Memo to fans:
How "The Gentleman from Lickskillet" came to
be... and what happens now
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved comics.
When I was little, my mom read me the funnies every day, until one day when I was five, when she told me that I was on my own – that I could read well enough, and I didn’t need her help. Struggling through the comics one word at a time only increased my fascination with the world of “Dick Tracy,” “Alley Oop,” “Pogo,” and “Li’l Abner.”
By age seven, I was reading comic books as well as comic strips. The comic books were in the midst of their Silver Age “Cambrian Explosion,” with material ranging from the Superman mythos books to the Lee-Kirby-Ditko Marvel Comics to freakazoid stuff like Brother Power the Geek and the Split/Xam Captain Marvel. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Use Google, effendi!) I loved it all, even the bad stuff.
My interest in comic strips deepened when I was 12. By that time, I was spending much of my free time at the library, reading old newsmagazines and newspapers recorded on microfilm. I read newsmagazines going back to their beginnings in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and newspapers back to the 1880s. Page by page, through one microfilm box after another, I studied the course of events in the 19th and 20th centuries; I learned about FDR and HST and Ike, about the world wars and the civil rights movement, about local, state, and national politics, and about the ways in which technology changed Americans’ lives. And I read every comic strip in the local paper, day by day, decade after decade.
As I sought a better understanding of national and world affairs, I started reading William F. Buckley Jr.’s magazine, National Review. I subscribed to NR at age 13, and read books on policy and politics such as Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, Safire’s The New Language of Politics, and The Almanac of American Politics by Barone et al.
Around this time, “Doonesbury” began appearing in the local paper, and I became a big fan. I admired Garry Trudeau’s talent and wit even though I disagreed with his leftwing, elitist views.
By 1974 or so, “Doonesbury” was having a major impact on the political discussion in America. In 1973, when a character in the strip proclaimed Nixon’s attorney general “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” of Watergate crimes, it was a big deal. In 1975, “Doonesbury” became the first comic strip to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Conservatives had their own satirical comic, “Li’l Abner,” but it was gone by 1977. In those days, conservatives were well-represented in the world of editorial cartoons, but not in comic strips.
The difference is important. Fiction is more powerful than nonfiction as a medium for the spread of ideas. Newspaper editorials didn’t bring about the abolition of American slavery, or strict regulation of food production, or the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan as a major political force, or an end to nuclear power plant construction in the U.S., or the characterization of Sarah Palin as a dumb broad. Those came from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, “Birth of a Nation,” “The China Syndrome,” and “Saturday Night Live.” During a presidential campaign, “The Daily Show” is more potent than any newscast.
Likewise, the funnies – fictional cartoons – are more potent than editorial cartoons. Once a century or so, we see the rise of a powerful editorial cartoonist, a Thomas Nast or a Jeff MacNelly. But, usually, it’s the funnies that have a real impact on people’s thinking. The absence of conservative comic strips puts conservatives at a severe disadvantage.
There have been conservative comic strips from time to time. There was Percy Crosby’s “Skippy,” which disappeared before I was born. There was Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie,” but Gray died in 1968 and the strip ended in 1974. (Later versions of “Annie” were apolitical or, like the Broadway show, liberal.) There was Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner,” which started out as liberal satire and, in the late 1960s, moved to the conservative side, where it stayed until Capp retired the strip in 1977. The retirement of “Li’l Abner” left conservatives without a strip of their own.
By that time, the aforementioned Jeff MacNelly had developed into one of the greatest editorial cartoonists ever. MacNelly’s editorial cartoons skewered the Washington elite. In an age of Leftist dominance in Washington, he gave mainstream Americans hope that things would get better.
MacNelly probably did as much to keep conservatives upbeat and inspired in the dark days of the 1970s as Rush Limbaugh did in 1993 and 2009. Conservatives were thrilled when, around the time that “Li’l Abner” ended, MacNelly began doing a comic strip. At last, we thought, we would have “Our Doonesbury”!
We were disappointed. The strip, called “Shoe,” was only rarely political. It was a humor strip – a pretty good one (it won the Reuben Award for the best strip of 1979) – but it was not “Our Doonesbury” that we were hoping for.
We waited. “Our Doonesbury” never came.
Today, liberals and Progressives are well-represented in the funnies with daily strips like Wiley Miller’s “Non Sequitur,” Lalo Alcaraz’s “La Cucaracha,” Darrin Bell’s “Candorville,” and “Doonesbury” itself, and with dozens of weekly strips , of which “Tom the Dancing Bug” is the best. [Click HERE for our links to conservative comic strips and to the most important liberal comic strips.]
Almost four decades after “Doonesbury” started, conservatives have nothing like it. There’s no conservative strip with a satirical approach to the issues of the day, with an ongoing narrative featuring a large cast of characters, and with its humor grounded in readers’ knowledge of the strip’s characters and continuing situations.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are conservative comics around – two in newspapers and a few Webcomics. [Again, see our links page.] I admire Bruce Tinsley, who has done “Mallard Fillmore” since 1994, and Scott Stantis, whose “Prickly City” started in 2004, but “Mallard Fillmore” is really an editorial cartoon in the form of a comic strip, and “Prickly City” is mainly about the relationship between two characters who represent different political viewpoints. Neither is in the “Doonesbury”/”Bloom County” genre. Conservatives have nothing that, in theory, could have a cultural and political impact like that of Trudeau’s creation or even Breathed’s.
About ten years ago, I started sketching out my own plans for a conservative comic strip. I took people, places, and events from my own life and from the lives of my friends and family and colleagues, twisted them around in my head, and created the Dill Family and the City of Lickskillet, Alabama. (“Lickskillet” is, in fact, the former name of a town I grew up in.) On little scraps of paper, I started writing down funny things for my characters to do, and eventually I cobbled together, for Randall & Company, an entire world.
I knew that I needed the help of a professional artist. Although I had drawn cartoons in the past, my artwork was not good enough or fast enough to sustain a daily, newspaper-quality comic strip.
Then, a couple of years ago, I linked up with a cartoonist named Kevin Tuma, who had done political cartoons for the Cato Institute, The American Conservative magazine, and others, and who had drawn comic books based on “The Twilight Zone” and “The Green Hornet.” Kevin is brilliant, an artist who often makes the finished strips much, much funnier than the scripts.
I wrote a memorandum describing my proposed comic strip. Here’s an excerpt:
“The Gentleman from Lickskillet” will star Randall Dill, a freshman congressman; his friends back home; his family, including his wife (an assistant district attorney) and their young daughter; his congressional staff; various villains (politicians, bureaucrats, and Politically Correct types); and the people they encounter in the course of their adventures.
The strip will combine elements of the most successful satirical comic strips, “Doonesbury,” “Bloom County”/”Outland”/”Opus,” “Li’l Abner,” “Pogo,” and “Dilbert,” with aspects of the satirical animated cartoons “The Simpsons” and “South Park.” Other influences include the live-action TV series “The Andy Griffith Show” and idealistic, little-guy-versus-the-establishment films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
It will be aimed at people who are skeptical about Big Government, people who are small-l libertarian – the kind of people who were left out of the debate between RINO Republicans and so-called Progressive Democrats. The attitude of the strip will be strongly populist and anti-elitist – not anti-intellectual but anti-pseudo-intellectual – and absurdist.
The strip will be intended for a general audience, and contain no material that would be inappropriate for the comics page of a mainstream newspaper such as The Washington Post.
In its story structure, the strip will be a combination of a “continuity” strip with a “gag-a-day” strip. There will be an expanding set of characters featured in continuing stories and, most of the time, each strip will have a comedic kicker or punchline. Usually, each Monday-through-Saturday sequence will tell a story or comprise a chapter in a larger story.
The strip will be moderately topical: a mixture of “evergreen” stories that can run anytime and, as often as possible, strips and arcs that represent satirical takes on breaking news events.
I should note that that memo was written more than a year before the first of the recent “Tea Party” and ”Town Hall” protests. Kevin and I knew that, whatever happened in the 2008 elections, mainstream/conservative Americans would need someone to speak up for them – even if it was just a make-believe congressman.
We found a sponsor for the strip late in 2008 – a Web site called ConservativeHQ.com (CHQ), owned by Richard Viguerie. CHQ would license the Internet rights for a small fee, and the license fees from CHQ would make it possible for Kevin and me to produce the strip. The plan was that, while the strip appeared on the Viguerie site, Kevin and I would try to build a fan base and seek out other sources of support in addition to CHQ. Ideally, we’d get a deal to publish TGFL in newspapers.
We knew that it would be hard to place TGFL in the papers. Even in good times, the average syndicate gets about as many comic strip submissions per day as it picks up in a year – and these aren’t good times for newspapers, for syndicates, or for newspaper comics. (Last year, the Washington Post cut its comics pages from three to two.) We knew that it would be especially difficult to syndicate a conservative strip at a time when the political spectrum on the staff of a major newspaper typically runs the gamut from Obama to left-of-Obama.
We also knew that we could not access the traditional sources of funding for arts projects. There are no conservative or independent counterparts to the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, the arts programs of the Fortune 500, and other entities that fund the leftwing arts. There’s no conservative network that funnels money to projects such as moviemaking or fiction-writing or cartooning. The world of the arts, like the worlds of academia and journalism, is generally closed to people who are known to have conservative political views.
But we figured it was worth a try.
The association with CHQ turned out to be a mixed blessing. It made us the target of lefties and conspiracy theorists who despise Mr. Viguerie and anything he touches. It caused some people to shy away from supporting us because they assumed wrongly that we were paid well. (As noted, we were paid a small fee, for the Internet rights only.) Some people, when they learned of the association with Viguerie and CHQ, dismissed our comic strip as the work of hacks; most did so without actually reading the strip. Presumably, it’s the association with Viguerie and CHQ that got us blacklisted from Wikipedia. Meanwhile, our lack of Internet rights to our own material meant that we couldn’t take advantage of the medium’s ability to spread comics virally, and we couldn’t promote the strip with reciprocal links. We were also handicapped in that the license fees, barely enough to enable us to produce TGFL, were too small to allow us to promote the strip in any significant way, such as at conventions or through press releases or by arranging media interviews.
Nevertheless, we neared the end of our first year of publication with optimism. We mapped out plans for a book collection of the strip, to be called The Gentleman from Lickskillet: Annus Horribilis. The idea was, we would use the book to promote the strip at political events and comics conventions, and, if all went well, perhaps we would get a syndication deal. Perhaps a benefactor would appear, someone who would fund us pro bono. Perhaps Hollywood would come calling, and Kevin and I could get matching mansions next to Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” or Parker & Stone, creators of “South Park.”
It was not to be.
On February 2nd, as we were working on the 317th episode of TGFL, we were told that no more money would be forthcoming from CHQ. We were cancelled effective immediately – actually, retroactively, but, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, “retroactively” was changed to “immediately.” We were two days into a new storyline, and, suddenly, TGFL was no more. We were told that the Powers That Be at CHQ were shifting the site to a no-paid-content model. We were told that plenty of people were lining up to produce material for the site for free. We were told that we were welcome to work for CHQ for free… but otherwise, adios!
I want fans to know that Kevin and I did not abruptly quit and leave you hanging. We learned of the cancellation about 20 hours before you did. We moved quickly to move the old strips to a new site and to begin the search for alternative funding, but there’s only so much you can do when your funding is cut off without warning.
Our relationship with ConservativeHQ.com is over, and I wish it had ended differently, but I’m grateful for the support we received over the past year. I wish CHQ well, and I encourage TGFL fans to visit it when the new version is up.
I’m also grateful to
the Media Research Center/NewsBusters, which plugged TGFL a few
times, and to Howard Phillips of
The Conservative Caucus, who
interviewed me for TCC’s television program.
I’m grateful to the three or four bloggers who linked to us
on a regular basis. (I'll link to them shortly, when I
update this memo. If you're one of the bloggers who supported
TGFL, and I forget to link to you,
drop me an e-mail to
(I'll link to them shortly, when I update this memo. If you're one of the bloggers who supported TGFL, and I forget to link to you, drop me an e-mail to remind me.)
And, of course, I’m grateful to the fans who wrote us, told their friends about us, and joined our Facebook Fan Club.
So what do we do now?
We would love to keep TGFL going. We have, oh, 18.94 years worth of stories left about Randall and Maggie and the rest of our characters. Annie and Randall’s second child is due in April, and we’d love to be able to tell you about it when it happens. What’s going to happen in Maryland 9? Can General Ip-Kak and the Yoovians be stopped? What happens when Omar gets his hands on that Mutation Gas? And who designed that time machine, anyway? All those questions will be answered, if we’re able to continue “The Gentleman from Lickskillet.”
Our friends on the Politically Correct Left believe they have a monopoly on political humor and satire and on comic strips in the TGFL genre. They are convinced that conservatives and independents won’t support TGFL.
Let’s prove them wrong!
Go, right now, to our Petition to Continue “The Gentleman from Lickskillet”! Sign the petition, and let everyone know about TGFL – the people on your e-mail list, your friends, your family, your neighbors and co-workers, and fellow members from your religious or civic or political organizations. Encourage them to read the strip and to sign our petition.
Send us your comments – pro or con. We want your feedback, and your ideas. What do you think about our strip? What do you think about the idea of conservative/independent political humor and satire? Do you have any suggestions for sponsors or ideas for getting TGFL in your local newspaper?
I’m proud that the strip we created is not just a niche-filler – not just an attempt to put a conservative twist on “Doonesbury” or “Bloom County” or to rip off “Li’l Abner” or “Pogo.” It is, I believe, a work that stands on its own.
With your help, we’ll finish what we started, and… See you in the funny papers!
Steven J.Allen, JD, PhD , is the creator and writer of "The Gentleman
, is the creator and writer of "The Gentleman from Lickskillet."
Links to Dr. Allen's writing samples are here.