A chat with Gil Thorp's new author

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The Gil Thorp story is entering a new era. Neal Rubin, a longtime Thorp fan and reader, is the comic strip's new author.

He's the third person to take over the job in the strip's 45-year history. It was created in 1958 by Jack Berrill, who wrote and drew it until his death in 1996. Jerry Jenkins took over the strip then, with first Ray Burns and now Frank McLaughlin doing the drawing.

Rubin, 48, who took the reins on March 29, 2004, has been a Gil Thorp fan since he started working at the Detroit Free Press in 1984 and has read several anthologies to fill in the years he missed.

He took some time out from being a columnist at the Detroit News, which lured him away from the Free Press a few years ago, to talk with ChicagoSports.com about his new gig.

Where did you grow up?

You can make a case that I still haven't. But technically, I was raised in Orange County, Calif., within bike riding distance of Anaheim Stadium. We moved to suburban Denver when I was a junior in high school.

Where did you go to school?

I graduated with something less than distinction from Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colo., and the University of Northern Colorado. UNC is in Greeley, as in Horace, who told everyone else to "Go West, young man," while he sat on his oversized rump in New York and helped himself to another bon-bon.

If you want to track it back further, I can trace my academic roots to Savanna High in Anaheim (one year), Crescent Junior High and Oro Grande Elementary. Crescent and Oro Grande have since found their true calling as condo developments.

What sports did you play when you were a kid?

The only sport where I was better than everyone else was table tennis. As you can imagine, keeping the girls away was almost a full-time endeavor. Baseball was my favorite sport, but I ran out of size and talent by the time I was a junior in high school. I was one of those guys who learned early to do the little things because I couldn't do any of the big things.

What teams are you a fan of?

I tend to root for individuals who strike me as good, well-rounded, friendly people. Likewise, I'll still be booing John Rocker on old-timers' day. The downside of having been a sportswriter is that I've largely lost the capacity to root. I'll applaud hustle, but in general, I watch a ballgame like other people watch an opera: "Oh, yes. Nicely done. Good show."

Give us some details on the search process.This actually starts years ago, if you want to go back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was when I first started at the Detroit Free Press. It was late '84, got to Detroit just in time for the World Series, which was nice timing. Everybody at the Free Press was a total Gil Thorp (fan), and I just got swept up in it, to the point that when Gil and Mimi got married in 1985 we had a wedding reception. I started to seize on any opportunity at all to write about Gil Thorp. Any anniversary, you wouldn't believe some of the flimsy excuses I came up with. Then every time Matt Shaughnessy, in Arlington Heights, came up with a new Gil Thorp product — he does these wonderful anthologies, one year he came out with a calendar — I'd find an excuse to write about those. In fact, I remember one year I came to my editor and said, "Hey, I'm about to give you a little story about this guy in Chicago who does Gil Thorp stuff, and he's coming out with a calendar." My editor said, "You just wrote about him last year." I said, "Well, yeah, but this is the second biggest market in the country for Gil Thorp merchandise." And he gave me one of those I'm-dealing-with-an-idiot looks and said, "That's because you keep writing about him."

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Tribune Media Services is looking for somebody to take over the writing of Gil Thorp, and they called Matt Shaughnessy, who is the grand guru of Gil Thorp, and asked him for some names, and among the names he gave them was mine. So [TMS] contacted me and asked me to join the throngs in the application process. I don't actually know how many people applied. My impression was that they narrowed it down to half a dozen or so people. Everybody wrote a proposal, some sample story lines and a couple weeks of strips. Then they came back to me and said, "Okay, take your two weeks of strips, which were football season for 2004, take those two weeks, turn it into a full 13-week season, and if we like it, you get the gig. And I got the gig."

Did you meet any of your competition for the job, or was it blind competition? Totally blind. I had no idea who it was. I couldn't even tell you why I have this impression, or if it's remotely accurate, I had the sense that some of the candidates were in-house at the Tribune. Frankly, I didn't expect to get the job because it's just so much easier to deal with somebody in-house.

Tell us a little about Matt Shaughnessy, the Gil Thorp guru. He's an optical supplies salesman, sells medical supplies to doctors. He has no official connection to the strip or the syndicate. He was just this guy in suburban Chicago, and he grew up reading Gil Thorp. One day he decided what the world needed was a collection of some of the best Gil Thorp story lines. So through the syndicate, I'm sure, he contacted [Gil Thorp's original author] Jack Berrill in Connecticut and Jack was flabbergasted. He had no idea anybody cared that much. [Berrill said], "Sure, if you want to, come on out, I've got all the old strips just stashed in boxes in the attic." So Matt spent a weekend just playing in Jack Berrill's attic, the happiest kid in America. And that spawned the Matt Shaughnessy publishing dynasty, breaking even in a city near you.

What is your history in journalism and how did it lead to comic strip writing? I started out in newspapers as a sportswriter. Partly because I like sports and also partly because back then [1977-78], the sports department was the one place in the newspaper where you could really have fun and play with words. By the time I got out of sports, which was about five or six years later, the features department of the newspaper had evolved to where I could be creative there, too. So I left sports for features. I was in Las Vegas at the time. I had been a sportswriter for 4½ years there, helping make [then-UNLV basketball coach] Jerry Tarkanian's life uncomfortable, and then moved to features at the other Las Vegas newspaper and then after a year or so came to Detroit. I came here as a feature writer and then wrote various kinds of columns, and then got recruited away four years ago to write a column for the Detroit News. So that was fun, it was the first time in my life I got to feel like a high school quarterback. "Oh gentlemen, don't fight over me … Okay, go ahead."

As far as the transition to writing a comic strip, it's very interesting. I think I was the only journalist I knew who didn't harbor dreams of writing either a novel or a screenplay. Writing a comic strip is actually a lot like writing a screenplay, only you get to be the screenwriter and the director. You make up the story line, you write the dialogue, and you create the scenes. You give direction to the artist. If I have G.T. Grayling flailing away with his big home-run-hitter swing, then I'm the one who says, "Okay, let's put him in the batting cage, and let's have Gil calling to him from nearby saying, 'G.T., chop down at the ball.' "

Not to be too high-falutin' about this, but Elmore Leonard, the novelist, is a friend [of mine]. And that doesn't count as a name-drop. We don't have a whole bunch of celebrities in metro Detroit, you just run into Elmore at the grocery store, and pretty soon you become pals. But he has talked about how he doesn't do intricate outlines of his novels before he starts, the way a lot of writers do. He creates what he hopes will be interesting characters, and just sort of pushes them out the door to see what happens to them. And while I know where I want the story line to end up, I know basically what I want the characters to do, in some ways, it's the same way [as Leonard]. You turn these people loose and then you think, "Okay, what would G.T. Grayling do in this situation, and how would Debbie Roy respond?" And you establish the personality for these people in your mind, so you have some sense of what the actual by-play would be.

You spoke of directing the artist. How have you interacted with Frank McLaughlin so far?Frank and I have had a number of conversations already. I've enjoyed talking to him and I think he feels good about working with me. I'm very much a word guy, and he's a picture guy. He's had some very good suggestions about things we might do in a certain panel in the strip instead of what I'd been thinking, either because it would look better visually or because what I wanted was somewhere between impractical and impossible. We're staying in pretty good contact, and I'm sure it will help the overall product.

Talk about your one meeting with Jack Berrill. They had a contest in the strip to come up with a nickname for Milford High. They had a reader write-in contest and somehow they came up with Mudlarks. Jack Berrill came into Chicago to meet with fans for the grand unveiling of the new nickname. And heck, that's close enough to Detroit that I couldn't pass up the opportunity. So I came down from Detroit and got to spend the evening with Matt and Jack Berrill, and my friend Bill Von Hoene, who lives in Chicago and is a Gil Thorp kind of guy. It was just great to finally be able to put a face with and spend some time with somebody I had spoken on the phone with probably half a dozen times.

Talk about some general story line ideas. To me, Gil is the linchpin of the strip. But it seems to me that when you look back at Jack Berrill's best work, for instance, the strips kind of revolve around Gil. He's the cornerstone, but the best strips truly focus on the kids. The kids, their problems, their issues, what's going on in their lives. You always sort of come back to Gil because, of course, he's in charge and because when somebody truly needs advice, when there's a situation where somebody needs to be bailed out, Gil's the guy. But I'd much rather focus on kids and what's going on in their lives than adults and what's going on in their lives.

Which particular Gil stories stand out to you? I really like the story Jack did [in 1981] about Charlie Carton, who had all the tools to be a star quarterback, except that he stuttered. Jack's wife was a high school counselor, and so he would often impart positive sorts of messages, but he would do it subtly. In this case there was advice on what to do if you're a stutterer and how to deal with people who stutter, but the story line was just great. Ultimately, if I'm remembering right, they had the center calling the signals and Charlie played quarterback.

Another one that just jumps out was one about Vince Packard [1977]. Now this was one that in many ways focused on an adult — Vince Packard was an assistant football coach who was not quite as good a poker player as he thought he was. He wound up in hock to some fairly shady people. At the same time, there's a Milford coed, the girlfriend of one of the high school football players, who is sweet on Vince Packard and Vince isn't doing a good enough job fending off her advances. Well, it all converges at the end, the gamblers are on campus, the girl is on campus, the boyfriend of the girl punches Vince Packard. But in the end all of the Milford players gather around to help save Vince from the goons who had come to collect for the loan shark. They were very vivid characters and it was a great example of a story that works, and intersects, and dovetails. It was really well-told and well-paced.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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