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Maryland

Laura Vozzella: Homeland Security with a sense of humor

Baltimore-born

Donna A. Lewis

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is a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security who moonlights as a stripper. A comic stripper.

Her semi-autobiographical strip, "Reply All," about a successful career woman struggling with self-doubt, has just been syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. It debuts Monday in about a dozen newspapers nationwide, including The Post, Boston Globe and Charlotte Observer.

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While the strip is based loosely on Lewis' life, you won't see any "Dilbert"-style references to her day job. And not just because, as her bio on

deadpans, "Donna is not funny or interesting at all by day."

Homeland Security has given her the OK to write the comic strip in her spare time, with the caveat that she must steer clear of anything related to her work for the department's Office of General Counsel. No jokes about intrusive airport body scanners here.

"Homeland Security, without sounding too creepy, has its hand in a lot of things," said Lewis, 48, who grew up in Pikesville, earned an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and got her law degree from the University of Maryland. "It will be a really cold day before my character goes to the airport and says anything funny and not have it come back in my face."

Getting a comic strip into syndication is no easy trick, particularly since the "comics hole," the space newspapers devote to strips, has shrunk to a "stunning" degree in recent years, said

Amy Lago

, comics editor for The Washington Post Writers Group.

"We probably receive a couple thousand submissions a year," Lago said. "We maybe pick up one or two a year. It's incredible odds, like winning the lottery — only having to work 365 days a year for the rest of your life."

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Lago said Lewis' strip easily stood out.

"Donna is wild and crazy and just a lot of fun, and it just shows up on the page every day," Lago said. "I've been in this business for more than 20 years, and the most successful strips have been the ones I've opened and made me laugh out loud, and this is one of those strips. I get kind of a tingle on the back of my neck when I read something like that."

"Reply All" focuses on women who are successful but "estrogenically neurotic," Lewis said. "It's kind of like what happened to 'That Girl,' what happened to Mary Tyler Moore, women who made great strides in terms of being successful — feminists — but still have estrogen and men to deal with, and they still have mothers to deal with."

Lewis never set out to write a comic strip. She was interested in doing some improv and stand-up comedy, and wound up writing a lot more material than she could use on stage. Lewis happens to do volunteer work with people with disabilities, and one day in 2007, when snow kept most people at home, Lewis and other volunteers broke out some art supplies to kill time. She combined some of her stand-up material with a doodle.

"It never occurred to me that it was a cartoon," she said. "It looked like greeting card."

Whatever it was, it seemed funny enough to scan and then e-mail to friends. Soon they were expecting a daily cartoon, which eventually moved from e-mail, to a personal website, to a comics website, to Facebook and Twitter, and now newspapers.

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"I took the stand-up material I was dying to do something with, and I put it on the little doodles I did, and over time, it just developed," she said. "Then I developed characters, themes. … As the audience grew, the platform grew."

Lewis has no background in drawing, and she concedes that her artwork is simple. When "The Daily Cartoonist" profiled her last month, a reader complimented her writing but said Lewis should have been paired with a professional artist, calling the strip "painful to look at." (With the bravado of a litigation-hardened attorney, Lewis highlighted the comment on her site.)

A defender chimed in.

"Can you imagine this strip being done in the same visual mould as 97% of all the comics out there?" the commenter wrote. "Um … I don't think so. It's not slick, but it's not McDonald's. And content always trumps style."

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com


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