The Comics Page -- that is, the collection of syndicated comic strips that appears in your local paper -- became twice the topic of insider kerfufflagration this week. For fans of the form, it's worth a look at them both.
Let me start by saying this is not going to be an example of responsible reporting. As I begin writing, it's 5:47 AM EST on a Saturday and I really don't think anybody is hoping for a phone call right now, even to get their side of things. So I'm just gonna tell you what I already know and what I think.
But I'd love to hear from the principals involved in these and, if they'd like to provide their viewpoint, I'll not only update this but will announce the update in a separate posting.
Everyone else is, of course, encouraged as always to comment.
First up is last Saturday's "Doonesbury":
Trudeau could have been a little more specific in his message, had the gag not required him to cut back to two panels' worth of dialogue. But Zonk and Mike's admonition that print matters touched off a response on the strip's own (well named) Blowback page as well as at the Daily Cartoonist (with additional links there) that revealed how many really touchy readers and creators there are out there.
What is true is that the overall medium of comics is not dependent on syndication or print.
Just as the overall medium of live-action drama is not dependent on the film industry. TV and movies have coexisted for more than half a century.
However, while it's not entirely apples-and-oranges, just as there is a difference between a small, independent film and a network sitcom, a syndicated comic strip has a different mission than a webcomic.
Web comics are niche-y -- one of the first (commercially) successful web strips was "Unshelved," a comic about working in a library that caught on because librarians were among the early adopters and it went viral among this specific group, widely scattered on the map but close-knit on the web.
In print, you have to appeal to enough people within a geographic region to be viable, and if only 1 percent of local readers are librarians (and that would be a huge number of librarians), it makes no sense to pay for a strip that will truly tickle their fancies, amuse a few others and have no appeal to the vast majority.
Moreover, I really doubt a lot of companies would produce blockbusters for people to stream on Netflix. You need revenues from theaters, or at least from TV networks and cable subscriptions, to maintain a viable level of choice. (Though Netflix itself has just unveiled, "House of Cards," which appears to be "The West Wing" with F-bombs. The medium is adapting to new realities, but don't look for any "Braveheart" level battle scenes without ticket sales to pay for all those non-CGI extras.)
In any case, almost all commercially successful web strips are niche-based. If you like broader-audience strips like "Doonesbury," you shouldn't feel threatened by Trudeau's suggestion that this corner of cartooning depends in large part on print revenue.
Moreover, we're past the point where syndicated cartoonists rule the roost. There are still things to work out, but web cartoonists are an accepted part of the industry and the pissing-and-moaning phase is pretty much over, with the remaining whiners being divided between the armor-plated dinosaurs of print and the wannabe fringe of web cartoonists who blame their lack of commercial success on everything but the plain and eternal fact that, in any of the arts, making a living is tough and reserved for a small group.
The fact that you aren't among them may stem from any number of reasons, but "it's all a conspiracy" isn't one. Bitching about it instead of focusing on your work, however, might be.
The other bit of news that drew attention recently (here and also here) was the decision of the Duluth News Tribune to cancel "Blondie" and to publicly scorch King Features in explaining their choice.
Having worked that corner a little, I find the decision to drop it in the face of repeated price hikes understandable, and the lack of response from the syndicate incomprehensible.
Second part first: I've had good relations with syndicate sales people, publicity folks and even the brass, and have never had a problem picking up the phone and finding the person I needed. It's possible that the rep had no acceptable answer and was laying low in hopes it would all blow over, but I think something broke down here and, as stated above, I'd love to hear the other side on this.
But I also remember an editor, back in the late 80s, complaining about the price of Bloom County going up. Like the editor in Duluth, he felt he was being punished for being an early client because, while the contract was "until further notice," the pricing sure wasn't.
(BTW, he was one of the few editors I've worked with who not only understood but actually cared about comics, and I remember in blue detail how he felt over agreeing to pick up Berthed's post-Bloom offering, "Outland," and then having it turn out to be very expensive, extremely demanding about its print format and then creatively unfocused, inconsistent and generally not worth it. If I'd been repping that one, I might have hidden under a rock, too. Eeesh.)
So here's my takeaway on the "Blondie" issue in Duluth:
When I had the chance to re-do a full comics page, one of the issues I questioned was why our selection of Sunday strips bore almost no resemblence to our dailies, and I found out that the supposedly "low cost" standardized pre-printed Sunday package we had carried for years was laden with massively expensive "old favorites" that I doubt we'd have even bought at a good price had we been looking at them separately.
We were able to save money with a custom Sunday section that matched our daily offerings, partly because we found a competitive syndication print shop (because of the large expanses of ink involved, Sunday sections call for a different print method) but also because we stopped routinely paying massive amounts of money on the basis of nobody having bothered to examine the invoices.
I did find that, once we questioned them, we got some rollbacks. I would also note that getting rollbacks keeps strips in the newspaper, but it also means that the days are long over when having your strip in 100 papers meant you could quit your day job. Having 100 papers does indeed beat a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but not by all that much anymore.
The important lesson overall is that, in this day and age, editors are no longer signing off on any invoices without reading them.
As that editor's note says, "Blondie" is a popular strip which, unlike many other zombie strips, has done a pretty good job of keeping itself fresh.
But let me repeat the lesson, in case anybody missed it before:
In this day and age, editors -- even the ones who really like comics -- are no longer signing off on invoices without reading them. Sharpen your pencils, folks: It's already becoming a bumpy night.