Holy farewell, Brenda! Peanuts & a new comics cosmos

Millions today are saying bye bye to Brenda Starr and recalling the 10-year anniversary of Charles Schulz’s last new daily strip. It might seem that comics themselves are dying. But, the truth is that comics are alive and well—in fact, they are conquering global culture. What’s more: comics increasingly are the home of our spiritual imagination.

If you doubt that last claim, consider that the hottest news story out of New York’s creative community at the dawn of 2011 revolves around Spiderman. Headlines speculate on whether the spiritual superstar Bono will ever manage to launch “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” with its record-setting budget and risky special effects. Not only is Bono a multi-media preacher of moral and religious truths from his rock music to his Sunday columns in the New York Times, but Spiderman also is a world-class symbol of our spiritual angst. Bono and Spiderman together form a perfect pair of titans to face this new millennium.

Look anywhere in popular culture and you’ll find animated toon eyes blinking back at you. Half of the top 20 all-time highest grossing movies are either animated features or are live-action dramas like Batman and Spiderman that have crossed over from comics. Others in the top 20 are special-effects fantasies just a step away from animation. Toons rule!

Newspapers, the homeland that nurtured comics, continue to crumble. That decline contributed to this week’s passing of Brenda Starr—the gutsy “girl reporter” who debuted in 1940 and survived newsroom changes right up into the era of Twitter.  The Chicago Tribune, which has produced the strip for 70 years, claims it was simply time for the writer and artist to retire this project—perhaps like the noble end of “MASH” or “The Sopranos.” That’s a nice idea, but the truth is that there’s little money anymore in newspaper comic strips.

In fact, the Tribune often seemed to drag its feet with the truth concerning Brenda. One of the infamous stories fans are recalling about Brenda’s birth is that sexist Tribune editors nearly sidelined Brenda in 1940 to keep from encouraging too many women in journalism. It’s easy at the dawn of 2011 to confuse Brenda with her Rita Hayworth pizzazz and think of her as a sexist relic of the past. But, the tough political columnist Suzi Parker, among other women in journalism, are mourning the loss today. Suzi’s farewell to Brenda noted: “Countless female journalists have named Starr as a guiding muse and role model in their careers, myself included.”

Men in journalism are mourning, too. For this scarlet-haired ambassador of journalism to drop out of the comics cosmos is another grim reminder that more than 100,000 real-life journalists are out of work. Rodney Curtis (a.k.a. the Spiritual Wanderer), a newsroom veteran who similarly got the boot a couple of years ago and now teaches journalism, writes about his own bemused reaction to the news of this latest colleague’s passing.

It’s altogether possible that Brenda will resurface. Commemorative volumes already are planned for the next few years and Batman, born in 1939, couldn’t be a hotter hero today. Peanuts certainly is alive and well; and the franchise keeps spinning off fresh projects like short films for television and DVD a decade after Schulz laid down his pen.

With each passing year, the spiritual content of comics grows. The super-sized spiritual pairings are obvious. There’s Bono and Spiderman. There’s the latest Hollywood version of Batman with dark musings on the nature of good and evil. But, beyond those spectacular productions, there’s also a burgeoning community of specifically religious comic artists walking through this wide-open doorway.

Religious Comic Artists Creating a New Cosmos

A detail from Kurt Kolka’s farewell to Brenda StarrLook closely and you’ll find the evangelical marketplace is crowded with Japanese manga-style Bible stories. There are even Hindu and Muslim comic books that explore specific deities and beliefs—and that’s remarkable for Islam, which shuns most visual representations of the faith.

These new religious comic creators are well aware of their mentors. They love the classics. One popular Christian comic artist, Kurt Kolka, just published a heart-felt salute to Brenda’s passing in a popular comics website. Kurt’s own superhero is called the Cardinal. In Kurt’s weekly comic strips, the Cardinal spends time volunteering in urban soup kitchens as well as battling bad guys. The Cardinal thrives in comic websites; he occasionally busts out into comic books—and he even shows up in occasional indie videos. He doesn’t need newspapers to survive.

The biggest name in Jewish comic books is historian Steve Sheinkin, who spent years supporting his family by writing portions of history textbooks used in public schools. In 2010, Sheinkin published his third graphic novel starring Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West (we just featured Rabbi Harvey in our Best of 2010 series). Like Kolka’s Cardinal, Rabbi Harvey is full of slam-bam fun with lots of life-and-death challenges, but the storyline also throws bright new light on ancient traditions. Rabbi Harvey shoots straight, but always from his mind and heart, never from a gun. The wise young rabbi has never set foot in a newspaper.

Please, mourn with many of us the passing of Brenda Starr and the anniversary of Schulz’s demise. He died on February 12, 2000, following a stroke and a struggle with cancer.  The dailies ended Jan. 3, 2000. The final Sunday comic strip appeared on February 13 that year, a tribute page in which Schulz’s message to readers included this: “My family does not wish Peanuts to be continued by anyone else. … Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy—how can I ever forget them …”

He couldn’t. And we can’t. Many of us will never forget Brenda Starr, either.

But the news is good today: Their lives continue in reruns and commemorative books—and a constant stream of creative new comic characters are crowding in around them with messages of hope.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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