We’re going to knock off a whole syndicate company in one post today!
DBR Media was formed in early 2000 by a group of folks who had previously been at the helm of the King Features Weekly Service. I could tell you a lot about the interesting circumstances behind this based on an interview I did with David Cohea, the current head honcho of KFS Weekly, but that will have to wait for another time and place. I have an extensive audio interview with this gentleman that’s been in the can for over six months now, but so far I lack the free time to transcribe it for publication.
Anyhow, suffice to say that DBR Media was formed by some folks with plenty of savvy about syndication to weekly newspapers. With the Al Smith Service going out of business in the 1990s, and the Chicago Tribune’s weekly syndication arm seemingly determined to keep themselves a very well-kept secret, KFS Weekly was pretty much the only game in town for weekly newspapers. With a client list of well over a thousand newspaper subscribers they had a reasonably lucrative business going despite the penny ante fees they charge. The folks who formed DBR felt that they could compete for a slice of that market.
Weekly syndicates typically offer a complete package of features, and as far as I know DBR supplied not only comics, but all the rest of the typical goodies — puzzles and columns to suit a wide range of tastes. As best I can tell, when they started their package included a group of five comics. I say as far as I can tell because I did not find a paper that ran the syndicate’s offerings until much later. Which is a bit of a story in itself…
When I learned about DBR Media back in 2001 I called their office and explained that I was a researcher seeking to keep track of their offerings. I asked for the name of a paper that I could subscribe to that ran the material. The person I talked to was skeptical at first; I think she figured me for a spy, maybe from King Features. I repeatedly assured her that my motives were entirely innocent, and she seemed to warm up just a little. Eventually with a little more prodding she gave me the names of four publications but warned me that DBR doesn’t keep track of how much of their offering these publications actually run. I told her I understood and that I’d call them to make sure before subscribing.
The names of the publications were themselves a bit of a letdown. Two of the four were obviously company newsletters, not newspapers by any stretch. These I discarded. That left me with two publications, and both of them sounded like “Pennysaver” type papers. Those papers don’t normally qualify for the attentions of Stripper’s Guide, but I figured that the main thing was to document the material appearing somewhere and that as time went on perhaps I’d find them in a qualified paper. I called the business office of the first paper on the list and explained that I wanted to subscribe if they ran the DBR comic strips in their paper. The person I talked to wanted to be helpful but she had no clue what DBR Media was and assured me that their paper ran no comics. For that matter there was essentially no editorial matter at all — it was purely an ad paper. She even asked around the office and no one seemed to have heard of DBR. By the end of our conversation she was asking me for DBR’s phone number so she could call them and find out if they were paying for something they weren’t using!
I called the second paper, a black weekly, and was gratified that they’d at least heard of DBR Media. However, I was told that they used only one feature (I don’t recall what it was) and that they were already planning to discontinue it to save the expense of the subscription. The person I talked to was glad that I’d called because it reminded her to call DBR to cancel their subscription, a job that she’d been putting off. Oh great, turns out I may as well have been a corporate spy. Despite my completely innocent purpose I was losing papers for DBR! Of course now I would be persona non grata at DBR so there was no point in calling back asking for more papers to try.
In the following years I always kept an eye peeled for DBR features, checking every weekly paper I came across. It wasn’t until late 2006 that I finally hit paydirt with the Lake Region Times, a weekly published in Madison Lake Minnesota. They published DBR’s complete roster of comic strips. I purchased a subscription and was finally able to track DBR’s output. Unfortunately the party lasted only a year as DBR closed it’s doors in early 2008.
Anyway, after that long digression let’s get back to the features. Here are capsule reviews of the whole brood (or rather, the ones I know about):
Butch and Dougie by Alex Howell
This well-drawn, innocuous ‘boy and his dog’ strip was originally with King Features Weekly and, according to an article in Editor & Publisher, switched over to DBR a year after they started up. Howell’s strip seems to have been one of the first original strips distributed by KFS Weekly and probably started there circa 1990. A consistently attractive strip, sort of Walt Disney meets William F. Marriner, with mild gags designed never to offend the mayonnaise on Wonder Bread crowd.
George by Mark Szorady
Szorady has made a long career out of his anthropomorphic dog strip, George. It originally ran in his college paper, Ohio State University’s Lantern, circa 1979. It was picked up by King Features Weekly in 1990 when they added original comics, and switched, along with Butch and Dougie, to DBR when they opened their doors. When DBR closed down Szorady fell back on self-syndication, marketing George through a company called, appropriately enough, Georgetoons. George the dog, along with his apparently unnamed wormy companions, generally act out run-of-the-mill gags occasionally punctuated with a jarring liberal-bashing example like the one shown here.
Stormfield by Wes Alexander
A new creation for DBR, Stormfield ran from the beginning of their syndication business. Alex Stormfield stars with a supporting cast of his classmates. Alex is a smart-aleck and a proto-slacker, obsessed with girls despite his apparent pre-teen age. Consistently strong personality-driven gags make this feature a cut above the rest, and a surprising amount of snarkiness, unusual for a strip designed for rural papers, keeps things lively.
Charles Brubaker breaks the bad news the Wes Alexander died right about the time DBR did, and that Stormfield was run in reprints in the final months. Here’s a web page about Alexander.
The Dinosaur Circus by Elena Steier
This feature was one of the original DBR offerings. In July 2003 Steier decided to discontinue the strip because it was a simple case of too much work for too little pay. From what I can tell based on the samples at Steier’s website, it started out with a premise exactly defined by the title but then went quite far afield in some interesting directions.
Suzy Q Toy Repair by Elena Steier
Steier did double-duty as DBR came out of the gate, providing Suzy Q Toy Repair along with The Dinosaur Circus. Another excellent strip, this one is about a girl who repairs toys for various bratty kids. Another original premise very well-executed. For some reason DBR put the kibosh on this one after about a year and asked Steier to replace it with The Block (see below). A heapin’ helpin’ of Suzy Q can be found here on Steier’s website. Iwent there just to snag a sample and ended up reading every strip. Fun stuff.
The Block by Elena Steier
In Steier’s own words, “after DBR canned Suzy Q, they asked me to do a black strip. As a white suburban woman, I told them this would be no problem at all”. The Block was what more racially diverse strips ought to be — a funny feature about people who just happen to be some other hue than the Bumsteads, the Flagstons, the Mitchells, the Worths, the Starrs, the Parkers, etc. etc. etc. Very funny stuff, archived in quantity here at Steier’s site. Based on the samples there, it looks like the strip ran circa May 2001 – June 2003.
Hamster Alley by Polly Keener
An odd but often fun strip this one. Our cast is made up of a group of hamsters, a cat, and a rabbit, all of whom live together in relative peace except when the cat gets a hankering for a hamster sandwich. The characters are aware that they are in a comic strip, and many of the gags break the fourth wall. Polly Keener also betrays an avid interest in quilting with her occasional gags on the subject. Hamster Alley is now distributed by Georgetoons.
The Leftersons by Colin T. Hayes
As usual, I’m at a disadvantage not having been able to keep up with DBR’s output, but my guess is that The Leftersons was the replacement for The Dinosaur Circus in mid-2003. It’s a comic strip about schoolkids designed to appeal to political conservatives (a viewpoint that apparently plays big in weekly papers). It’s liberal-bashing gags have the rather rare property of actually being funny. More than can be said for most such strips, like the consistently nasty and unfunny Mallard Fillmore.
Based on a reading of Hayes’ website, The Leftersons actually started in 2002, presumably web-based at the time, and new episodes were added at a clip of three per week. Hayes stopped producing the strip in April 2007 but it continued to run from DBR until the bitter end. Whether DBR ran reprints of strips they’d already used, or used the extras Hayes had produced earlier is unknown.
Jet News by Bill Murray
In order to balance the conservative viewpoint of The Leftersons DBR added Jet News around 2004. Bill Murray is a veteran cartoonist who has spent most of his time under the mainstream radar producing strips for black papers. As his first major foray into mainstream syndication Jet News is a really odd misfire. Although at first glance it looks like a comic strip, it is actually a pair of editorial cartoons, usually on unrelated subjects, grafted together to no good effect. I suspect that Murray just took his editorial cartoons that he produced for other papers and pasted them together to create Jet News.
The Golden Years by Bill Murray
Bill Murray added a second feature to the DBR line-up in 2005, this one at least an actual comic strip. The Golden Years features a senior citizen duo usually known simply as Gramps and Granny, along with a pair of snotty grandkids and assorted other foils. Predictably, gags about doctor visits, retirement and the rotten younger generation abound.
Night Lights and Pillow Fights by Guy Gilchrist
Night Lights and Pillow Fights, a vertical activity feature for Sunday comics pages, began in 1998 first in self-syndication, then was picked up by Copley News Service in May 2001. It then switched from Copley to DBR on May 4 2003. My impression is that Night Lights and Pillow Fights was distributed separately to holdover clients because DBR wasn’t really set up for distributing features for Sunday comics sections. In 2006, Your Angels Speak (see below) became a sort of sub-feature in the page and it was renamed Night Lights and Fairy Flights. After DBR’s demise, Night Lights went back to its self-syndicated roots until Gilchrist called it quits with the episode of September 6 2009.
Your Angels Speak by Guy Gilchrist
Around 2004 Gilchrist brought his religious-themed panel Your Angels Speak to DBR after a short two year run at United Feature Syndicate. In 2006 the theme of the feature was incorporated as part of the Night Lights and Pillow Fights feature and this panel was dropped. Your Angels Speakwas a gorgeously-drawn feature, not infrequently featuring ‘babe angels’ that make it darn hard to think pious thoughts.
Marvin the Calf by Ralph Hagen
Probably the last addition to DBR’s line-up was the cow-centric strip Marvin the Calf. It came along sometime in 2005. The delightfully spare fine-line cartooning, reminiscent of the wonderful style of Mark Tonra, got your hopes up only to have them dashed by a tin ear for gag writing. Early strips of Marvin the Calf are, and I cannot put a better face on this, truly awful. If gags could be tortured, Marvin was Torquemada. By 2007, though, Hagen was getting the hang of the writing part of his gig. His dialogue was smoother, he could construct a coherent gag, and he even elicited the occasional chuckle. DBR closing was probably a blessing to him. Having now hit his stride as a cartoonist, he promptly went out and got a big-time syndicate contract at Creators Syndicate for his new strip, The Barn. What is with this guy and farm animals?
DBR Media closed its doors in March 2008, issuing statements that they were no longer able to pay their contributors. Apparently the Lake Region Times had a premonition that DBR was sinking and jumped ship in January (switching to — what else — King Features Weekly Service), so I didn’t get to see the last few months of their material. Charles Brubaker tells me that the last strips ran in papers dated the week of March 24 2008.
So that’s my brain dump on DBR Media. Obviously my informations is fragmentary, so anyone who has additional information on the syndicate and their features is cordially begged to fill me in on the details I missed or just got wrong entirely.
Since this post took the better part of a whole day to put together, I’m going to have to call a recess for the rest of the week while I continue to attend to pressing business.