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Comic Strips Make Good Business


`BLONDIE'' just turned 60 this week, and she's more than eager to say so, says Dean Young. Mr. Young should know. His father, Murat B. ``Chic'' Young, pioneered the well-known comic strip, which celebrated its diamond jubilee this past weekend. Blondie first appeared as a daily feature on Sept. 8, 1930. It is distributed by King Features Syndicate, which is owned by the privately-held Hearst Corporation. A new musical film version of Blondie will be coming out next year, produced by Disney.

Cartoons such as Blondie are suddenly more popular than ever. In part, this stems from the success of The Simpsons, on the Fox Network, Disney's ``The Little Mermaid,'' which was one of the film hits of 1989-1990, as well as such blockbuster films as ``Superman,'' ``Batman,'' with box office receipts exceeding $200 million in the United States, ``Dick Tracy,'' which has earned $104 million domestically so far, and ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit?''

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Cartoons have long-since ceased to be just ink drawings in newspapers or magazines. Rather, they are highly-lucrative commodities - available for television shows, motion pictures, theme parks, and product-licensing ventures ranging from watches and t-shirts to dolls, clocks, and baby rattles.

``We have some very valuable properties,'' says Jeffrey Montgomery, a 26-year old entrepreneur who recently put together a $6 million financing-package and bought the rights to Harvey Publications Inc. His acquisition includes such venerable cartoon characters as Baby Huey, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Little Audrey, and others.

Since acquiring Harvey Publications about a year ago, Mr. Montgomery has boosted paid circulation for his comic magazines from 300,000 a month to 2 million a month.

MCA Inc., which owns Universal Pictures, recently acquired a minority share in Harvey Publications, and Mr. Montgomery is already talking about new licensing and distribution agreements, including a new TV version of Casper in the fall of 1991, and feature film versions of Casper and Richie Rich.

Blondie, which is one of the oldest continually-appearing comic characters in the United States, first appeared as ``Blondie Boopadoop,'' a flighty gold digger. Dagwood Bumstead, whose father owned the Bumstead Locomotive Works, renounced the family fortune to marry Blondie - which occurred in a segment on Feb. 17, 1933.

Today, Dean Young, who along with his sister owns the Blondie cartoon, carries on the work of his father. Young writes the story line for each segment and oversees its production. Stan Drake is the cartoonist. Young, who lives in Florida, says he bases his strip around ``four situations common to virtually every family: eating, sleeping, raising children, and making money.''

Blondie is not the only cartoon character celebrating an anniversary this year. Both Beetle Bailey and Dennis the Menace (also distributed by syndicates owned by the Hearst Corporation) are celebrating their 40th anniversaries. Family Circus, another Hearst product, turns 30. And on Oct. 2 Peanuts, perhaps the most widely-distributed comic strip feature, turns 40.

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``We're already getting ready for quite a celebration for that event,'' says Diane Reed, a spokesperson for United Features Syndicate, which distributes Peanuts to over 2,300 papers.

Blondie, for its part, appears in more than 2,000 papers worldwide and is translated into 55 languages. To Spanish readers, Blondie and Dagwood are known as Pepita and Lorenzo.

Almost all comic strips, experts note, are now released through national syndicates, such as King Features. Of the five major comic book magazine groups, two are publicly-held (Warner Communication's DC; and Disney). Three magazine groups, Marvel, Archie, and Harvey, are privately held.

Ironically, the one area where cartoons face some economic difficulty, media experts say, is in the daily press, where there are high production costs, and fewer newspapers than in the 1930s.

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