An Interview with Comics Expert Brendan Burford
February 13, 2018
Brendan Burford got his unofficial start in the comics business when he was very young. “As a kid, I made my own comics and sold them on consignment at local shops here [in New York City] and out in Long Island, where I grew up,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to do anything with my life but work in comics.”
While attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he interned at Mad Magazine. From there, he landed a job at DC Comics, and his professional endeavors officially began. After that, he began working at King Features Syndicate, home to beloved newspaper comics like Blondie, Family Circus, Popeye, and Patrick McDonnell’s MUTTS, among many others. Over the span of 18 years at King Features, Brendan served in roles ranging from editorial assistant to editor and, eventually, general manager of syndication.
In addition to being an adept editor and a studious, self-proclaimed “comics geek,” Brendan is also an artist in his own right. He founded a small press, Syncopated Comics, where he published several volumes of the acclaimed nonfiction comics anthology, Syncopated. He would go on to edit and contribute work to the award-nominated Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, published by Random House’s Villard imprint.
In a recent conversation, Brendan shared his thoughts on the legacy and importance of newspaper comic strips, and told us why he thinks MUTTS is loved by so many readers.
How did you choose your path within the comics industry?
I have kind of a mixed history. I had an individual pathway as a cartoonist at one point, but I was also behind the scenes working for different companies. And I was a bit of a weirdo cartoonist — I don’t do very “mainstream” things. But I’ve always had a very agnostic attitude toward comics in general. I love what King does with syndicated strips, I love magazine gag cartoons, I love comic books with superheroes, and graphic novels, and more personal literary work. For me, it all folds into this giant pen of comics that are meaningful to me.
So I also treasure this as a business and as a medium, and I knew at a pretty young age that I wanted to find a job — any job, at that time — working with comics.
What are some of your favorite comic strips (or moments from comic strips)?
I decided a long time ago to never enumerate my favorites. It’s like when a parent is asked to name their favorite child. But I will say I’ve seen, at the very least, flashes in almost every comic strip series where I say, “Wow — this is their best work. This is really going to resonate.” And sometimes it’s actually a larger body of work that is important or influential, that we should pay attention to.
Can you expand on the topic of influence? How have you seen comics influence readers?
Comics are inviting. People look to them for a laugh or for some kind of reflection in their lives. And knowing that, you have the opportunity to send messages.
At King Features, a few years back, we did an effort for Earth Day. Earth Day is something that’s close to my heart and to the hearts of a lot of cartoonists, so we said, “Hey, can we do something to elevate the conversation around this?” We got all the cartoonists on board, and on that day, the whole comics section was filled with messaging about Earth Day. And it turns out, MUTTS in particular was on the front page of USA Today that week. It was an article about how America’s cartoonists aren’t just making you laugh. They’re also making you think, and asking you to consider how to be a better citizen or steward of the earth.
Another year, for breast cancer awareness, we took the Sunday comics page and we colored the page pink. The whole section was done in varying values of pink, and we teamed up with organizations to help raise awareness and money for research.
And just recently, we helped raise money for hurricane disaster relief through the auction of original artwork. There’s a certain duty we have, because we are in a position of influence, and we feel like we can help make the world a better place.
How do you believe MUTTS has influenced readers?
Just look at how much Patrick has done for animal rights and adoption awareness. Look at the impact he’s had on how we collectively and culturally look upon the welfare of animals. I can’t think of many people who have done what Patrick has done in that space.
I’ve always thought MUTTS was a timeless comic strip, but aside from that, I’m also an animal lover. We rescued our dog from a shelter, and when Patrick creates his Shelter Stories series, those touch me pretty deeply. I think if his work inspires someone to adopt an animal, that’s impactful. And I can speak to that personally.
Why do you say MUTTS is a “timeless” strip?
It’s a modern-day classic. It would have been at home in any generation of comics making. There’s this thread that runs through MUTTS that allows everyone to feel like they’re part of it, and the best comics in history do that.
Plus, it’s a comic-strip comic strip. Patrick is constantly nodding toward things like Popeye or the The Katzenjammer Kids because he’s a fan of those strips. Sometimes that happens in a blatant way — like, here’s a title panel that’s an homage to a great period piece of comics making — or maybe it’s a panel structure that somehow evokes Krazy Kat. I think Patrick, visually at the very least, acknowledges on a routine basis that he’s standing on the shoulders of a great series of giants that came before him, and his inclination to pay homage to that is awesome to me.
And let’s not forget, Patrick’s also a really good gag writer. There’s something about his ability to see rhythm and timing and deliver a punchline. He takes the reader on a miniature journey, makes them feel like they’ve been somewhere.
Why do you, personally, believe comic strips are important?
They interrupt the day in a pleasant way. The beauty of this words-and-pictures medium is that every day there’s an opportunity to make people laugh, or think in a certain way, or reflect in a certain way. Cartoonists have their own thematic ways of doing that, and quite frankly, whatever moves me might not move the next person. But that’s kind of the beauty of it, right? There’s this large spectrum of voices to be received by a large audience of ears and eyes.
I’ve always loved that about comics — that there’s this notion of individual expression that can manifest in unexpected ways. It feels like anything can happen.