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20 Years of Gaffes and Goofs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Kevin Fagan’s “Drabble” cartoon strip debuted on March 5, 1979, the 22-year-old Orange County cartoonist identified most with his hapless main character, 19-year-old college student Norman Drabble.

But as his strip approaches its 20th anniversary, the man once billed as the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America now finds himself identifying more with Norman’s middle-aged dad, Ralph.

“Norman is insecure and awkward and always embarrassing himself,” says Fagan, 42. “I got to thinking Ralph is the same way, except he’s older and just doesn’t care. That’s probably more like me.”

“Drabble,” which Fagan draws in a studio in his Mission Viejo garage, appears in about 200 papers. (Veteran “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz calls it one of his “all-time favorite strips.”) Fagan now has a new collection of strips, his sixth, “Drabble: Mall Cops, Ducks and Fenderheads” (Nantier-Beall-Minoustchine Publishing, $9.95).

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Fagan says he was going to mark the cartoon’s anniversary in the strip, but what he jokingly refers to as “an important story line” will run over the anniversary date: Ralph gets his head stuck in the doggy door.

But the self-effacing Fagan never planned to draw too much attention to the “Drabble” milestone.

“It’s not like ‘Garfield’ or ‘Dilbert’ or something like that,” he says. “I just feel lucky being around for 20 years. No celebration is called for.”

That’s not to say Fagan hasn’t been making oblique references to the cartoon’s upcoming anniversary.

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Since the beginning of the year, he’s done more than a dozen strips in which Norman experiences what he refers to as “Drabblations”: Suddenly remembering embarrassing incidents from his past as he approaches his 20th birthday.

Norman mentally dredges up these moments in an overhead cartoon balloon featuring scenes from old strips. Such as the time he and girlfriend Wendy were eating dinner, and she pointed out to him, “You have piece of coleslaw hanging on your chin.”

Since he began the “Drabblations,” Fagan has received e-mail from fans requesting favorite incidents from old strips, and he plans to continue recalling Norman’s embarrassing moments from time to time the rest of the year.

Fagan says he had done the same theme in the strip a couple of years ago, but without the cartoon “flashbacks” and the term “Drabblations.” He coined it after someone approached him at a book signing and said he experienced the same thing and wondered if there was a clinical term for remembering embarrassing moments in life.

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Fagan, a father of three, says he and wife Cristi aren’t planning to do anything special to mark the strip’s anniversary at home. But then they never do. March 5 is also Cristi’s birthday, Fagan says, “so it’s totally overshadowed.”

When “Drabble” debuted, the original cast of characters consisted of Norman, his father, his mother (Honeybunch), his little brother (Patrick) and Norman’s girlfriend (Wendy).

In the past two decades, Fagan has added a few new characters: Norman’s younger sister, Penny; Bob the duck; Oogie the cat; and the latest--Wally the wiener dog.

As for whether there are any more new characters on the horizon, Fagan says he’s considering the pretty girl Norman became infatuated with in the strip a few months ago but never drummed up the nerve to speak to.

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Fagan hasn’t even named the character yet, but he thinks he’ll have her hail from England. Which should pay off with a few yuks in the Drabble household: Ralph, Fagan says, “still harbors resentment over the Revolutionary War.”


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