By Marylu Walters
Newspaper readers throughout North America and Scandinavia chuckle over their morning coffee at the adventures of Betty, a feisty comic-strip character created in Alberta. But if it weren’t for the encouragement of a high school art teacher, Betty might have been no more than a spare-time doodle.
“If Hank Zyp hadn’t come into my life, cartooning would be just something to amuse my friends,” says Gerry Rasmussen, half of Delainey and Rasmussen, the Edmonton creative team behind the popular syndicated Betty comic strip. As a teenager in the 1970s, Rasmussen loved to draw and paint, but he never took an art course until he enrolled in Zyp’s class at St Joseph Catholic High School.
“What he passed on to me was a curiosity about everything,” Rasmussen recalls. “He encouraged students to look at all forms of art. There was no artistic snobbery. He was as interested in how somebody painted a billboard sign as an oil painting.”
Although he had been doing both oil painting and cartoons, Rasmussen says, he had the idea that “cartooning was only for fun and the other was serious art.”
“Then Mr Zyp came along and said cartooning was every bit as valid as fine art. That changed things around for me.”
Rasmussen met Gary Delainey, another budding cartoonist, while the two were studying fine arts at the University of Alberta. They put their heads together and created a cartoon character called Bub Slug, who became a regular in the Gateway, the U of A student paper. The Edmonton Journal picked up the strip and ran it for several years. When the pair eventually shopped Bub Slug around to syndicates, they got a positive response from United Features, with a twist.
“They said they really liked the character of Betty, Bub’s wife,” Delainey says. “They thought she was the most well-rounded, complete character in the strip.” Delainey and Rasmussen revamped the strip, making Betty the central character.
Betty was syndicated worldwide in 1991 and now appears in papers across North America (including the Globe and Mail, the Seattle Times and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin) and in publications all over Scandinavia.
A newspaper of a different sort and a special English teacher figured in Delainey’s teen years at McNally Senior High School in Edmonton. “The faculty found out that a friend and I were planning to produce an underground newspaper, and the school was concerned. They didn’t know what kind of radical stuff was going to come out. We were aiming at something like the National Lampoon, sharp, aggressive, rather rude.
“Then a little white-haired English teacher, Isabel Miller, volunteered to be sort of a faculty advisor on it. The neat thing about her was that she was the last person we would have expected to get a joke. But she was pretty encouraging. She would come up with suggestions on how to tread a fine line that wouldn’t embarrass the school. For example, she would suggest alternatives to some questionable words. And most often, once I got over it, I realized that she was right and that her suggestion was even funnier. What she did was very special.”