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New comic strip 'Dustin' reflects modern times

"Dustin" is the story of an unmarried, unemployed, 23-year-old male who is pushed toward employment by his middle-aged lawyer father, loved by his fashion-forward/radio host mother and tutored on topics like dating by his Harvard-bound teen sister.

Though the grown-child-living-at-home scenario may sound like a successful TV sitcom, "Dustin" is a new comic hitting more than 60 newspapers, including the Deseret News, nationwide this month.

A daily comic dreamed up by political cartoonist and stand-up comedian Steve Kelley and fellow cartoonist Jeff Parker, "Dustin" is gaining popularity at a time when newspapers — and the funny pages — are downsizing.

"There's a lot of fresh air injected into this strip, as opposed to older strips that stick to a formula and never veer from it," said Parker, who illustrates the comics once Kelley creates the story line.

"Fresh air" comes not only from the well-developed, conflicting characters, but also from their occupations — or lack thereof.

Dustin's stint at a temp agency brings in sassy employment agent Simone Fontenot and a slew of odd jobs at a restaurant and diving for lost golf balls, while his mother's career as a radio host brings on-the-air comedic conversation.

Parker said the realistic, timely storyline that mirrors the boomerang-child phenomenon makes for a good response to "Dustin."

"I ran into people while I was developing the strip and … they would say, 'Oh, I have a Dustin living at home on my sofa right now,'" Parker said. "So we've got that going for us — a lot of people are in this situation."

The economy is certainly one aspect that helps people relate to the comic strip, but a modern comic that mentions iPods and Walmart also draws new readers to the old comic-strip medium.

"I think that comics are still among the most popular feature of newspapers," said Kelley, who came up with the idea for "Dustin" more than two years ago.

With comics popping up on the Internet and sprouting TV movies (like the well-known Peanuts series), comics are still beloved by many people, Kelley said.

"People still love to laugh," he said.

And though he is responsible for coming up with a new comic every day, Kelley said he is never short on ideas for "Dustin."

"People who write creatively for a living tend to have lived a lot of life," Kelley said. "We've got a deep well to drop our bucket into."

He said the characters in "Dustin" represent aspects of his own personality, from the dreamer in Dustin and sunny personality of his mother Helen, to the practicality of Dustin's father, Ed, and sister, Megan.

Kelley said the hardest part of his job is finding the best words and format to construct daily gags, but daily life is enough to inspire the basis for "Dustin" jokes.

"I think we all go through lives that are rich with humor and irony — it's just a matter of looking for it," Kelley said.

And as college graduates face bleak job markets, a "Dustin"-style sense of humor is all but essential.

e-mail: bbrown@desnews.com