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by Richard O'Brien


The Koky Story


In 1978 I was writing gags for a syndicated panel cartoon called, variously, depending on what newspaper it was in, “The New Neighbors” and “The Treadwells”. Bob Bugg, who did the strip, let me know he was giving it up, but that the panel itself would continue.

I saw my chance. I’d been doing gags for Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Victor Borge, and seven cartoonists, but always as a ghostwriter. I was aching for a credit. If I could take over Bugg’s panel. . .! I got in touch with him and told him what I was hoping for, but he informed me he’d already recommended someone else to the syndicate. I was crushed. I’d have done it for ten bucks a week, just to get that credit. Damn.

I’d given up, but then it came to me: what Bugg had suggested might not be set in stone. On August 14 I wrote to Robert Reed, the president of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. He was on vacation, but on August 31 he wrote and suggested that we meet. We did, on September 11.

At the meeting, Bob told me he was thinking of folding the panel, but that he’d like a family strip, since the syndicate didn’t have one. I was agog! At that time family strips, even the terrible ones, seemed to run forever! I got to work and later presented what I then called “The Migleys”. Bob and editor Don Michel said they liked it, but there was nothing distinctive about it; no angle their salesmen could use to sell the strip. l was a press agent, and was used to coming up with angles on my clients to sell to the media. On the bus to New York that morning, it had occurred to me that the tenor of the strip was similar to humor columnist Erma Bombeck’s. The topic of working women was in the air. Never had a comic strip had one. “Let’s have her work,” I said. “As a humor columnist”. That sold the strip.

A competition for artists followed. Mort Gerberg will find out here for the first time that he wasn’t my choice. I thought his loose drawing style, ideal for magazine cartoons, wasn’t right for a strip. But I got lucky. My choice didn’t seem to get the jokes, so it could have been hell working with him. Mort, on the other hand, was bright, got all the humor, and was an all-around joy to work with. We had just one disagreement. I’d thought his having Walter with a comb-over was funny, and when he started drawing him bald, I asked him to go back to the original look. His answer was “no”. Well, his area was the art, so I let it end there.

What happened to “The Migleys”? As this was now a strip about a working woman, it seemed best to name it after her. I wanted something spunky, but “Katie” was the best I could come up with. Bob Reed knew a woman named Koky (presumably Cokie Roberts, whom I’d never heard of then). I wasn’t crazy about the name, but hey, as long as I had a syndicated comic strip, something I’d longed for ever since I was a kid. . .

Unfortunately, another comic strip had the same start date (September 10, 1979) as “Koky”. Its tenor was similar and so was its art. I, Mort, Bob and Don saw some advance strips. It looked a bit amateurish, and the others shrugged it off. I didn’t, and told them (my precise words) “This one’s not going to go away.” However I was sure we could co-exist. Alas, the head of its syndicate was known as the best salesman in the business, and he began selling some weeks before “Koky’s” salesmen got going. His strip was a little something called “For Better or For Worse”.

As a result of his jump (I was recently informed that my syndicate’s salesmen kept being told by the newspapers they’d approached that they couldn’t buy “Koky”, because it was too similar to FBOFW, which they’d already bought) “Koky” struggled. A really successful comic strip can have 1500 papers (though Sundays are usually counted as a separate paper, since they’re sold that way). “Koky”, at its peak, had forty-nine, plus a Swedish publication (I never found out if it was a paper or a magazine). For some reason, it was particularly popular in Australia, where it was also put out as a black-and-white comic book. It didn’t bring Mort and me a lot of money, since the syndicate got half (after its expenses), and Mort and I split the rest. As time went on, I began writing (and selling) novels, which I found far less restrictive than writing a family strip. I now had a byline in several areas. I told the syndicate I wanted more money or I’d quit. They said no, and we agreed it was up to me to name the final date. I suggested a couple of weeks past two years, so that it would have had a respectable run. They said okay. And that’s the story of “Koky”.

Richard O’Brien

April 2007




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