Smash Pages Q&A: Tea Fougner

The editorial director of comics at King Features talks about their website Comics Kingdom, legacy comic strips, finding new creators and more.

Tea Fougner is a writer, editor, cosplayer and currently the editorial director of comics at King Features. In this job she oversees a wide variety of strips ranging from Beetle Bailey to Zippy the Pinhead, Prince Valiant to Macanudo, Mark Trail to Rhymes with Orange.

Fougner loves comics and comics history, and in recent years has been introducing new artists, new voices and new ways to pay tribute to characters and strips like Flash Forward, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Flash Gordon movie.

Fougner and I attended college together many years ago, and we spoke recently about Comics Kingdom, newspapers and getting at the heart of legacy comic strips.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I grew up in a house with a father who loved comic strips– he was a huge Peanuts fan. We watched all of the Peanuts holiday specials, for every holiday! I also grew up in a house where I wasn’t allowed to consume anything violent, including Looney Tunes cartoons and a lot of the comics that we think of when we say “comics.”

I really started discovering the breadth of what comics are when I was in high school. I’m also dyslexic, so one of the things that was really great was that because comics have images and words, it helps guide you when you’re trying to read something where the words don’t always appear in the order you need them to appear in. For example, in ninth grade we had to read Great Expectations, which is a huge book, and I just could not get through it, so I got the Classics Illustrated version (by Rick Geary) – and I got a 98 on my exam using the Classics Illustrated version. That was one of those moments going, “Oh, this is really important,” and I’ve been invested in comics ever since.

Mark Trail by Jules Rivera.

How did you end up working at King Features?

When I graduated from college, I had a very very brief stint working as an art director for a porn company, and then I ended up at a mobile software company and I was there for about seven years. I always loved comics. I basically had always been really interested in comics. and the software company was interested in getting involved in the webcomics space. When that happened, they took me from working on the front-end development I had been doing to webcomics, working with Joey Manley and Josh Roberts at ComicSpace. Which was an amazing experience for me. I got to meet a lot of great people and learn a lot. 

One day I got a phone call from my former boss, Brendan Burford. I didn’t know him, but he called and introduced himself and said, “We’re looking to hire someone and I’ve been asking around and a bunch of people recommended you.” At that point, King Features was getting interested in building a digital presence, so they were interested in the fact that I had worked in webcomics and that I had this interest in comics. I started working at King Features in December 2008 and I’ve been there ever since.

The syndicate is very dependent in part on the health of newspapers, who have been having a rough few years.

Newspapers are in a transitional moment. We’re starting to see growth from newspapers again. Papers are starting to figure out the right business model for digital news, but there’s been some stressful years with people trying to figure out how to compete in a digital world, where the news is changing every single second.

One of the things that has been helpful for us has been thinking about who reads comics, and how do we allow readers to find us in a world where they’re not necessarily getting a paper newspaper delivered to their door everyday. People in a lot of ways are more informed than they were when they got a print newspaper at their house, but the comics aren’t something they see as they flip through their paper. So how do we bring them comics? Everybody loves comics, they just don’t always know where to go for them anymore. 

We grew up at a time when getting a newspaper was commonplace and reading it was a ritual, and it’s been interesting meeting young people who know comic strips, have read comic strips but haven’t necessarily read them in a newspaper.

It’s true. We know that people want comics and love comics. Every once in a while, I’ll talk to somebody who realizes that the comics are still there online every day and they can read it every day, and their faces will light up. Making sure people know how they can find us is a big thing right now.

Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith

There’s fewer newspapers, which means fewer spots for comics — which often means fewer strips.

Well, there are fewer spots on a newspaper page, but there are more comics. There’s far more comics. That’s one of the amazing things about living in an era where digital comics are a thing. A newspaper editor has the challenge of making sure when they are curating content for their paper that everything in that comics section is going to appeal to everyone who’s reading the paper. It’s a different challenge from when you’re online. Online, you can make a comic that only appeals to one very small group of people, but if you find that group of people, they’ll read it everyday and they’re going to love it. It really opens up the door for a lot of types of comics.

That is very much the joy of webcomics, and at King Features you have one of those unique comics with a singular vision in the tradition of work like Krazy Kat, that continues to confound people – Zippy the Pinhead.

I love Zippy! I also love Bill Griffith. He’s a wonderful guy and just incredibly brilliant. Zippy is really special. The way that I always describe Zippy to people is that it’s an externalization of internalized stuff. It’s not necessarily meant to be read the same way you read Family Circus. It’s deliberately surreal and you just have to go with it and take it really at face value. People sometimes try too hard and think, “This is an intellectual comic, I need to figure out what the meaning of this is.” Sometimes the meaning is right there in black and white – literally and figuratively. I think it’s an incredibly wise comic in a lot of ways. The things that Bill Griffith talks about in terms of how we relate to the world and what it means to try to balance our own personal sense of wonder and cynicism is so important.

You publish a lot of great, classic comics – Family Circus and Rhymes with Orange and Funky Winkerbean and Prince Valiant. And with Mark Trail or the lineup of Six Chix, you are trying to find new voices and new styles, introduce new approaches and play with people expectations.

It’s less about playing with people’s expectations and more thinking about what do I, as a steward of comics, owe to readers, and to bring comics to a place where what we’re looking at on the comics page that reflects what we’re seeing in our everyday lives. So for Six Chix, we brought on Maritsa Patrinos and Bianca Xunise, who are both incredibly talented, and I think that they both bring a really unique vision. I think all of the women on Six Chix bring a unique vision, but bringing on folks coming from a different part of the comics-making world to start is particularly important. When we’re representing women’s voices – and that is the mission of Six Chix – what does that mean for us now? What do we represent and who is represented when we say we’re representing women’s voices?

Mark Trail is a different story. Mark Trail is currently being written and drawn by Jules Rivera, who replaced James Allen. When we had the opportunity to bring a new writer and artist on board, we looked at what Mark Trail was in the 1940s when Ed Dodd originally created it. What he intended Mark Trail to be. In the 1940s, Mark Trail was incredibly stylish and informational and funny. Ed Dodd cared so much about nature and educating people about nature. I actually talked about this with his widow Rosemary, who’s a professional artist and is wonderful. What we decided was that for Mark Trail to be what Ed Dodd envisioned Mark Trail as, a lot of the things that people think of as quintessential Mark Trail aren’t really the things that were part of Ed’s vision. Art that was very stylish in the 1940s feels stodgy for people today. We wanted the art to feel as fresh to a current audience as the art felt fresh to someone who was reading it in 1946. We wanted to update the writing, update the humor, update the family. We brought Jules on to do that and I think she’s doing an incredible job. It’s very funny. She’s got a STEM background and she’s been doing an amazing job of bringing that into the strip. Her Sunday comics are an absolute delight because they’re really informative and really humorous.

There have been a few legacy strips in recent years with new creators coming on and thinking about what the strip was and what it meant and finding a way to reboot it in a way.

In this case, neither Jules nor I think of it as a reboot. The characters are just getting a bit of a “glow up,” as Jules says. When we have these legacy comics that have been around for a very long time, it’s sad to see them become a reflection of their past rather than continuing to be the thing that people loved them for to begin with. I think sometimes when we love something as a reader or an audience member, we want it to be the same as it was, but if they don’t change with the times, they start to lose something.

We’ve been seeing a lot of positive response from people who hadn’t read it before, which has been really great to see. That’s what these comics were meant to do. They were meant to engage people who hadn’t seen them before, engage new readers, and it’s a delight to bring something that has been around for over half a century to a whole new group of people who are really excited about it.

Six Chix by Bianca Xunise

And if one reads Charles Schulz or Mort Walker, they were constantly changing in different ways.

Absolutely. I worked with Mort Walker for many years and he’s an amazing example of that. Not long before his death, he started getting letters from fans complaining that Sarge was bullying Beetle. As someone who grew up with Beetle Bailey I’d been seeing Sarge beat up Beetle from the time I was a little kid. It was part of the background of Americana. But this was something that was clearly distressing some readers. Mort said, “When I started Beetle Bailey it was a humor comic and Milton Caniff said to me, ‘Mort, you’ve got to have more fighting in it! That’s what people like. There’s got to be more fighting!’” So he started having the characters fight more. That was the advice he was getting from a legendary comic artist who was mentoring him. He said, “Milton Caniff told me I need to put more fights in my comic, but it seems like people don’t like that anymore, so I guess I should have less fighting.” That was always his response. “This is for my readers and if they tell me they don’t like something, I might not understand it, but who am I to question the question the people who read my comic everyday?” It was so great to see someone with that kind of longevity who was able to turn on a dime if he felt like something needed to change.

Mort Walker did that in different ways, whether with women’s clothing or sexual harassment. He might not have understood why people responded the way they did, but he trusted his readers, and just as he accepted their praise, he didn’t reject their concerns.

That was very much his take. He didn’t need to understand why, but he needed to understand that it was a problem for some people. And if he felt that something needed to change, he changed it. With sexual harassment, he actually sent General Halftrack to harassment training. So it was an in-canon in context change to the comic. With the bullying he just phased it out without saying anything.

You also have Prince Valiant, which is by Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates, who clearly love the strip.

It’s really cool. They absolutely get what Prince Valiant is and what Prince Valiant is supposed to be about. It’s funny because every once in a while we’ll get a comment about how Prince Valiant shouldn’t be political. Well, if you go back to the 1940s, Prince Valiant is fighting the Huns. [laughs] People don’t see these things until it’s something that they notice. Mark and Tom have done a great job of reflecting the spirit and truths of our world without mimicking our world.

You have doing other things. I talked with Erica [Schultz] a little while back about Legacy of Mandrake.

Legacy of Mandrake is so much fun. One of the things that we love is that with Mandrake we get his origin story through flashbacks and exposition later on, but from the minute we meet him he’s this already fully-fledged magician with these amazing powers. What Mandy is letting us do is start from scratch with somebody who’s not quite that fully formed and is still trying to figure herself out and figure out her powers. The mythos of the Mandrake universe is so amazing and so expansive. It’s really fun to play in that universe and play with new characters and create this new universe of magic users in that universe.

Flash Forward strip by Sina Grace

So what is this Flash Forward project happening now?

The movie Flash Gordon is 40 years old, and so we wanted to celebrate. In 2019 when Popeye turned 90 we did a project called Popeye’s Cartoon Club where I invited 52 cartoonists to do Popeye comics for a year. We’ve invited 40 cartoonists to do 40 Flash Gordon comic strips and it’s an absolute delight. We’re calling it “Flash Forward” and we gave the cartoonists free reign to do whatever they wanted, but the instruction was that this is about the future of Flash Gordon. Some of them completely re-imagined the characters. Some of them thought about what the next generation is going to look like. Some of them did things that are more celebratory or asking where is Flash Gordon today? It’s just a really neat project. I got to work with so many incredibly talented people. It’s always fun to do these sorts of projects because I get to work with people who don’t typically do comic strips. We’ve got indie comics folk, comic book folks, animators, illustrators, and they all did such an amazing job. Every single comic in this is a joy.

Going forward, do you hope to do more projects like this that celebrate these strips and these characters?

This is something I really enjoy doing. A lot of it is about thinking about comics and the history of comics. These comics are where we all came from, in a sense. It’s important for me to be able to share that with people – and to share so many different visions. One of the amazing things about all these characters is that in a lot of ways they’re universal so you can have 40 different version of Flash Gordon and none of them will really be alike. Same thing with Popeye. I think because Popeye is so iconic there’s a little bit more set in stone, but it’s this amazing opportunity to see what artists do with this amazing character. I love doing it. I don’t want to promise you’re going to see more of this down the road, but it’s a great way to work with a lot of great artists who I wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with otherwise. And bring fans something new. We have these really loyal fans who love these characters and they don’t always get new content so this is a way for these fans to get something new and they’re always so excited when we don something new with them.

Are you looking for or hoping for more projects like Legacy of Mandrake and other projects outside of comic strips?

I love these characters so I’m excited about almost anything folks want to bring our way. We have some things in the works that are not announced yet so I can’t say anything, but you may have seen the announcement about Hagar the Horrible and our partnership with Henson. That’s going to be the coolest thing. I’m not directly involved with that, but I get to see bits and pieces and give my advice when needed. We have these incredible characters and they have incredible histories and there are so many different ways that people can explore those. A lot of those ways are not going to be comic strips. If somebody comes along and says I want to do a vertical scrolling Brick Bradford – those are the kinds of things I love. These characters deserve to have stories told about them in any medium that exists.

Going forward, digital continues to be important and finding a way to distribute them and reach people will continue to be a challenge, but you make comics.

Absolutely. I’m about comics. Basically however people read comics is what I want to be about. So the more that we see people reading comics on digital platforms, the more we’ll do digitally. Comics are completely platform agnostic. They can live anywhere. They just need to be somewhere where someone can read them. Part of my job is getting comics to people where they are.

Macanudo by Liniers

Related to that, in 2018 King Features started syndicating Macanudo. I love Liniers, and I think it’s a great strip, but is looking overseas and translating strips something we’ll see more of, whether for digital syndication or in newspapers?

Macanudo isn’t the first comic we’ve syndicated from overseas, and I doubt it will be the last. Notably, we also have Carpé Diem, by Niklas Eriksson, who writes in Swedish! But Macanudo is our first comic that is written bilingually by the author himself, and that is available in Spanish and English on the same date. Usually there’s a little bit of time for the translator to work built into that. It can definitely be hard to get jokes to work in multiple languages, especially if they’re based on puns or idioms, and that’s something Liniers talks about being a challenge when he’s writing, but I also think that as our world gets smaller and we are all more interconnected, there’s definitely more demand to see stories by and about all different sorts people, and from all different sorts of places, and comics are a wonderful way to do that.

As you’re looking ahead, what are you thinking about?

One of the things that I want to do more with is digital syndication. There is so much space to work with so many different types of cartoonists in that space. I think that there’s also the question of, “What do people want to read?” Finding out what people want to read and what they care about and making that happen. I think that there’s a big draw to being in a creative position to just be like, this is the comic I love, I’m going to remake this. That’s something you have to avoid. It’s important to not just pick your pet projects, but look at what readers want and want more of.

You’re in a position where you oversee so many different genres and styles and approaches to comics. It’s not about your taste.

So much of syndication is about the reader. So much of it has always been about the readers. What are readers looking for? We’ve got all of these amazing clients who tell us, this is what readers want more of, this is what readers are happy with. And we take that information and use it to the best of our ability to make more stuff that readers love.

There really is nothing like the relationship with the artist and the daily strip.

It’s pretty incredible. I don’t get to read every single comic every single day. That’s one of the biggest regrets of my job. If I could carve out two hours every morning to read every comic, I would be so happy. But when I have time to sit and scroll through Comics Kingdom, it’s always such a pleasure. You feel like you’re with family.

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