Suburban, Urban, and Rural Torture

TheyÕre the dark side of middle-class American human nature, those Suburban Torture characters. Their featureless ovoid faces, porcine bodies, and vulgar conversations scare readers of newspapers (including this one) across the country. They’re so acquisitive, tasteless, and shallow, they make the Simpsons look like the Waltons. But their creator, Julie Larson, has seen their human counterparts everywhere - in small towns, cities, even what’s left of the countryside - although suburbia, with its concentrated consumer culture, may be their natural breeding ground. They’re all over the supermarkets and shopping centers. You work with some of them. You may even work for one of them, God help you. They live in your neighborhood, and occasionally they live in your body. "Sometimes I see them in myself," says Larson. Like Pogo, she has met the enemy, and they are us, including her. She’s no Frankenstein, though. She’s half of an affable, attractive, 35ish couple currently living in deep suburbia with their three young daughters - Genevieve,7; Britta, 5; and Christina, 3 - and two old dogs. She contends that Madison Avenue and Hollywood are the real culprits behind America’s Burl-and-Joy syndrome. All she’s done is to draw these people and feed them funny lines. It’s not their socioeconomic status she’s mocking. It’s their ignorant and ignoble attitude toward life. Larson recognizes how easy it is to slide into an avoidance of responsibility for any concern larger than oneself. In describing Burl and Joy and their family and friends, Larson begins, "They’re shallow, selfish, stupid, cheap ... " "And happy as hell," her husband Steve chuckles. And there’s the rub. Acknowledgment is the first step toward recovery, but Larson’s characters luxuriate in their television-induced inertia - usually in recliners, surrounded by ashtrays and coffee mugs decorated with advertising slogans. Larson’s humor has been called mean-spirited, and she’s been accused of laughing at rather than with those she depicts. On the other hand, she’s also been compared to novelist Flannery O’Connor. But an editor at the Chicago Tribune probably came closest to the truth when, Larson says, he called the panel "too avant-garde" and pulled it after a year’s run in the Sunday lifestyles section. "I think about 70 percent of the population is like these people," she says, "so that makes it hard" for mainstream newspaper editors to run Suburban Torture. It’s sometimes been seen as a lightning rod for intellectual and social elitism. Actually, Larson intends the panel as a warning that mass marketing and crass materialism have taken over too many lives, making mediocrity increasingly acceptable and substituting Babittry for refinement. The sentiment isn’t unique, but Larson’s presentation is. Her sight gags are worth a thousand words, and her ear for absurd conversation is lethally sharp. As for those bloated word balloons with the disconcerting mix of printed and cursive letters, capital and lower-case - well, that’s just her handwriting. She draws her characters to personify the banality of evil. They all wear glasses, behind which their beady little eyes can’t be seen. They have small, smug, stingy mouths; the women’s are painted on with lipstick. They’re grossly overweight, they smoke constantly, and they wear shapeless, printed petro-togs that will remain intact in a landfill long after they’re all dead. But so what? they would say. The only environment they’re concerned about is their front lawn. Larson’s own front lawn - pretty, but not manicured or chemically enhanced - lies before a graceful 1894 Prairiestyle house in Park Ridge, IL, a suburb immediately northwest of Chicago. Originally a farmhouse, it’s now in the middle of a typical postwar suburb. Larson moved there in 1988, after her first daughter was born. Earlier, she and her husband, Steve Larson, art director of Chicago’s public television station, lived in the city’s diverse, ganginfested Wicker Park neighborhood, drawn there by a great old apartment (they both have professional backgrounds in architecture). Later, they bought a vintage three-flat in adjacent Logan Square, a similar neighborhood. "We knew we’d move at some point after Genevieve was born," Larson said, "but driving past this house and seeing a forsale sign sped up the process." Larson grew up in Lincoln, a central Illinois town of 20,000 that she says was "full of people like my characters," and spent summers in rural western Colorado. She studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "My father was a lawyer, and we lived in the country and we traveled," she says, "so I realized during junior high that we were kind of an unusual family there. My parents both have a sense of humor, but I think it was college that kind of warped me. They showed a lot of John Waters films there. "My roommate and I used to caricature people we knew. There was one drunken architecture classmate living across the hall, and - well - he was always trying to kill himself." Larson laughs despite herself; apparently, the attempts were such a routine ploy for attention that even the attempter didn’t take them very seriously. "Then he’d come to my door, saying, ‘Bitch, open up. You got any whiteout?’ for the rope burns around his neck. We started drawing him. And we drew Steve," she says, looking at her husband, "because he had droopy pants, like the refrigerator repairman on ‘Saturday Night Live.’" After graduating in 1982, she lived in Palo Alto, CA, for a year, then moved to Chicago to marry Steve, a native Chicagoan. She worked as an interior designer for an architecture firm, and later as facilities manager for the postal system. Larson started drawing the panels as a hobby while living in the city, inspired in part by her suburban inlaws. She and her husband sense that the elder Larsons know this and take it in stride. It’s one of those things, Larson says, that parents don’t want to know. "It could really be anybody," she says. "We all see these couples out shopping together - shopping is an outing - where the husband seems to be just getting in the way. They drive all over town for the best deal on each item, they gather like vultures around food samples in grocery stores. They have no hobbies. They’re demanding and petty. And you have to watch out for them," she laughs, "because they hold grudges!" But the panel really gelled, Larson says, after her move to the suburbs ("the suburbs just make me more aware of people like this," she says). It was Steve, however, who named it and encouraged her to seek publishers when she didn’t want to return to work after Genevieve’s birth. "Those early drawings were really scratchy," she says. "The characters were uglier than they are now, with hardly any teeth." At the suggestion of her editor at the Tribune, she rounded them out, changed Ed’s name to Burl (Ed is her father-in-law’s name), and temporarily changed the panel’s name to "Burl and Joy." She later added a second son, Butch. He’s a bit more enlightened than his family. They consider him a bit of a snob. "Butch probably went to a community college - not a university - and, no doubt, paid for it himself," Larson says. "He’s a bank teller, working his way up, and the family can’t quite figure him out." According to the panel’s cast biographies, Burl manages a plumbing parts business (he began as a security guard) and is a nosy prude. Joy, named for Larson’s mother’s beautician, is a gossip who speaks in malapropisms and spends a lot of time preparing for holidays - all holidays and she probably voted for Dan Quayle because she thought he was cute, Larson says. Their younger son, Ray, installs chain link fences and loves the country-pop band Alabama. Ray’s wife, Tina, is a cashier at 7-11 who secretly wants to be a cop and covets a red Pontiac Fiero. Joy’s best friend, Verla, is a know-it-all who quotes talk show hosts. Joy’s mother has no neck and "the tightest perm known to man." They all lounge around the above-ground pool a lot during the summer. They don’t read or listen to good music. They adore curio cabinets. Larson isn’t sure where they live, but she suspects it might be Indiana. Larson uses her architect’s eye for detail in the background of her drawings: pointy spirals atop the dinette chairs, oversized spoon and fork hanging on the kitchen wall next to a Holly Hobby figure, garish glass swag lamps, wallmounted candles, fuzzy rugs in the bathroom, big photo portraits of Burl and Joy atop the big console television in the living room - and there’s often a fire or a shooting on the television. The living room may hold four recliners, but not a single bookshelf. "Sometimes I think I should just keep them in the recliners," Larson says. One notable virtue the characters display is loyalty to each other. The parents are affectionate with each other and blindly proud of the kids, elevating their dubious deeds to the status of sacraments - although Butch sometimes ruffles their feathers, Larson says. They support their best friends unconditionally. The rest of the world, of course, can go to hell. Larson carries a notepad with her to record ideas wherever she might hear one, which she often does on local television news and commercials. "TV is a pretty good source, actually," she says. "Newspapers don’t give me much. Beauty shops would probably be ripe, if I went to one." Any kind of store can be a gold mine. A family trip to Disney World, including in-laws, was like a pilgrimage to Burl-and-Joy Mecca. After a good inspiration, Larson draws about five panels in one day. Occasionally, she can simply record the facts. When a visitor gags at a drawing of Joy returning to a restaurant dining room from the restroom, loudly announcing to her companions, "It had to be the sauerkraut!" - Larson nods soberly and says, "Really happened." Suburban Torture has run in alternative papers serving Los Angeles, San Diego, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, and Aspen, and in the Funny Times, based in Cleveland Heights and circulated nationally. Deals with newspapers in Atlanta and Athens, GA, are in the works. Ohio is a hotbed for her, Larson says, even though she recalls the panel lasting only one day in Elyria’s Chronicle Telegram before angry reader reaction forced its removal. "I liked it. Some of our staff didn’t," says the Chronicle Telegram’s managing editor, Arnold Miller. "We ran it once or twice, but we just didn’t have a place to anchor it, and it’s not fair to move it around the paper. I don’t remember any real reaction to it, but those people are kind of gross. And they don’t really represent the suburbs, at least around Cleveland. Maybe they do in Chicago. Although I guess that depends on what you call a suburb." Suburban Torture has yet to find a new hometown paper in Chicago, where Michael Lenahan, then editor and now executive editor of the Reader, the city’s leading alternative weekly, called the characters "straw men." The Reader, however, runs Derf’s The City, complete with White Middle-Class Suburban Man and the Women with Big Hair, in a prominent spot on its back page. "It [Suburban Torture] had some strong advocates here," Lenahan says. He and Larson both recall that it was another Reader editor, David Jones, who convinced her to add Butch as a more sympathetic character. "But in the end, I thought it was mean," Lenahan continues. "I don’t know who these people are that she’s working this out against. It was very well-observed and very sharp, but I didn’t think there was any hint of sympathy or connection with these people. It kind of gave me the creeps." Derf’s anti-hero, Lenahan says, "doesn’t give me the same feeling. He’s a projection of political ideas, a sociological caricature. These [Larson’s] characters are personal. They’re ridiculous. They don’t stand for life in the suburbs. Who is she laughing at?" At all of us when we’re too complacent, Larson says. "It’s all in jest. It’s healthy to be able to laugh at ourselves. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then there’s a real problem," she says. But the question arises: Can men get away with this kind of biting humor, while women can’t? Is it seen as trenchant social commentary from a male cartoonist, but bitterness or worse, bitchiness - from a woman? Lucy Caswell, an Ohio State University professor and curator of OSU’s Cartoon, Photographic and Graphic Arts Research Library, points to "the very limited economic opportunities" for cartoonists in general, the relative scarcity of female cartoonists, and the comic page’s role as "a family medium, subject to different kinds of controls" from any harder news material. Readers may be offended by crime coverage or the editorial page, but will tolerate them for their news value, Caswell says. Cartoons get no such quarter. "Historically, comic strips have been used for social commentary, but there are certain parameters beyond which people are uncomfortable, and I don’t think it has anything to do with gender," she says. "‘Doonesbury’ is a good example. "Young girls have not been socialized to be comfortable with that type of humor, and there have been very few role models," Caswell says, "but that’s changing." As examples, she cites Sylvia creator Nicole Hollander and Signe Wilkerson, a Pulitzerwinning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News. John Snyder, retired U.S. secretary of commerce and now president of Baltimore’s Diamond International Gallery, which deals in cartoon memorabilia, stresses two historic, seemingly contradictory roles of comic strips: pure escapism, and a means to laugh at ourselves. If he’s right, Suburban Torture may strike a little too close to home for some readers’ comfort. In any event, Snyder says, women have always been the target audience of comics pages, so editors have little to gain by shunning a female perspective. Many editors and publishers of both genders have glimpsed Larson’s ironic potential for broad appeal. John Lux, the editor who introduced her panel in the Chicago Tribune (and proudly claims credit for luring Hollander’s Sylvia from the competing Chicago Sun-Times) still champions Larson’s wit. He says the stumbling block for such comics isn’t insidious sexism among editors; it’s more a shortage of a keen sense of the absurd. He more recently hired Larson to draw the Tribune’s children’s page, a project for which she adopts a far sweeter cartooning style. Lux says that Burl and Joy wasn’t well showcased in the lifestyles section, and the editor who removed it "just didn’t like the style." "I don’t think you can make sweeping statements about attitudes toward women cartoonists," Lux says. "The same editor who didn’t like Suburban Torture probably doesn’t like ‘Callahan’ [an acerbic cartoon by a male cartoonist in the Tribune’s Sunday magazine], but doesn’t have authority to hold it back. "Cartoonists aren’t the only eccentrics. People are eccentric about cartoons; some you just don’t like. And the name, Suburban Torture, may put some people off. I didn’t like the name because that sort of behavior - stupidity isn’t confined to the suburbs. It’s everywhere." To the suggestion that Larson may be courageous to keep the provocative name, Lux responds, "Well, courageous or stupid, I don’t know which. I’m gonna have to have a talk with that girl." Suburban Torture graces those mass-marketed staples, greeting cards and T-shirts (by Recycled Paper and Your Head Goes Here, respectively). A calendar became a nearmiss, Larson says, when the company planning it was bought out by a children’s publisher. So did a book based on Ray and Tina’s wedding, from their pre-engagement ring to their spotlighted reception, where Ray wore a baseball cap and Tina clutched a money bag. After 80 pages, Larson gave up on getting the sucker-punch point across in a text-based format. Wherever Suburban Torture runs, it seems to find a cult following. When the Los Angeles Reader pulled the panel after lackluster market survey results, a battle ensued in the letters column. One reader poignantly argued that for those "spawned by the milieu so aptly satirized by Julie Larson ... Suburban Torture makes the trials of life in the big city easier to bear by reminding us that we really can’t go home again." The editors relented, apologized, and ran a feature story on the panel. A red cover line screamed, "YOU WANT TORTURE? WE GOT TORTURE!" "My readers are very articulate. They seem to be a pretty intellectual crowd," Larson says. She’s grateful for such support, though she concedes that she may be preaching to the choir while publishing mostly in the alternative press. "I’ve had a lot of nibbles," she says, noting that the Chicago Sun-Times was about to pick up Suburban Torture until the paper was sold, causing a change in editors. "As times change, mainstream cartoons are becoming dull. The pranks and obvious gags aren’t that interesting. A few, like Sylvia, Cathy, Bizarro, and Lynda Barry’s, stay current ... Oh, well, it’s just a matter of time." Maybe more editors and readers will develop a sense of the absurd. Or at least maybe our real-life Burls and Joys will get the message while shopping for T-shirts and greeting cards. author

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