02/10/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
BARBARA BRANDON WAS IN NINTH grade in Westbury, N.Y., when she got her first major break: a part-time position as unofficial assistant on Luther, the syndicated cartoon. True, the pay was $5 a month, and her boss was her father, and, true, the work was tedious. "My job was to put the dots on Luther's skin, to give him skin color," recalls Brandon. But the job also gave the teenager a small part in cartoon history. Luther, which ran from 1968 to 1986, was a rarity—a cartoon strip about an African-American character rendered by an African-American cartoonist—and Brumsic Brandon Jr., now in his mid-60s and semiretired in Florida, was one of the first black cartoonists to be nationally syndicated. "I picked up a lot of his work habits," she says.
Barbara, 33, has taken the family tradition one step further. Last November her strip, Where I'm Coming From, was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate, making her the first nationally syndicated black woman cartoonist. Today the strip appears in more than 50 papers, including the Detroit Free Press and the Baltimore Sun.
The strip, which presents the black experience through the voices of nine women, is drawn in a heads-only style. "Women traditionally have been seen in comic strips as these superwoman types with tiny waists and big busts," says Brandon. "It's old, and I want to give it up, so my personal statement is not to use bodies." Because black men often come off second best in Where, some have accused Brandon of male-bashing. "I'm merely holding up a mirror," she says. "If you see something in that mirror that makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe it's a call for self-evaluation."
In 1989 Brandon submitted to her own self-evaluation. When she finally sold her strip to the Free Press, she quit her writing job at Essence, a black women's magazine. Syndication should help with her budget, but Brandon, who shares a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with a female roommate, still has to supplement her income with free-lance writing, window-display work and calligraphy. "I'm the first and I'm proud of it," she says. "But this is the '90s, and I have to sit back and ask, 'What's taking us so long?' "