Freshly Squeezed

Posted by on November 19th, 2010 at 9:18 AM

Freshly Squeezed, like Dustin, is produced by an editorial cartoonist. Ed Stein spent 31 years in that role in Denver for the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado’s oldest daily newspaper which died in 2009 for the sake of a tax advantage that its owner, Scripps, would enjoy. Ostensibly a new strip, Freshly Squeezed actually harbors an unusually long gestation period and an equally unusual history.

The strip revolves around a married couple, Liz and Sam, and their pre-teen son who suddenly have to adjust their lives when Liz’s parents move in because the Great Recession has stolen their savings and they can’t afford their house anymore. Right up-to-the-minute contemporary life, in other words. Although if Stein were shooting for that demographic, he would probably miss: homeless people without life savings aren’t likely to subscribe to newspapers.

But Stein isn’t exactly shooting for that readership. He has something else in mind.

Stein, who continues to do editorial cartoons for syndication, had the idea for the strip over 20 years ago. “My mom died, and one day my dad called me up and said he was moving to Denver,” Stein told William Porter at the Denver Post. “I said, ‘Great—do it,’ then hung up the phone and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ My dad never really wanted to live with us, but he sort of attached his life to ours for a while before developing a life of his own.”

And here’s where art imitates life. Stein thought his domestic situation was a promising field to plow for a comic strip. “I started taking notes,” he said. “It was part reality and part imagination on how it would be if both my parents had moved in with us.”

But the strip Stein envisioned didn’t emerge from his notebook; it stayed there. And he continued editooning at the News and started producing a comic strip called Denver Square, which was about a young family living in Denver, enjoying the environment and enduring the politics. The strip was one of the last of a dying breed: produced exclusively for the Rocky Mountain News, it was never syndicated. Stein did it for twelve years; then he ended it because doing both a political cartoon and a daily strip added up to more work than he could manage once he had to do the technical tasks—scanning, coloring, inserting it into the paper’s pages—in addition to thinking up the cartoons and drawing them.

Then the News was killed, and Stein dug out those old notebooks. And this time, he turned the notes into a comic strip, concocting some new material and giving it all a topical spin.

He already had a cast: Liz and Sam, their son and Liz’s parents (conservatives to Liz and Sam’s liberalism) were the cast of Denver Square. He knew them. They were old friends. Now, they’re alive and well again.

Very well. Here are a few of the strips, beginning with the inaugural one.

Stein’s drawings are crisp and uncomplicated, perfect for reproduction in the minuscule format most newspaper comics pages must survive in. But his rendering manner is also flexible and pleasant to look at—solid blacks spotted for emphasis and visual variety, a stylistic tour de force.

And the sense of humor on display is both comedic and humane. The jokes, gentle jibes all, usually tell us something about the personalities in the household. The last strip here, for instance. “It could use some salt,” says Liz’s mother.

Well, it’s her recipe. But by criticizing the dish, she shows us that living with her, for Liz, isn’t going to be a frolic in the afternoon.

Look again at that last strip. Notice that it is a four-panel panorama: the same scene, viewed in four installments, so to speak, four blinks of an eye. Does this maneuver enhance the joke? No. But it puts all the members of this extended family at the same table—”the whole family together,” as Sam says—emphasizing the situation they all must learn to live with.

The panorama emphasizes visually the family as a unit; and then Liz’s mother verbally undercuts that impression. A nice blend of words and pictures with a philosophical thrust.

But if Liz’s mother is an object lesson in just how annoying it might be to live with “the whole family together” under one roof, we can also see that it won’t be terrible. A little trying at times. But not terrible.

Stein, who graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in graphic arts, said: “I’d wanted to be a cartoonist since I was a little kid, but you grow up and say it’s not practical. So this is very satisfying,” he finished, kicking back, no doubt, in his chair—like this.

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