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News: Rubin Debut Ends “Passion of Gil Thorp”
posted April 17, 2004

April 17 -- With the comeuppance of an arrogant baseball player, Gil Thorp finished its latest storyline featuring the same coach, the same high school and the same relentless three-panel narrative that served as the strip's calling card for four decades. Two things were brand new. The first was that instead of lasting a full sports-team season, the cocky baseball player plot slipped seamlessly into a second story about a male student playing on the women's softball team. The second was a name in the credits. Neal Rubin, columnist with the Detroit News, former sportswriter and a self-professed lifelong Gil Thorp fan, took over writing duties in late March from evangelical Christian author Jerry Jenkins. The new hire promised a different direction in the minor cult newspaper sports strip, a curious cultural object that in many ways stands as the last of several kinds of newspaper tradition -- a blend of soap opera, social advocacy, and sports homilies. Rubin also ended Jenkins' eight-year run, a controversial tenure that began in 1996 after the passing of creator Jack Berrill. Together, Rubin and Jenkins threw the spotlight on the unique difficulties keeping a minor, profitable strip alive in today's crowded market.

The switch in writers has been accompanied by a sales push for the 46-year-old drama strip, in which Tribune Media Services has stressed Rubin's desire to do issue-oriented stories of relevance to young athletes and sports fans. Jenkins' version of strip had come under fire in some of its 65 markets for its use of Christian-themed storylines that did not quite match the traditional secular Main Street tone of Berrill's creation and long, original run as its authorial voice. According to Chicago media reports, Jenkins farmed out much of the writing on Gil Thorp to his son Chad, an equally devout Christian and college baseball coach in northern Indiana. A Chad Jenkins storyline hinting strongly at particular views regarding abortion led to written and on-line complaints. Any noise at all concerning Gil Thorp, let alone negative commentary, stood out for an older strip some 20 papers or so away from falling into the red.

Rubin acknowledged to the Journal that his strip would be very different than what immediately preceded it. "The Jenkinses are very serious, evangelical Christians. And they carried that through in every part of their lives. I think I come at things with more of a generalist perspective." As seen in his first storyline shift, Rubin also plans to work as much as he can against the confines of a daily drama strip and to work in local sports color, such as his home state's passion for fast-pitch softball.

The degree to which fan input can determine the direction of a n older strip are even heavier than usual in the case of Gil Thorp. Rubin received the job at the suggestion of Matt Shaughnessy, an optical supplies salesman living near Chicago who had printed collections of Berrill's work and become so linked to the strip that his opinion was sought on potential replacements for Jenkins. In addition to ordering Shaughnessy's barely break-even books, many Gil Thorp fans also congregate on-line in a forum called The Bucket, named after a hangout in the strip's fictional town of Milford. Rubin reports that he hears his initial efforts have been met with open arms by the fans who visit that forum, although he's sure there will be the natural sort of criticism that comes with the end of a storyline. "I'm beyond appreciative," he says.

Artist Frank McLaughlin continues to draw the strip.