Charles Barsotti was a well-respected, inventive and prolific magazine gag cartoonist, best known for his regular appearances in The New Yorker and Playboy. But Barsotti obviously pined for a dependable and ongoing gig, so he tried to break into the ranks of the newspaper cartoonists a number of times.
The last attempt I know of is with the strip P.J. McFey, which was picked up for syndication by the LA Times Syndicate. This strip was a gag-a-day affair starring a put-upon corporate drone who has to deal with the strange behavior of the executives, the tech people and the marketing folk. It sort of sounds like Dilbert, but what was missing were the consistent and strong personalities, as opposed to basically generic gags that happen to use a few of the same weakly defined characters.
The daily and Sunday strip debuted on January 12 1986*, and within six months Barsotti wasn’t even sticking with his initial direction, now sometimes having McFey appear as just a generic ‘everyman’ figure, sometimes abandoned to being a background object in a gag having nothing to do with him. Barsotti even started dropping him altogether from the Sunday strip, as can be seen in the samples above.
P.J. McFey didn’t make it to the first anniversary mark, killed by mutual consent between syndicate and creator on December 13 1986. The day after that, a major profile article about Barsotti appeared in the Kansas City Star, and the strip was discussed:
“Mickey Mouse is kind of an icon,” [Barsotti] says. “It shows you these things can work.” The “things” are cartoon characters. One of Barsotti’s that won’t is PJ McFey. “I just hate to say it,” Barsotti said one evening not long ago. If he wouldn’t, then Lou Schwartz of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate would. “In the wonderful world of comic strips, ‘PJ McFey’ has had his run.” Officially, the last of the strips died yesterday but Barsotti had stopped drawing about two months before. The strip, in which McFey, a middle-aged, middle-class office worker, wrestled with life’s demons, never hit stride. At the end it ran in about 30 papers, including The Star, “Doonesbury” appears in about 750. “I’m very upset about it,” says Barsotti, kneading a blackened eraser between his fingers. “It was obvious to everyone else I had too much to do, although I don’t think I sloughed off.” Work was winging out of his house via Federal Express sometimes seven days a week. He was doing drawings for the magazines, plus cartoons for his daily and weekend spaces in USA Today and USA Weekend, plus seven McFeys in 2 to three days. In coming up with the name, Barsotti pulled the PJ from PJ Clarke’s, a watering hole in New York. The Mc was an add-on but the “fey” derived from the more positive meanings of that word, such as being clairvoyant. In the end, it fit the preferred use of the word: “Fated to die soon.”
* Source: Editor & Publisher article, November 23 1985.