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On Board the Laugh Boat : Cartoonists: It’s a mutual admiration society as artists get together for a weekend cruise. And the National Cartoonists Society presents its Reuben Award.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was no ship of fools but there was enough foolishness aboard to sink a ship.

Sailing on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s luxury liner from Miami to the Bahamas and back were 125 of the world’s funniest people--the creators of a cast of cartoon characters that make millions laugh each day.

The characters are some of our closest friends--Cathy, Crock, that crank bus driver Ed Crankshaft, Momma, Beetle Bailey, the Wizard of Id, Wiley, Thor and the Clumsy Carp from B.C., Baby Zoe of Baby Blues, Miss Peach.

And there were Jump Start’s Joe Cobb and Marcy, Marmaduke, Nancy, Snuffy Smith and Barney Google, Tank McNamara, Mother Goose and Grimm, Luann, the Family Circus, Hi and Lois and many more familiar faces from the funny pages.

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What brought this many of the world’s most popular comic strip cartoonists together for a weekend cruise was the National Cartoonists Society 44th-annual Reuben Award celebration, the group’s once-a-year get-together.

“In the past we have always met for about six hours in a hotel at a black-tie banquet and then gone home,” said Mell Lazarus, Society president. “This time we’re cooped up together for three days on a ship (and) we’re really getting to know one another.”

It’s like a floating fan club, said Mike Peters, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and creator of “Mother Goose and Grimm.” “Being here,” he said, “is like dying and going to heaven.”

Cathy Guisewite, whose strip “Cathy” is in its 14th year, claims she was speechless the first time she was in the company of such great wits. “Seeing all the great comic strip cartoonists whose work I had been admiring for years, I had to pinch myself!” she said.

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The cartoonists found pens and thick pads of paper in their staterooms when they boarded. And when they weren’t raving about one another’s work, they were drawing cartoons for each another.

Picture a shipboard romance between Miss Peach and Beetle Bailey, Marmaduke and Garfield, Momma and the Wizard of Id.

“All the walls in my studio are covered with drawings from other cartoonists,” said Mort Walker, whose cartoon “Beetle Bailey” is 40 this year. Along with “Hi and Lois,” which Walker creates with Dik Browne, his work appears in 3,000 newspapers in 52 countries.

At a talent show by cartoonists for cartoonists in the ship’s Crow’s Nest Lounge, the funniest passengers aboard sang, played musical instruments, performed magic acts, recited original poetry and put on skits--funny skits, of course.

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Bill Hinds, who with Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar creates the Tank McNamara sports comic strip, brought down the house with a self-deprecating look at his own on-board behavior.

Since the cartoonists came aboard, Hinds had shown every every passing passenger his oversized photographs of new daughter Hannah. (The on-deck trading of children’s and grandchildren’s pictures among all the cartoonists was as brisk as the cartoon trading.)

During the talent show, Hinds, who is as brawny as his comic strip hero Tank McNamara, balanced his beefy frame horizontally between two chairs. Cathy Guisewite, who unlike her strip’s star, appears to weigh less than 100 pounds, stood on Hinds, holding photographs of his new daughter high above her head.

Their audience of humorists hooted and howled as Bill described each picture Cathy waved above her head. They had all seen the same pictures a dozen times or more from the proud father. But it was the hit of the talent show--even before the chairs collapsed and Cathy and Bill tumbled to the floor.

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While cartoonists are an amiable lot, they spend most of their waking hours in the near-seclusion of their studios. “We’re all alone in our studios,” said Lazarus, the Los Angeles creator of Miss Peach and Momma. His strips are read by 75 to 100 million people 365 days a year. “Getting an idea is easy. Making it work is hard. It’s a lonely business.”

“Do you dream about your characters?” Brad Anderson, 65, was overheard asking other cartoonists. Anderson has spent 35 years doing a single panel cartoon about a dog named Marmaduke. Anderson, who lives in Escondido, says he borrowed the dignified name of a British lord “for the big clumsy ox of a dog I draw.”

“I never see Marmaduke in my dreams,” Anderson said. But for Lazarus, his cartoon creatures are as much as part of his sleeping as his waking hours. “I dream all the time about Momma, Francis, Thomas and Mary Lou,” he said.

Most of the cartoonists said they spend more time with their cartoon characters than with anyone else in their lives. Many of their spouses agreed.

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For Bil Keane of “Family Circus,” his characters truly are members of the family. His strip is inspired by his five children as they were growing up and now, by his four grandchildren. His 47 books have sold 14 million copies of “Family Circus” drawings.

“I have drawn nearly 11,000 different ‘Family Circus’ cartoons in the last 30 years but no two are alike,” said Keane. “I don’t dare repeat. People would know. They tell me they stick ‘Family Circus’ to refrigerators and to walls at work and often keep them there for years.”

Mary Lou Parker, wife of Brant Parker, who draws “Wizard of Id” (Johnny Hart writes it) said her husband would be at the drawing board 24 hours a day if he had his way. “He lives and breathes that cartoon strip. I can never pull him away. We seldom go anywhere. I’m surprised he agreed to go on the cruise.”

Despite the often outrageous behavior of their cartoon characters, the cartoonists themselves acted about as conservatively as they dress--which on deck was in knee-length shorts and coordinating sports shirts.

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And when their ship sailed through the Bermuda Triangle, none of the cartoonists appeared to notice. (Although, after the fact, Johnny Hart said he might do a series of comic strips about a cruise ship in a moat.)

It was the idea of National Cartoonists Society president Mell Lazarus of Los Angeles to bring members together on a ship for the first time this year to celebrate the award of the group’s highest accolade--the Reuben Award.

This Reuben isn’t corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss on rye.

“It’s (our) highest honor,” said Family Circus’ Bil Keane. “and it’s a zany statue named after its zany designer, the late Rube Goldberg.”

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The 18-inch bronze Reuben statue is typical Rube Goldberg, said Keane, who won it in 1982. “It is an elaborate pedestal for an ink bottle depicting a column of little nude acrobats playfully balancing on one another providing a derriere at the top on which is perched the ink bottle.”

Previous winners have included such well-known cartoonists as Milton Caniff (“Steve Canyon”), Al Capp (“L’il Abner”), Chick Young (“Blondie”), Hank Ketcham (“Dennis the Menace”), Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois”), Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”), and Mell Lazarus.

This year’s winner was Jim Davis, creator of “Garfield.” Other finalist were Cathy Guisewite (“Cathy”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”).

Davis did not join the cruise, but sent his regrets, his thanks, and the promise to “see you in the funny papers.”

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‘These guys have to get together to appreciate each other and themselves once a year,” said Elizabeth Falk, whose husband Lee, has been doing “Mandrake the Magician” strip for 57 years and the “Phantom” nearly as long.

Another old-timer on the cruise was Fred Lasswell, who draws “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” a comic strip originated in 1919 by Billy DeBeck. Lasswell became DeBeck’s assistant on the strip in 1933 and has been doing it himself since DeBeck died in 1942.

Newest nationally syndicated cartoonist on the cruise was Robb Armstrong, 28, of Maple Shade, N.J., who creates “Jump Start,” a comic strip with black characters launched last October and now in 75 papers. He is one of five black syndicated comic strip cartoonists.

Many members of the cartoonists society weren’t aboard the cruise because, they said, they were just too busy.

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And it isn’t just creating the comic strips that keep the most successful cartoonists occupied.

Many have product lines built around their characters. Forbes magazine in its “top entertainment earners,” for example, lists Charles Schulz fourth with an annual income of $30 million.

The National Cartoonists Society has 450 members, including comic strip cartoonists, comic book, magazine, advertising and political cartoonists, animators, illustrators and gag writers for cartoons. It was founded in 1946 by Rube Goldberg and several comic strip cartoonists. Later, other cartoonists from other fields were welcomed into the group. But the majority are still those who write and draw comic strips and comic panels.

Cartooning is a highly competitive business. The odds of becoming one of the 250 nationally syndicated cartoonists are very slim. Of the more than 5,000 artists who submit comic strips each year to syndicates, only about half a dozen are accepted and most of those do not last more than two years.

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Next to headlines, it is said, the comic strips are the best read part of the newspaper. Yet, their authors are rarely well-known.

“It’s strange, but here we are each one of us with larger audiences every day of the year than Johnny Carson, yet we walk down the street and nobody knows us until we take out a pad and do a quick drawing of the comic strip character we do. Then there is instant recognition,” said Tom Batiuk, whose comic strip “Crankshaft” appears in 400 newspapers.

At the NCS annual meeting at sea, Mell Lazarus had trouble with the microphone. “Can’t hear you. Draw it, Mell,” one of the cartoonists shouts to President Lazarus.

While cruising between Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay, where the cartoonists spent most of a day on a sparkling tropical beach, Lazarus and two other cartoonists sneak up to the ship’s bridge where Mell “takes control” of the ship’s wheel.

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“If we hit an iceberg, it will wipe out funny pages all over the world,” sighed an onlooker.


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