Comic-Strips and the Death of Newspapers.

I’ve spent the last couple days mulling over the ways in which the newspaper industry’s woes must be affecting those associated with comic strips, but I was beaten to the punch by the freakin’ New York Times, of all people:

Lisa Wilson, senior vice president of syndication for United Media, which distributes “Pearls Before Swine” through its United Feature Syndicate, says simply: “The newspapers’ economic challenges become ours.”

Luckily, the article is pretty superficial and focuses mostly on what the syndicates are doing to respond to the crisis, so there are a number of larger points that I can still make. Incidentally, some of the steps being taken by the syndicates are actually pretty comical to people familiar with the interwebs. Dramatic steps included: creating a Facebook page for Pearls Before Swine; allowing Garfield readers to email strips to one another; and making “Audio Comics” for Zits, in which a camera pans over the comic strip while actors read the lines. (I’m unclear on where, exactly, the demand for this is coming from.)

Anyway, here are some things I think the Times should have talked about:

The comic-strip syndicate is a dying institution. Unlike their analagous counterparts in other industries (record labels, say, or publishing houses), comic syndicates don’t really provide much in the way of marketing. Their main purpose is to provide distribution; that is, to get the comic strips to the newspapers. At some point, there simply won’t be enough newspapers to make their operating costs worth it. At this point, the distinction between comic and webcomic will, in a practical sense, cease to exist, and comics will become an internet-only art form.

This is bad news for many current comic-strip artists. For one thing, many currently running comic-strips are institutions supported mostly by brand loyalty, and their older fanbase may not make the technological leap. (I’m thinking here of strips like Family Circus, For Better Or For Worse, Beetle Bailey, and Blondie, among many others.) But for decades the syndicates have also served as unofficial tastemakers, choosing what strips run and what strips don’t, and the fact is that a lot of what they choose is simply bad. It’s tough to imagine that many syndicated strips will make it in an environment with so much competition. Garfield and the Family Circus are the obvious examples, but even formerly amusing strips like Zits have been kept in the papers long after they stopped being funny.

While the collapse of the syndicates may be bad for print comic-strip writers, the smart ones (like Stephan Pastis, of Pearls Before Swine, or Gary Tredeau, of Doonesbury) have already started expanding their web presence. And the collapse is an overall positive for comic-strip readers, because it will release artists from the restrictions that newspaper editors and, by extention, the syndicates have levied on artists.

The conflict between artist and editor is a longstanding one. Artists want plenty of room in which to express themselves; editors want to squeeze more and more strips into one newspaper. (Or, recently, they want to cut down on print costs altogether. The San Francisco Chronicle recently cut two pages of Sunday comics, and compressed the rest.) But printing space isn’t a consideration on the web. If an artist wants to write, say, a small strip like this one day and a longer one like this the next, it doesn’t cost him any more to do so. So webcomic artists are completely free from the cloistered, four-square-panel layout that comic strips have been married to since the early 20th century. And some of what they come up with is fantastic.

The greatest comic strip author of all time, of course, was Bill Watterson, the author of Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson was the best comic-strip author ever in the same way that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever: not just a little better than the competition but a lot better, so far in first that second is barely visible. Watterson fought bitterly with Universal Press Syndicate for the entire time that the strip ran, mostly over the rampant merchandising they wanted to do (if they’d had their way, Calvin and Hobbes would have followed in the Garfield franchise’s footsteps) but also over the layout of the Sunday strip. I dug out my copy of The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, and in the introduction to the book Watterson wrote:

The format for Sunday strips is a rigid one, and as Calvin and Hobbes became more visually complex, I found that I could not design the strip to the story’s best advantage. I would often need to eliminate dialogue or simplify the drawings so they’d fit in the arbitrary space the format allotted. At times, this threatened to ruin the idea, nd it frequently made for an ugly, graceless strip.

Watterson asked to have a half-page to do with what he pleased, with no panel restrictions at all. What he eventually got was a half-page in some papers, and a reduced-size version in other, less cooperative papers. But even with those restrictions he was able to work in the Sunday strip form in a manner that no one had been able to since the 1940s or 50s. Had he worked ten years later, he might well have found the freedom he wanted on the web, and who knows what he might have come up with.