Numberscruncher: The Funny Papers
Stories about the death of newspapers are tired. Yeah, we get it, newspapers are struggling.
But the story is all about how there won’t be any more investigative journalism or how bloggers are sloppier than Judith Miller when they do their reporting.
No one looks at the real tragedy: the death of the comics. The comic strip is an art form in its own right, but it is also one closely tied to newspapers. As newspapers cut back, they often eliminate the page that introduces the paper to new readers in the first place.
$12 a week per paper? Shared equally with the syndicate? For a cartoon that’s run in 100 papers, that represents an income of $31,200 – which means you can’t quit your day job. Scott Adams, Garry Trudeau, and the estate of Charles Schultz may have a little negotiating power, but not many other cartoonists out there do. If the strip catches on, there are greater profit opportunities in the form of books, calendars, character licensing, and possibly television. If you look at your daily paper, though, how many of the strips are good enough to get you to rush out for the book?
The low syndication rates date from a time when a cartoonist would most likely be on staff. The syndication money was meant to be a bonus, not the primary way that the cartoonist made a living. Comic strip writers would often be employed by a newspaper and also create political cartoons or draw illustrations for stories. Very few were completely independent, at least not when they started.
Sometimes I want to smack newspaper editors around. You get readers by running both Dear Abby and Ask Amy, not cutting one or the other. You add comics, not subtract them. What, you can’t afford another $1.00 per day? Syndicated material is cheap. But it has to be printed on paper, and for centuries, that paper was purchased with classified advertising.
Modern kids are learning about comics from books. They pass around Peanuts and Pearls Before Swine anthologies; even if their family still gets a morning paper, the comics sections have shrunk. But books have limitations. Publishers don’t take chance on unknown strips, and not all comics read well in books. Many comics follow a structure in which the five weekday strips have a story arc (even with a gag-a-day strip), the Saturday strip stands alone, and the Sunday strip is large format and completely different. That can be a bit jarring in book form. Moreover, the soap-opera strips like Mary Worth and Brenda Starr move so slowly that a book version would put everyone to sleep.
You can see comics online, of course. One of my favorites, Candorville, is not carried in either Chicago paper, so I have to go to the Web site. However, the Internet is a terrible medium for a comic strip. It’s a hassle going through and clicking the links to all of my favorite strips.
Last week, I saw Lynda Barry and Matt Groening talk about the art of and market for cartooning as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Although he could have afforded to retire a long time ago, Groening still does his weekly comic panel Life in Hell. Most of his alt-weekly brethren have lost steady outlets. Life in Hell is hilarious and accessible (even if not particularly alternative anymore), and so Groening gets to be the cartoonist who stays when budgets are cut. Lynda Barry stopped publishing her strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek, when demand declined so much that only one paper carried it. She now puts it up online.
Lynda Barry talked about The Family Circus, her favorite comic. When she was a child in a screwed-up household, she loved how every day’s paper brought a little glimpse into a cute and normal family doing cute and normal things. She says it showed her not only a better life, but also how powerful these little drawings could be.
The funnies inspire people. They bring them into the newspaper. They show them how other people live, whether they be former high-school classmates in Northeast Ohio, Silicon Valley office drones, or students at an historically black college . People in the funnies come out of the closet, build transmogrifiers, are born and die on the funny pages. And it happens fast, while waiting for the toaster to pop or the el train to stop at State & Lake. We’ll all be worse off if we lose them.