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Breaking the mold

Plainville cartoonist draws notice with his new, edgy comic strip about a boy growing up in a single-parent household

'Gil' debuted in early January and was inspired by Norm Feuti's own childhood. The protagonist, a lovable, not-too-bright 8-year-old, embodies 'The resiliency and optimism of childhood,' Feuti said. "Gil" debuted in early January and was inspired by Norm Feuti's own childhood. The protagonist, a lovable, not-too-bright 8-year-old, embodies "The resiliency and optimism of childhood," Feuti said.
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2012
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Dennis the Menace is a precocious, freckled, blond-haired (and notoriously mischievous) 5 1/2-year-old with a gorgeous stay-at-home mom and a dad who’s an aerospace engineer.

The four Family Circus kids are cute and cheeky, their innocent comments and meandering adventures prompting sighs and headshaking from their white-collar father and homemaking mother.

And Gil? He’s chubby, gap-toothed, not too bright, and his working-class parents are divorced.

The central character of a new syndicated comic strip penned by Plainville cartoonist Norm Feuti, the 8-year-old bucks the idealized tradition of the comic pages, representing the norm of many 21st-century American families.

“I always wanted to do a family strip that was more down-to-earth,’’ said 41-year-old Feuti, a full-time cartoonist who also created the syndicated comic “Retail.’’

Launched in January, “Gil’’ captures the daily life and innocent (and often TV- and video game-influenced) ponderings and affirmations of its namesake pre-teen protagonist.

An only child, he’s raised by his mom, Cheryl, a factory worker (symbolized by her Rosie the Riveter-like head scarf) who struggles to provide the necessities for her son; while on alternate weekends, he sees his schlumpy underachieving dad, Frank.

Meanwhile, Gil plays - and discusses life’s nagging questions - with his best friend, Shandra, a black girl, who, like him, is raised by one parent (in her case a single dad); and trades insults with his snotty, red-ponytailed classmate, Morgan.

Along the way, he gets average grades, sneaks sweets, and fantasizes, like most boys do, about robots, aliens, flying cars, and super powers.

“Immediately you love this kid,’’ said Tom Racine, the San Diego-based host of the entertainment podcast Tall Tale Radio, for which he’s interviewed more than 250 syndicated and Web cartoonists and animators.

Comparing Gil to Charlie Brown, he called him a “lovable loser.’’

He’s definitely an underdog, agreed Paul Gilligan, a Toronto-based cartoonist and friend of Feuti’s who created the syndicated strip “Pooch Cafe.’’ “He’s not a clear winning, alpha kid like Dennis the Menace.’’

Yet despite it all, he’s “always smiling.’’

Which is just the message Feuti, a father of two who came from a non-nuclear family himself, said he hopes to stress: “the resiliency and optimism of childhood.’’

And of parenthood, too. The comic addresses the difficulties of raising children alone: Cheryl drives a beater car because it’s all she can afford; she laments missing work when Gil is sick; and regrets not being able to buy him the latest gadgets or save up for his college education.

On the other hand, his father is intellectually limited, addicted to lottery tickets, and would rather fish, watch TV, or play poker with his friends than work or dispense useful advice to his son.

So ultimately, Gil has to accept that Frank is imperfect, Feuti said. “Not everybody’s dad is a hero.’’

These stark bits of reality are what give the strip its edge, Gilligan noted.

“The strip doesn’t shy away from the issues that created Gil’s world,’’ he said. “His mom really feels the pressure of making ends meet. His father is a bad role model. Yet it’s all handled with good humor.’’

As Feuti stressed, every family has its own issues (much like Tolstoy said) and the reality often isn’t “The Family Circus.’’

Even so, that’s been the longtime standard on the comics page.

From “Marmaduke,’’ to “Baby Blues,’’ to even “The Addams Family’’ (whose characters, though macabre, include happily married mom and dad Morticia and Gomez), Gilligan described a sort of “Victorian-era thinking’’ in what characters can say and do. For instance, swears are, not surprisingly, taboo, as are subjects such as vasectomies and plastic surgery.

Comics have a “long history of representing straightforward lifestyles and nuclear families,’’ he said, and are “behind the curve in showing anything outside of that.’’ But Gil, along with other strips like “Stone Soup’’ (whose characters include two single moms), is “helping to expand that territory.’’

“It’s one of those things where its time has come,’’ Racine agreed, calling “Gil’’ “truly one of the best things I’ve seen come along in years.’’

And since it was introduced in early January, it’s attracted attention from news outlets like Today.com and The New York Times, and has been picked up by the The Providence Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and The Oregonian, among others.

Ultimately, Feuti has achieved success in an increasingly difficult environment for comics, which have struggled for space as newspapers have grappled with the transition to the Web. Always a fan of the art form - as a child, he particularly like “Bloom County’’ and “Calvin and Hobbes’’ - he started his career with “Retail,’’ which has been syndicated since 2006, and is based on his experiences working in that industry for 15 years.

The inspiration for “Gil’’ was also personal. While Feuti was growing up, his parents already were divorced - he doesn’t even remember them ever being married - and he and his older sister were raised in rural Rhode Island by his mother, who, much like Cheryl, worked in a factory.

And his dad? Like Frank, he wasn’t really around.

“We didn’t have much,’’ Feuti shrugged as he sat in a studio in the basement of his Plainville home, outfitted with a drafting desk and neatly stacked bookcase, framed comics on the walls and a cat keeping watch from a perch on a desk chair. Nearby, “Retail’’ strips sat in the works: blown-up, black-and-white, characters with yet-to-be-filled-in bubbles above their heads, engaged in silent conversations that only the artist was in on.

But with many of his childhood friends also growing up in one-parent households, “it seemed normal to me,’’ he said. “I look back fondly on my childhood.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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