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WaPo and others level up, drop stale DILBERT strip for fresh HEART OF THE CITY

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Last week, the Andrews McMeel Universal syndicate dropped Dilbert creator Scott Adams following racist statements he made on his “Real Coffee” YouTube show on February 22.

The syndicate’s announcement came after Adams’ comments led several newspapers to drop his strip. While some outlets, such as The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Massachusetts, “decided to keep the space blank through March ‘as a reminder of the racism that pervades our society,’” per Associated Press, other newspapers have replaced Dilbert with a fresh, inclusive strip: Heart of the City. Created by Mark Tatulli, Black queer cartoonist, Steenz took over the comic strip in April 2020 as protagonist Heart Lamarr entered middle school.

On March 1, Steenz announced that their comic strip had replaced Dilbert in The Washington Post‘s comic section. On Twitter, they wrote, “Heart of the City replaced D*lbert in The Washington Post, and I’m living my best life.”

When reached for comment, Steenz added that not only are they living their best life, but so is Heart. “I’m glad more people get to read Heart! I feel like the comic has a great cast, and I know Heart, especially, would be thrilled to have new fans and readers,” Steenz told The Beat. “The first comics I ever read were newspaper strips. I grew up reading Curtis, Jumpstart, Foxtrot, and Zits… all great family/ensemble comics. So I love that Heart’s family can be one that people grow up with.”

Heart of the City is about Heart Lamarr, a girl with big dreams who lives in Philadelphia with her single mom. She has her sights set on a life of theater but runs into plenty of drama off-stage, too. Luckily, her best friends Dean, Kat, and Charlotte form a stellar supporting cast to help Heart navigate the challenging world of school plays, cliques, rumors, and everything else middle school throws at them.

The second collection of strips, Lost and Found: A Heart of the City Collection, is out this April.

During Steenz’s almost three-year run on the strip, they have added more diversity to Heart‘s regular cast of characters. In one strip, Kat came out as not interested in boys. In another strip, we meet Charlotte’s parents, who appear to be a Black lesbian couple. One might say that in its exploration and promotion of diversity, Heart of the City offers an antithetical viewpoint to the outdated and racist beliefs espoused by Adams.

Days of Office Desk Calendars Past

Last week, on Adams’ “Real Coffee” YouTube show, the creator of the “most Xeroxed” comic strip of all time—which, to me, only means that Dilbert fans are people with the privilege of having easy access to Xerox machines—promoted segregation and dangerous tropes about Black people. While on this racist rant, he told his viewers that white people need to “get the hell away from” Black people.

Hundreds of papers dropped the strip following the racist rant, including The Washington Post, whose spokesperson told The Beat, “In light of Scott Adams’ recent statements promoting segregation, The Washington Post has ceased publication of the Dilbert comic strip.” Soon to follow in WaPo‘s footsteps was the cartoonist’s syndicate and comics publisher, Andrews McMeel, who released a statement to say that the company was “severing” ties with him—a termination that extended across “all areas” of the company’s business with the cartoonist and Dilbert.

In covering the controversy, Mike Peterson, columnist for the industry blog The Daily Cartoonist, wrote, “What doomed Dilbert was that Adams, like Al Capp before him, let his increasingly antisocial personal views appear in the strip. The focus on management foibles had long since gone stale and the new material was off-topic and not just conservative — a lot of strips are conservative — but openly offensive.”

Peterson later told The Washington Post that individual newspaper editors should “take responsibility” for the content being published in their newspapers. But “the bottom line,” he said, “is that Adams put his client papers in a position where cancellations were inevitable.”

In the same article, The Washington Post also quoted a former friend of Adams, cartoonist Robb Armstrong, who created Jump Start, the most widely syndicated daily comic strip from a Black creator worldwide, and worked on Peanuts Worldwide’s The Armstrong Project, offering scholarships to BIPOC students studying either arts, communications, animation, or entertainment. “My heart sank at first, then broke,” Armstrong told the outlet. “I had to accept the reality that my friend from the early days was gone. In his place was a soulless, heartless racist.”

Armstrong not only spoke out, but he also took action on social media. He encouraged fans who owned his 2016 book, Fearless: A Cartoonist’s Guide to Life, to cross out the Adams blurb, posting: “Use a thick black marker to stand up against racism.” 

Heart of the City Replaces D*lbert

Black creators are underrepresented in comics syndication. In 2020, Steenz and Bianca Xunise, one of the cartoonists behind Six Chix, became two of only a handful of Black creators to appear on the mainstream newspaper comics pages. Because of the lack of BIPOC representation in the comics industry and Adams’ anti-Black beliefs, the decision by several newspapers to replace Dilbert with Heart of the City carries cultural significance.

Steenz told Nola Pfau at Women Write About Comics that the decision is a “big deal” for two reasons:

Reason number one is that I’m Black, and he hates Black people. [laughs] No, but it’s a nice way to just stick it to him, you know? But it’s also a big deal because we still rarely see a new influx of creators and syndicated comic strips, and I would like to see more of that. Obviously, legacy comics are there for a reason. Everyone’s going to want to keep reading Zits, everyone’s going to keep reading, you know, Jump Start, because those creators are still around, and they want to keep making those comics. But I also want to see some new things. You should be able to get a newspaper and find someone new and not just have the old standards.

Steenz hopes that what happened with Heart of City will open up more opportunities for new creators to enter the industry. “We can’t move forward and progress as a culture and as a society, if there are still people in these gatekeeping roles that are holding onto these archaic ideas,” Xunise told the AP, adding that she was heartened that Heart of the City had replaced Dilbert in The Washington Post.

Thus far, Heart of the City has replaced Dilbert in Scarnton’s The Times-TribuneThe Citizens Voice, and The Washington Post

The Beat did not attempt to contact Adams for this article. In spite of being “canceled,” his views on the matter are readily available on a wide variety of high-profile platforms. Imagine that.

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