun for years; and he now draws some of Mike Peters’ Mother Goose and Grimm.

Parker artwork is exquisite. He draws with a flowing line, undulating from thin to thick, and he introduces linear contrast with fine-line backgrounds and other trimmings, yielding pictures that are crisp and clean, as the samples looming here reveal.

Apart from the superiority of Parker’s renderings, the strips also display a lot of verbal gags, jokes that don’t need pictures to arrive at a punchline. A stand-up comic’s stock-in-trade, in other words.

Of the four strips posted, two are verbal gags. But the other two would flop without their pictures: the joke is made by the picture. Given my biases, I’d like to see more strips like the latter—strips that rely upon pictures blending with words; but the verbal jokes here are funny, and in being mostly verbal, they are not much different from many of today’s most popular strips. Except, maybe, that they’re funnier.

By the way (although not at all incidentally), several of the cartoonists whose work I’ll be looking at in the next installment or two, are friends of mine; so don’t expect dispassionate criticism. Kelley, for instance, is president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and I’m secretary-treasurer. And I’ve known and admired Parker’s work for years.

In my own feeble defense, I should add that my appreciation for the work of these people preceded our friendship. If I hadn’t admired their work, I probably wouldn’t have made their acquaintance and, subsequently, become friends.

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