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Real-life inspiration: Cartoonist Wiley Miller adds autistic character to ‘Non Sequitur’

UPDATED: Sun., April 19, 2020

Most folks’ lives have been dramatically altered by the novel coronavirus. That’s not so for cartoonist Wiley Miller. The creator of the inventive comic strip “Non Sequitur” doesn’t leave his Maryland home often.

“I work here, and I just never go out much,” Miller said. “The coronavirus hasn’t impacted my lifestyle. I’m in my house as usual. The life of a syndicated columnist isn’t very glamorous. I work where I live.”

Miller spent an hour of his 69th birthday on Wednesday chatting about the latest developments with “Non Sequitur” and looking back at his visit to Spokane last summer when he was interviewed by The Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley during a Northwest Passages Book Club event. About 500 fans were treated to Miller’s anecdotes and an autograph session.

“I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the people when I went to Spokane,” Miller said. “Spokane is like my second home. I can’t say enough about those in Spokane who read ‘Non Sequitur.’ I have some interesting stuff in store for them.”

Jack, a 6-year-old autistic child, was recently introduced to readers as Jeffrey’s little brother. The character, who was inspired by Miller’s autistic grandson, who also is 6 and named Jack, has scored an overwhelmingly positive response.

“When I put my toe in the water with Jack, I was a little afraid of what the response would be from parents,” Miller said. “I didn’t know how parents of autistic children would respond. Anytime you’re doing a character with a disability, you’re walking a tightrope. I wanted to project a positive image, but I didn’t want it to be syrupy or preachy. I wanted it to be a real character.”

Miller has yet to receive any negative feedback, and he received a big thumbs-up from his daughter and grandson. “They love it,” Miller said. “Jack didn’t see it until it was in print, and he was just blown away. He’s a great kid, just like the one you see in the paper. He plays with trucks and trains like any other 6-year-old.”

The wry strip, which has won four National Cartoonists Society divisional awards, has been a staple in hundreds of newspapers for 28 years since Miller balances reality with fantasy. Regarding the latter, the veteran artist will resurrect his beloved character Homer.

“Readers keep asking for Homer, the Reluctant Soul,” Miller said. “People love the idea of reincarnation since you’re getting a second chance.”

Miller can relate since half of the newspapers that are part of his syndicate canceled their subscription to “Non Sequitur” after a hidden profane message directed at President Trump was discovered in his comic 14 months ago. It was a colossal hit since Miller syndicated to 800 papers.

“We had to move from Georgia to Maryland as part of the fallout,” Miller said. “And then there was the uncertainty of who would pick it up again.”

Miller penned an apology letter to editors and readers.

“About 10 papers picked it back up again,” Miller said.

The Spokesman-Review asked readers if “Non Sequitur” should return to the comics page. About 97% of 1,400 respondents wanted the strip to come back.

Miller is thankful that the response from Spokane fans was overwhelmingly positive, but he was nervous when he was invited to speak at the Northwest Passages event. “I had so much fear and trepidation when it came to that,” Miller said. “But I had to get over it because it was a chance to clear the air and speak about it publicly. It was such a controversy.”

The Butler Eagle, a paper in western Pennsylvania, loudly dropped “Non Sequitur.”

“An editor (Butler Eagle publisher and general manager Ron Vodenichar) is a huge Trump guy, and he made a big campaign out of it. Guys like him are part of a cult, and they can’t be reasoned with.”

However, Miller has moved on and intends to continue creating “Non Sequitur” panels for years. “I’m going to keep going in different directions,” Miller said. “I’m still moved to create. ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ and ‘The Far Side’ are no longer around because they burned out. It happens. But I’m still going strong. I know what I’m doing.”

Miller is savvy. When newspapers started to bleed during the early 1990s, layoffs began. Miller, who was then a staff cartoonist at the San Francisco Examiner, devised an exit strategy.

“I knew it was time to make something and try to syndicate it before the ax fell,” Miller said. “It’s worked out.”

After surviving a calamitous decline in newspapers last year, Miller appreciates his gig more than ever.

“I’m fortunate,” Miller said. “I’m lucky that I can continue to create and not have issues with the coronavirus. I’m here working every day.”

And Miller wouldn’t mind returning to Spokane. “That would be nice,” Miller said. “I didn’t see that much of the city. The amount of people who came out to see me there was stunning. It would be nice to go back, but for now I’m here, and I’m pleased to be able to do what I love.”

Wiley Miller, the man behind “Non Sequitur,” speaks with The Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley during Northwest Passages Book Club on  Aug. 5 at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Wiley Miller, the man behind “Non Sequitur,” speaks with The Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley during Northwest Passages Book Club on Aug. 5 at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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