« This is the funniest fucking thing I've read in two weeks. | Main | Because I don't want today to just be rants about beloved icons of cartooning, here's some happy Sluggy stuff. »

Sacred hamburger: the role of our heroes in the decline of the newspaper comics page

I'm in a bad mood today. I have a bad headache, I've been fighting technology and politics and idiocy at work, the weather is miserable and icy (it's never fun to plunge to the ground), there are money issues and Christmas issues and technology issues and people calling me to troubleshoot things they bought themselves, didn't jury through our department, and now can't get to work because they're wrong and somehow this is my fault.

Bad. Mood. Everyone got that? Good.

So, it's the right mood to finally write about something that's been bugging me for as long as I've been following syndicated comic strips with some degree of understanding.

We all know the syndicates. King Features. Universal Press. The Washington Post Writer's Group. Et cetera ad nauseam. And we know the continual cry about them. "They're hidebound! They're too conservative! They restrict artistic freedom! They shaft the artists they're working for! They want to make art into nothing more than a commodity! They exalt the bland and restrain the daring! They won't fucking cancel Cathy and Garfield, and they aren't funny!"

All that is true, and all that is a lie.

I'm not a fan of the syndication system. I think it's a relic of a different era, and I think that era has ended. I think we're moving into a new era, not just in newspapers but in all media, where art can flourish and grow and extend without needing the gatekeepers we once did. Distribution is getting too simple. Print on demand is getting increasingly economic. Micropayments are getting closer to reality. The world is changing, and the syndicates are trying to change while holding onto their turf, and that's causing trouble.

But quite honestly, I don't blame the syndicates for what's happening to the newspaper page. I don't blame them at all. I think that, when you consider they're a business making business decisions, the situation we've found ourselves in was inevitable. And I know one of the major reasons it happened, and I know the people responsible.

And their names are Breathed, Watterson, and Larson.

Let's pause for a moment, and give people a chance to blink, reread that, and begin to get mad. While we do that, let's also puncture a myth. It's felt by many -- especially cartoonists who have been rejected by the syndicates -- that the funny pages have no room for controversy, for violence, for sex, or for honest humor in today's world. To those people, it's all Garfield, Beetle Bailey, The Wizard of Id, Peanuts reruns, Nancy and fucking Cathy. The damn Syndicates won't let any real humor or art or controversy on the page any more.


There are strips with rampant gunplay and death, violence, terrorism, buckets of sex, racism, sexism, gays and lesbians, political and cultural commentary and bellylaughs, all to be found. There's Mister Boffo and The Fusco Brothers and Doonesbury and The Boondocks and Zippy the Pinhead and motherfucking Annie and Dick Tracy and Non Sequitur and Overboard and all the rest. The Syndicates aren't afraid of quality, or humor, or controversy. That's not what this is about. That's not what the problem is.

Comic strips, since at least the twenties, have been chock full of iconic creators. Segar. George Herriman. Chester Gould. Alex Raymond. Chic Young. Al Capp. Charles Schultz. Walt Kelly. Garry Trudeau. And many, many others. These were giants. Their strips were adored. Their presence or absence could make or break a newspaper as competing papers fought for the fickle public.

And the syndicates made a lot of money off of them. They merchandised and published collections and licensed the strips to Hell and back. There were Popeye lamps. There were Blondie movies (I used to watch them afternoons on WLBZ back in Maine -- they weren't bad, for 50's fluff). There were enough pieces of crap with Schmoos on them to fill a collector's basement to the door. And, while the cartoonists weren't particularly happy with the arrangement (I remember an Al Capp penned "Li'l Abner" where a cartoonist has a Syndicate head break his door down in the middle of the night, and demand immediate changes before the next morning, regardless of the public's desire or the cartoonist's desire. "Yessir," the cartoonist said, terrified. "After all, you own the strip. I just created it and have drawn it all my life."

But even that didn't capture the true heart of the problem -- that mythical syndicate head wanted changes in Fearless Fosdick because he didn't like the content, even though the public did. And while that's certainly not unknown in Comic Strip History, it's always been more about the comic strip as product that's driven syndicate decisions. It's not that controversy would offend the editors and publishers -- it's that the public might stop buying newspapers, or newspapers might stop running the strip. It was a business decision.

And honestly, it didn't lead to the collapse of the art form. Peanuts, Pogo, Li'l Abner, Doonesbury and all the rest were still great. There are ways they may even have been better -- unrestrained creativity is unedited creativity, and unedited creativity leads to self indulgence. We all know the pain of seeing some writer or artist we love become "too big to edit" or "too big to direct." It's not that they become bad -- it's that they could be better and they're not.

And so, we get to the eighties. And ultimately, we get to the latest three comic strip superstars. Berkeley Breathed, Bill Watterson, and Gary Larson. And they launched just slightly after a couple of other cartoonists you may have heard of: Jim Davis and Cathy Guisewite. Remember those names -- we will be coming back to them.

Bloom County and The Far Side first appeared in 1980. Calvin and Hobbes first appeared in 1985. It's pretty safe to say these three strips would be the most popular strips of their time. Certainly, they're the three strips mentioned again and again and again by current cartoonists and webcartoonists as seminal influences -- only Peanuts gets as many mentions by the current generation, with a few students of history to round things out.

That wasn't the only thing the three strips had in common, however. Not only were they of an age... they were written and drawn by a pack of troublemakers. Breathed and Watterson were champions of creator control for opposite reasons (Breathed enthusiastically played the merchandising game, and wanted to guide those efforts, while Watterson endlessly fought to keep Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised in any way) but with similar goals -- both were vocal opponents of shrinking art space for comic strips, and both eventually were able to make demands in that area. Larson was less contentious but the most likely to be censored, according to the published anthologies. (Breathed had more than a few brushes with his editors in that regard, of course.) Larson was clearly most interested in drawing what he wanted to draw -- though he was happy enough to be merchandised. Both Larson and Watterson took long sabbaticals during their strips' runs. Breathed, on the other hand, reached a point where his disputes with his syndicate and with the grind of six strips and a sunday were too much and jumped from the Washington Post Writer's Group to Universal Press Syndicate, a mostly new cast of characters and Sundays only with Outland. (Of course, as WPWG's contracts with Breathed ran out, his characters sidled over from Bloom County to Outland along with.) Watterson demanded and got a concession for more room on Sundays -- half the page would be his, no compromises, if Calvin and Hobbes ran -- and began bringing Herrimanesque layouts and imagination to the page.

Now, let's look at the list of the ways our heroes caused trouble: they demanded rights over their creation and its merchandising. They demanded space and creative control. They demanded their own forms of artistic creativity and integrity. If you think I'm coming out against any of these things, you're nuts. They took a stand and they held firm, and they were popular enough that they got their own way. Sure, the syndicates might not have made all the money they wanted (especially from Calvin and Hobbes), but they were still making more money from these properties than from their others, and they wanted that to continue.

But it didn't continue, did it?

Let's stop and consider the giant comic strips. Peanuts went on decades. As did L'il Abner. Annie and Dick Tracy and Popeye have been in newspapers since the 20's through the 40's. And even second tier strips (comparatively) like Blondie and Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois and Nancy and all the rest bring in money over a very, very long term -- owned by the syndicates, with new people coming it to replace retirees, they represent investments with tremendous return. The merchandising might not be the bonanza Bloom County or the Far Side represented, but it's there and bringing in money. In short, these strips are all good for business, and more to the point they're good for business over a very, very long time.

Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, on the other hand, were excellent for business... but honestly didn't last that long. Especially when one remembers the sabbaticals (where reruns took place -- and Larson's syndicate actually took criticism because they charged the same price for the reruns of the Far Side as they did for new strips) and the jumping from one syndicate to another. By the mid-nineties, they'd all ended. The shift from Bloom County to Outland had slowed the Breathed property merchandising up a lot, so there wasn't much left to continue. The Far Side kept merchandising for a long time, though when they put out their Last Ever Desk Calendar a couple of years back, I remember seeing it and thinking "they're still making those?" instead of being sad. And of course, Calvin and Hobbes doesn't bring in any kind of money except for print collections, and hasn't since the last, memorable strip.

Now, if our three troublemakers -- pushing boundaries, advocating for creative and artistic rights, demanding space and time to recharge, creatively -- had stuck the course... some real positive things could have happened. They could have demanded change across the board, not just for themselves but for all creators. They could have used their clout with the papers for the art form as a whole. Or, at the very least, they could have continued to advocate and draw in readers and inspire new generations of artist. But they didn't. Bloom County went nine years, Outland went five more. Calvin and Hobbes went ten years if we ignore the sabbaticals. The Far Side went the longest at sixteen. Which frankly is nothing compared to most of the strips on the comics page. The old school ethic was if your strip remained popular, you kept doing it. And for that matter, when you retired or died, someone else picked it up for you. (Even Peanuts, which ended when Schultz retired -- though as it worked out he died the day of the last strip's publication -- was a situation where the syndicate announced their decision to run reruns after Schultz's death instead of having someone else pick it up. And if you look at their web site, the copyright notice isn't for Schultz's estate. Instead, it's: PEANUTS 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.)

So. You have three very very popular but troublesome creators, who captured the public's imagination... but made a lot of demands, and then left comparatively quickly.

Now, let's look at Garfield and Cathy.

Garfield is inoffensive. It's designed to be. Jim Davis didn't develop it out of a sense of art or humor... he developed it as a marketing plan, finding an underrepresented pet -- cats -- on the comics page and developing a strip that would be highly accessible, unchallenging, and appealing to a broad demographic. Which is more or less how he presented it to United Features Syndicate in 1978, and they agreed. He managed to secure an early deal with the syndicate over merchandising, which was very friendly to both Davis (and his "Paws, Inc.") and United Features. And he designed it, very calculatingly, to have broad appeal -- no topical humor, no country or regional based humor, a simple, clean art style, and simple, easily grasped characters. And they have never strayed from this. Garfield is lazy and likes to eat. Jon is unlucky in love and is a dork. Odie drools and is stupid. Nermal is cute and annoying. Also, lasagna.

They have sold millions of copies of dozens of different books -- getting on the New York Times best sellers list several times. They have sold posters and signs and car suction cup things. They got a (pretty damn good) cartoon series and a (no idea if good or bad) movie made. Hell, when I walk down the hall past one of the Foreign Language classrooms, there's a Garfield on the door with his hands extended wide and "I love you thiiiiis much" written under it in Spanish. In fact, Bloom County's Bill the Cat was wholly created to be a parody of Garfield's merchandising and commercial intent. That Bill went on to make Breathed and his syndicate buttloads of merchandising dollars has been lost on no one.

No one who has a webcomic claims to have been inspired by Garfield. But we've all read it. People who've never heard of the Boondocks or even For Better or For Worse know Garfield. And Garfield continues to rake in oodles of cash. It's been successful enough that Davis started a second strip -- U.S. Acres -- and successfully merchandised it, though it wasn't as universal and faded out. And later, he was contracted to do Mister Potatohead for the good people at Hasbro.

Which underscores just what kind of operation Garfield is. It fits perfectly in the syndicate model, because drawn or not, funny or not, it's a commodity. It's content, and it never causes controversy and Davis never demands more space or time off (in fact, he doesn't draw the strip any more). It's a brand. And it sells. Well. And it's not going anywhere.

Move over to Cathy. Who's actually the longest running strip of the five we're profiling here -- it started in 1976. Cathy isn't the marketing bonanza that Garfield is but it's solid in that arena (and has an Emmy award winning cartoon in its past). Now, Cathy Guisewite isn't trying to create a marketing machine, the way Jim Davis was. She truly wanted to be a cartoonist, to draw her semiautobiographical comic strip about the overweight insecure woman and her travails.

(Note to the people who followed the snarks over the last few days. I mentioned wanting to see a female protagonist who wasn't a size six? Hi, this is Cathy. Have you met her? She's insecure about being seen in a bathing suit. No, she's not who I had in mind either when I said that, but if we ignore her, we're doing a disservice to ourselves, to the art form and to our argument.)

Most of all... Cathy has been consistent. Guisewite doesn't cause controversy. She doesn't make waves. She doesn't cause outrage. She just produces, day in and day out. And she's recognizable, instantly. She's a brand. And papers run her happily. She's safe, she's a known quantity, and there's a sense that if they dropped her, there would be letters. They're right, too. I don't know who'd write them, but there would be letters.

Now, there's something that needs to be said here. Jim Davis is, from all reports, a very nice man. Well spoken, cheerful, unashamed, and downright pleasant. And Cathy Guisewite loves cartooning. It's her life. I saw her once on the Tonight Show -- she was clearly nervous, but cheerful... and everything she was asked she related back to the comic strip. She's not ashamed of it. She doesn't think it's mediocre. She's proud of Cathy. She's proud of what she's managed to do as a female cartoonist. She's proud of the inroads she's made and her place in cartoonist history. And who the fuck are we to say she shouldn't be.

But in terms of the art form... almost all webcartoonists, cartoonists and creators of our generation look back to the three rebels -- Larson, Watterson and Breathed -- and want to be like them. They want to take up their causes. They want to make a difference and emancipate the comics page.

But look at this from the syndicates and their point of view. What do you want in your syndicate? The three monster huge strips, two of which had merchandising bonanzas, but with cantankerous creators who punched out after ten or fifteen years... or the solid, dependable strips that don't cause trouble and that keep moving along 25-30 years later, bringing in fees and merchandising dollars all the while?

If you look at the 90's instead of the 80's, there's really only one cartoonist who hit that same "iconic" status as Breathed, Watterson and Larson: Scott Adams. And let's be blunt -- Dilbert owes a Hell of a lot to Garfield. It found a receptive niche -- the disgruntled workplace -- and it leveraged and merchandised the Hell out of that niche. It's settled in for the long haul. It gathers strips from its readers (which is a convenient way to avoid needing those sabbaticals to recharge, isn't it?) and it's allowed the almost surreal, whimsical and anarchic humor of its early days -- Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light; Bob the Dinosaur -- to be wholly replaced with "gosh, managers are stupid boobs, aren't they? Boy, aren't human resources directors evil?" jokes.

Go to the Dilbert website. Check out the bottom: Dilbert 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. Look familiar?

One of the few people to really challenge the Syndicates from within since the Rebel Heroes left was Frank Cho. And he ultimately left, too constrained by editors and structures. For the most part, whether some of the strips are wild and controversial or not, the comics page is now made up of sound, long term investments. Investments the syndicates are pretty sure will be here thirty years from now. And strips that have already been here for thirty years. Strips where the creators don't cause too much trouble -- they might fight for a plotline, or to reach their own niche. The Boondocks isn't out there to pander, and For Better and For Worse wasn't afraid to out a long standing character as gay or kill the family dog. But Johnston and McGruder aren't exactly demanding half a sunday page to themselves, are they?

No, the Syndicates have learned their lesson. When Scott Kurtz was approached by a syndicate, he wanted to retain rights -- merchandising, online distribution, the comic book deal with Image -- but the syndicate said "no." This was a proven quantity that would work on the funny pages. The syndicate knew it -- this was low risk stuff for them. But they learned their lesson: either they wanted the whole enchilada, or they'd go somewhere else for Mexican. They learned that from Larson, Watterson and Breathed.

So yeah. I give full respect to Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County. Hell, I fucking revere those strips. I love what they managed to do. I love the artistry of them. I love the humor of them. I think they're signs of brilliance. And I think we're reaping the artistic benefit of their inspiration today. I really do.

But when you look at the newspaper page, and feel like something's missing... remember those fantastic strips that blew into town, made a lot of demands, caused a lot of trouble, and then blew back out of town. This is part of their legacy too. And the sooner we all recognize that, the better our efforts to retake newspaper comics from the safe and marketable will be.

I told you I was in a bad mood.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


No one who has a webcomic claims to have been inspired by Garfield.

Well, actually... http://brunothebandit.com/conangar.html

...I stand corrected....

Bah, Alun beat me to it. I also suspect that Silly Cone V's bug-eyed faces were somewhat inspired by Garfield, but I might be wrong.

Anyway. Nice, provocative article. No doubt it will have a record-setting comment thread by the time I get out of bed tomorrow morning:) Thanks!

I think that may be backwards. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that the sequence was unknown cartoonists Breathed, Larson, and Watterson went to the syndicates with these big demands, and the syndicates, knowing that these new strips would be monster hits agreed, but after they punched out a decade later rethought and now won't offer new creators sweet deals because they'd rather run a new Geech or Pearls Before Swine than have another monster hit with a demanding creator. So it's not a matter of these creators poisoning the well for those that came after, it's that those that came after--encouraged by the success of those three--are thinking they can get the perks that the superstars got before they demonstrate that they can pull in the readers the superstars did. I suspect that if PvP were already as big as Calvin and Hobbes became then Kurtz would have been able to strike the deal he wanted. The fact that he couldn't doesn't necessarily indicate that the big three changed anything, for the better or the worse, in how syndicates treat new talent.

Actually, at least some of the battles were fought from day one on -- like Watterson's strict anti-merchandising stance, for the obvious example. They wanted to do tee shirts (and then plush Hobbes dolls) as soon as the strip started gaining traction -- certainly before it got to be even as big as PvP is right now.

No, PvP isn't at Bloom County levels (nothing could be, these days). But it is far more solid and far less risky than almost any other property they could pick up right now. So yeah, I think if there had been an analogous situation in 1979 or 1980, they'd have been a lot more likely to deal. These days, they know what they're willing to give up and what they're not willing to give up.

I certainly don't count Garfield as one of my inspirations but there's no doubt that I was influenced by the work of Jim Davis. I remember it being a mark of pride for me, in the sixth grade, that I could manufacture a reasonable facsimile of Garfield on paper without tracing. But yeah, Garfield is not something I appeal to when I need to bolster my faith in the medium.

While I sometimes wish I could open the newspaper and read more Calvin and Hobbes, I cherish the fact that Watterson made as much as he did. To be honest, I didn't need 50 years of Peanuts to get my full enjoyment out of it although 50 years of For better or for worse would/will? be one hell of an epic.

During Keenspot's SDCC panel, the panelists were asked their influences -- I was surprised when five of the seven mentioned Garfield. And it wasn't "Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and... well, I guess Garfield's in there, too." Those that mentioned Garfield seemed to cite that strip before any other, if they mentioned any other strip.

The other two panelists loathed Garfield.

Also, go back to the Liberty Meadows example. Liberty Meadows had excellent demographics. It was one of those strips that honest to god got young men to buy newspapers. (Never underestimate the power of boffo humor and 40's pin up girls in 90's fashion.) But the syndicates tried to keep Cho on a very short leash, and when Liberty Meadows grew to the point where he felt he didn't need them any more... he left. It just wasn't worth it to him to keep fighting.

(I think Liberty Meadows leaving the comics page -- specifically over content battles with the syndicate -- is directly corrolated to the 1995-6 departure of the Rebel Three. If they'd stuck it out and kept fighting, Cho would have had an easier time fighting his own battles.)

While I sometimes wish I could open the newspaper and read more Calvin and Hobbes, I cherish the fact that Watterson made as much as he did. To be honest, I didn't need 50 years of Peanuts to get my full enjoyment out of it although 50 years of For better or for worse would/will? be one hell of an epic.

"Would," sadly. Johnston has already stated her plans to retire, and to my knowledge her syndicate isn't planning to continue the strip without her.

I should make one point very, very clear. I do not fault Watterson, Larson and Breathed for doing the things they did, fighting the battles they fought, or leaving when they left. I respect them. I respect their decisions.

However, those decisions had consequences -- including consequences for the newspaper comics page in their wake. We honor the Rebel Three for their artistic gifts and their integrity. The syndicates, on the other hand, make their decisions based on business, not art. And here we are today.

During Keenspot's SDCC panel, the panelists were asked their influences -- I was surprised when five of the seven mentioned Garfield. And it wasn't "Bloom County, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and... well, I guess Garfield's in there, too." Those that mentioned Garfield seemed to cite that strip before any other, if they mentioned any other strip.

Heh. Shows what I know.

Fortunately, that was a throwaway comment about Garfield, not central to the thesis. Because clearly, I'm dead wrong about that.

Had me worried there for a second. I'm reading the beginning of the snark and I was wondering if you were off your damn rocker, starting to give what looked like a harangue against Breathed, Watterson, and Larson.

In the end, I suppose that maybe it was, not directly, but in a way, commenting on their dropping out of the business so to speak(well, Breathed's back with 'Opus' which has finally brought back Steve Dallas, though sadly no Hodge Podge or Portnoy yet) causing trouble for the next wave of cartoonists.

I'll be the first to admit that I've already lost my train of though, having gotten the idea to dig out a couple of old collections of 'Bloom County' strips, so I'll make this quick and say that you've definitely put forth a great explanation as to why we see some of the strips we'd rather not anymore and it's a damn good point.

Wow, hot article. I'm not sure I fully agree with it, but you make some strong arguments. It certainly bears thinking about.

As for Garfield, I had to stop and think and, damnit, you're right - at least for one webcomic artist. :-) I loved Garfield as a kid, I bought the first 4 collections (the early large format ones, not the modern half-sized books), and I read and reread them and laughed my head off.

But thinking about it, it didn't inspire me to make comics. The comics I drew at high school were inspired by Mad magazine, mostly. And today my biggest influences are...

Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. Heck, I even have Jane Goodall as a character! :-)

So you definitely dinged a bell somewhere in this reader's mnid.

"You know what? Fuck the syndicates."

That sums up my opinion pretty well. But then, I've always been more of a Breathedist than a Davisite.

No arguments here. From, well, anyone.

But then again, my audience isn't (typically) shooting for newspapers these days. I feel badly for T. and Mlle. Lagace, though.

Oh, and Breathed's return I honestly don't think changes any of my thesis. Beyond the... well, general non-event Opus has been so far, it goes without saying a Syndicate would take him on under any set of conditions he set right now. The same with Watterson and Larson. They were and are superstars of the field, and can pretty much write their own ticket.

It's the rest of the page that's the issue, now. And the manner of their tenure and departure has had an impact on that page, and on the new generations coming in.

I got this one from Mark Evanier's news from me weblog. Mark, BTW, is the writer of, amoung other things, the Groo the Wanderer comic books and ... the Garfield and Friends cartoon show. Probably not fully relevant to the topic at hand, but I thought this entry was rather interesting. I'll say more after you've followed the links.

Back? Good. Okay, the thing I found interesting about the list is that of the books that made the list, most of those by currently living writers (at least in the earlier portions of the list) are cartoonists. Once again, I doubt this has any relevance to the topic at hand, but with all the talk of Garfield, how could I not work in a link to that?

[quote]The world is changing, and the syndicates are trying to change while holding onto their turf, and that's causing trouble.[/quote]

The question I would ask is, are they really? Trying to change that is. And I honestly mean that as a question, what have they done to try to adjust to the harsh reality of smaller sales of newspapers.

[quote]But quite honestly, I don't blame the syndicates for what's happening to the newspaper page. I don't blame them at all. I think that, when you consider they're a business making business decisions, the situation we've found ourselves in was inevitable. And I know one of the major reasons it happened, and I know the people responsible. [/quote]

I feel that I do not agree with you on this (or perhaps I've simply misunderstood). As far as I can see Larson, Breathed and Watterson were anomalies, true they were anomalies active at the same time, but anomalies none the less. I'm not sure I can see that they made any actual difference on the operation of the syndicates modus operandi.

So how come that you still feel that they are partially responsible? Is it because they have inspired lots of creators to try to hold on to their intellectual property? There seems to be quite a few that are willing to part with it in order to get syndicated.

Hot damn... one hell of a snark. And it just reeks of truth.

I can attest that I wasn't inspired by Garfield... I enjoyed the books when I was a kid, (let's be honest, back then, they were actually funny. When you thought "hey, maybe this can go somewhere". Then, 20 years later, you realize Garfield is the same cat he was back then. Maybe a little more shallow.) but the original inspiration to get me into this stuff was Watterson. Not his ideals - hell, I was 10. I didn't know squat about syndicates or merchandising or any of that crap. But his comic was always funny. You never felt like he was just coasting along.

But this is a prime example of why I have NO interest in EVER pursuing syndication in newspapers. Ever. I know for a fact I couldn't live with the restraints, and I don't have the balls to want to stand up and demand that kind of stuff. That, and frankly, my comic has a fairly limited appeal, but ignore that part. I'm not saying what the newspapers are doing is bad - not by any means. The newspapers are doing the same thing they've done for a hundred years, and if people want to sign up and join that ride, more power to 'em. I'll still turn to the funny pages and read them every day, but I'm not going to try and get syndicated and then change the way they work. That's not how business operates, and any business that's been working this way for a century has a right to do it their way.

All very interesting, but unless you've actually spoken directly to some of these cartoonists, and to some of the folks who work for the syndicates, it's all conjecture, and nothing more. And like someone else stated, Watterson, Larson and Breathed were probably just anomolies. In fact, as much as I love Watterson's work, and respect what he was fighting for, maybe he was just in it for himself. Because yeah, he wasn't able to make those changes for other cartoonists. But who knows what really went on behind the boardroom doors? Nobody. Just because Lynn Johnston hasn't demanded a larger space in the papers doesn't mean she couldn't get it; she is one of the top selling cartoonists out there right now; in over 2,000 papers. I have read that Schulz could have demanded more space, but thought that it would not have been fair to other cartoonists, who would have been shafted, and been stuck with less space. Maybe some of the 'superstar' cartoonists these days just have class. They know the limitations of the newspapers, and they want what is best for everyone. Unless you are a syndicated cartoonist yourself, and/or a member of the National Cartoonist Society, you are talking out of your ass. Which is one aspect of some of these forums that focus on syndicated cartoons that I find so very, very annoying.

Mlle Storms: no comment on your thesis or opinion (other than I acknowledge it), but I should comment on this:

Unless you are a syndicated cartoonist yourself, and/or a member of the National Cartoonist Society, you are talking out of your ass.

Quite honestly, that's just plain wrong. An informed observer can present an informed opinion, conjecture though it may be. It's the same spurious argument that eventually boils down to "only Charles Dickens is qualified to interpret Charles Dickens," or "only President Bush's inner circle is in a position to criticize his decisions."

That's just not true. You're right that this is commentary and opinion, not history. The idea that only NCS members are capable of forming informed opinions or rendering relevant commentary just doesn't fly.

Which certainly doesn't mean you have to agree with my commentary. On the other hand, if you find op/ed pieces annoying... why exactly are you here? That's pretty much all I do.

Really, I wasn't trying to say that "Opus" in any way nullified the snark, just that Breathed is working again.

In all honesty, when I firt heard that Breathed was going to start doing "Opus" my initial thoughts were, "How sad, he's going back to the well again." And to be honest, I still feel that way having read most of the "Opus" strips now. They lack the wit and bite that "Bloom County" had. It seems like a soft, rose-colored look back at "Bloom County" in a way. About the only joy that I've gotten out of the strip that approached anywhere near what old "Bloom County" strips gave me was seeing the return of Steve Dallas and the fact that Breathed included the continuity of him having 'come out' in the last "Bloom County" strip.

Of course, now I'm merely rambling...

Interesting article. Not sure I agree that the syndicates are blameless though. Sure their just trying to make money, but that's exactly the problem.

Although Watterson, Larson and Breathed may have had some effect on the syndicates in refusing other artists it is still the syndicates emphasis on business that causes the problem. The problem I have with the large comic syndicates is the same problem I have with the movie and music industry. Business should not be prioritised over art. If an artist wishes to make money thats fine. If an artists ultimate goal is to make money that is not. Art, any art, should be about creation and not about profit. When an organization like the syndicates are created and art becomes a business, it becomes a priority to appeal to the masses. This means removing confusing and offensive messages. This results in the dumbing down and cheapening that is so common in the funny sections today.

This problem isn't really anything new, but it's become a large issue as of late because of the internet. There is now a way for cartoonists to have access to large numbers of people without working through the syndicates. Now the people can choose from a larger selection. Audiences are smaller then a successful syndicated comic would have, but a larger amount of talented cartoonists now have access to the public.

Bottom line is that art and business can mix, but the moment that business becomes a priority, the art suffers.

And I do like some of the stuff that you talk about, for sure. Which is why I read your posts.

It's just the subject of syndication that gets my back up, I guess, because it's something that one really has to either experience, or know someone in the field, to truly comment on it with any real authority. Otherwise, one encounters countless blogs and forums of misinformend people who believe that they are an expert in this profession.

But it's my fault for commenting; I promised I wouldn't get caught up in this conversation anymore. Sorry.

Brandon -- I completely agree. But then, I'm in this racket because I love sequential art as art. Obviously, an organization that's in it for profit/loss isn't going to see eye to eye with me on it.

I don't know that "blame" is the point. Breathed, Larson and Watterson didn't do anything wrong -- they made choices and they took stands on principle. And chose to walk away rather than let their cartoons suffer. Those are not bad things. At all.

The Syndicates, on the other hand, are in this to make money. It's what they do. And so they're making decisions on what brings money in, and what will continue to bring money in over the long haul. In fact, for publicly traded organizations, that's a legal requirement. The SEC will investigate decisions that hurt stockholders' investments.

The world is changing. More and more, illustrators and cartoonists are able to find their audience and distribute their art without newspapers or syndicates. In the end, that's going to be very good for the art side of sequential art.

In the short term... well, I stand by my thesis above. ;)

Mlle. Storms -- never, ever feel you have to apologize for commenting. So you and I disagree on something. Good enough. I post and state opinions. It goes without saying I'll be disagreed with by folks.

You came back with a comment that put my back up as much as my syndication post put yours up, is all. I hope I didn't overreact or cause offense in my reaction.

The thing is though, Brandon, is that I don't think the comics in the newspaper, or movies made by large studios ARE art. They use the same medium as art, but their INTENT is to make money. Sure, they try to entertain people along the way, but that serves only to ensure that they will be able to CONTINUE making money. If it was "art", money wouldn't be an issue. These cartoonists would be making their art for free, and this subject wouldn't even come up. Art's intent is to stand up and make a statement... perhaps the reality is that Breathed, Larson, and Watterson WERE artists... the newspaper just isn't a place for art. I should note that I am COMPLETELY talking out of my ass. I'm hardly qualified to comment on the intent of real cartoonists.

And as for the web, sure... you can do what you want without limitations. Say what you want. But the sacrifice you make is readers. Even the largest webcomics - PA, PVP, etc.. their daily readership is hardly a fraction of the exposure newspaper comics get. Sure, it's more targeted (people come to YOUR site to read YOUR comic, rather than just skimming over a bunch of comics on a page) but it's almost a guarantee that while you can move to the web to get your stuff out, you're going to be taking a huge dive in your readership.

Bottom line is, you can't define what is and isn't good for art. The people doing syndicated comics are probably pretty damned happy to be able to draw for a living, even if they have boundaries they have to respect. I'm happy to have comics to read, so what's so bad about that?

Greg -- after six years and hundreds and hundreds of strips, I think I'd take exception to any suggestion you weren't a "real cartoonist."

If you knew me well enough to know how I operate, you'd think differently. :D But still, thanks. :)

I don't get easily offended, Eric. But I do get my back up at a lot of things!

This conversation can go on until eternity. And it is interesting. I certainly concur with Mr. Greg Dean. Make no mistake, comics in the syndication world are a business. It's a commercial product. Always has been. They were created to sell newspapers. Things are different now, but they still do that; they still sell newspapers. They are a commercial product, yes, but if you are lucky enough to have that job of being a syndicated cartoonist, maybe you can (if you are able) to do more than just tell a gag. That's what cartoonists like George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Al Capp, Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson did. But even if all you do is tell funny gags for a living, without adding any 'deep meaning' there is nothing wrong with that, either. To get paid to do this, is a wonderful, wonderful thing (I'm not syndicated, but I do sell cartoons). If you want to do something that's just for 'art sake' then don't get into cartooning. And make no mistake, even those 'deep, profoud graphic novels' are there to make money too.

You know what I would love to see you do on this site? I'd love for you to have a guest cartoonist; one who is actually syndicated, who could talk about his/her feelings towards the business, to give a more balanced perspective.

Off the soapbox now. Back to the studio.

"In the short term... well, I stand by my thesis above. ;)"

Which seems to be, basically, that the syndicates are rejecting creative, innovative strips in favour of predictable pablum, but it's not their fault.

That Watterson, Larson and Breathed caused all of this by daring to fight to keep their work their own, then retiring when they felt that the well had run dry, but it's also not their fault.

That the syndicates do what they do because it's the most profitable, despite the fact that their actions are causing them to become increasingly irrevelant and, if left on their current course, will cause the syndicates themselves to become unprofitable, but somehow what they're doing still makes "good business sense."

Sorry, I just don't get it. You had me and you lost me.

" I should note that I am COMPLETELY talking out of my ass. I'm hardly qualified to comment on the intent of real cartoonists."

You aren't a real cartoonist? Could have fooled me. Or are you refering to syndicated cartoonist?


I guess I have trouble coming to terms with the idea that as soon as a comic artist starts caring more about business and less about the art itself, that it ceases to be art. This feels to me like the artist (ex-artist?) is conning his or her readers by appealing to the masses. Perhaps that is what's going on, it's just hard for me to accept it.

It's not a con. I think there's a difference between being an "Artist" and an "Entertainer". It's all in the intent. Artists do what they do because they have a statement to make, or to share a feeling, etc. Essentially, artists want to contribute to society, regardless of the income. Entertainers create as more of a service. You PAY to see a movie, or a newspaper, etc. You get content you want, they get money, it's an even trade. Artists sometimes get paid to do art, but it's not the driving GOAL of an artist.

The debate over what is and isn't art could probably go on forever, but the main point is that just because they are paid to do a job, doesn't make the product any worse. Magazine writers are paid to write articles, but that doesn't make the articles any less provocative and enlightening. Sure, there are bad columnists, but they're not bad because the newspaper or magazine makes them bad, they're bad in and of themselves. The same is true with cartoonists.

orry, I just don't get it. You had me and you lost me.

Would you believe you're the first person to ever quote that back to me? Seriously. I figured that would happen day six or so.

And "it's not their fault" isn't the point. The essential conflict is one between creator's rights and artistic integrity on one side, and investment and profit potential on the other.

The syndicates are often rejecting creative, innovative strips in favor of predictable pablum, yes. But they don't always and so clearly they don't have to. The point, as was stated in the snark, isn't "we're not taking creative, innovative stuff here." They are. Honestly.

However, their guiding principle at this point is "what is going to bring us the maximum long term profit?"

Watterson, Larson and Breathed were a major factor in one of the causes of the current situation, yes. They actively advocated for creator's rights, for more room on the page, for lowered censorship and greater artistic freedom. And to a degree (a large degree, in fact), they got it. And then they walked.

Watterson is the clearest example. He went on two sabbaticals, coming back each time with new demands. These demands were done for the most artistic of reasons and for the least commercial of reasons. And the syndicates backed him. They culminated in the "half-page Sunday" stipulation. This was a major event -- and could have been a major victory for syndicated cartoonists and for fans of newspaper comics -- it was a step towards the return to a larger, richer, more dynamic comic page. His syndicate had to anger editors and newspaper publishers to push it. And it meant at least one other strip got dropped to make room. These were not minor things. These had real impact.

Within one year, Watterson had announced his retirement. There were damaged relationships Universal Press Syndicate had to repair as a result, and comparatively little return on that investment. Right here, we had a clear artistic demand made for reasons we can all get behind, that turned into bad business for the syndicate.

Does that make the battle Watterson fought wrong? No. No it doesn't. But by winning the battle and then retiring so quickly, he sent a message that making artistic concessions didn't pay off. So yeah, I do think there's responsibility there, even if I understand the reasons he walked away.

So it is with all three of the Rebels. They did what they felt is right, and I support that... but they also bear some responsibility for the comics page they left behind and the Syndicate's choices that followed.

GARFIELD is what made me want to draw a comic strip.

And when GARFIELD & FRIENDS debuted on September 17, 1988 (two days after my birthday, making it sort of a bonus birthday because I loved GARFIELD so much) on CBS Saturday morning, that made me want to draw a comic strip that gets turned into an animated series.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was BLOOM COUNTY that made me want to merchandise the hell out of a comic strip.

With this solid expression of support for Garfield as an inspiration, I have to ask... where the Hell are the Cathy fans! Cathy's needing some love here too, you know! Ack! Ack ack ack!

I think the cathy demographic is just learning how to use a computer...

*slinks back into hole*

"I think the cathy demographic is just learning how to use a computer..."

^ haha! That was just about the most hilarious thing I've read all day. I, too, really dislike Cathy.

Anyways, I wonder if perhaps the article is placing too much blame on the syndicates? It's the newspapers who are doing the buying, after all.

Every so often, newspapers want to mix up their comics pages and run new comics. They usually run a few extras and they ask their readers to vote on which comics to pick up for good. Inevitably, the stupid predictable comics get chosen over the really creative ones.

I remember, for example, in my city when Liberty Meadows ran briefly in the paper before readers rejected it in favour of another seventeen thousand years of Hagaar.

If newspapers bought the truly creative comics, then syndicates would be forced to find more of those. Sadly, too many papers are afraid of offending people.

I remember the paper in my city (a liberal city on the west coast of canada) printing a warning before the For Better Or Worse Lawrence storyline, for example.

And I'm sure many papers in the States dropped the comic altogether because of that storyline.

One really creative comic that no one has mentioned is Monty (formerly Robotman). That comic is simply WIRED (http://www.comics.com/comics/monty/) and I hope that will never change.

Anyways, I'm new to the board (and to the website, and fairly new to webcomic drawing). So, hello!

You know what I would love to see you do on this site? I'd love for you to have a guest cartoonist; one who is actually syndicated, who could talk about his/her feelings towards the business, to give a more balanced perspective.

I argue against this being needed, for the same reason that I would argue against there being a need to devote part of a movie critic's column space to letting directors, writers, actors, etc., state their piece.

This is Eric's space to comment on and critique webcomics - if a cartoonist wants to comment on what Eric writes, let them respond in the comments section like the rest of us.

I hate to bring up the Garfield thing yet again, but I really should note that the reason 5 of the 7 people at the Keenspot panel admitted to Garfield being an inspiration was probably due to the fact that we were all 8 years old when we read that comic.
A more accurate statement would be "No one who has a webcomic claims to have been inspired by Garfield RECENTLY." =3

The other two panelists loathed Garfield.

One of them was me! ME! AHAHAHAHHAHA!

Snoopy is where it's AT, man. Peanuts forever!

You know, rampant and inappropriate commercialism is embarassing - nobody needs Garfield to be shilling foreign language lessons - but Calvin and Hobbes? It was *about* a stuffed tiger. Where is the harm in selling an actual stuffed tiger? It seems like a no-brainer to me.

SuperHappy -- well, no one except apparently Ian McDonald. On the other hand, if Garfield did feature exhortations to Crom and the cutting off of heads, I'd probably have it in the daily trawl.

Oh, and Chris Crosby, which is wild, because Superosity is kind of the anti-Garfield. It's incredibly creative, often topical, and for my money a thousand times funnier.

joenotcharles -- for Watterson, it seems there would be something cheapening in the act of taking Calvin's stuffed tiger -- which after all was a very small plushie, apparently well worn, often in need of sewing and repair, but invested with the fullness of his imagination into his tall, wise friend -- and selling real life knockoffs to people. First off, do you make the knockoffs look like the way Calvin saw Hobbes, or the way Hobbes looked to everyone else? Or sell two? Secondly, are you inviting buyers to have their own imaginations take flight, or asking them to pretend they're Calvin?

Now, I would have bought one of these things. (It would look good next to my Yuppie Opus Plushie. Which no, you can't have, damn it.) But I can understand why Watterson didn't want to sell them. For Watterson, the art was the thing, and that's all he wanted the strip to be about.

Forget alla that.

Hey Eric, are you old enough to remeber "The Great Money Movie" with that Eddy Driscol guy and the puppet?

I'm from Nova Scotia...

Heh -- I just started a conversation elsewhere on Eddie Driscoll. Yes, I grew up with Eddie and the Great Money Movie (and that puppet and the weird costumes and all the rest).

When WLBZ recently announced that Eddie was suffering from Alzheimers, I guess there was a decent little outpouring of support from Maine... but the Maritimes went nuts with cards and letters. They estimate that before the Canadian Cable system really took off, Eddie Driscoll's audience was in the millions.

Don't feel bad for us, Eric. We just think that we should explore every possible avenue available to us -- syndication is just one of them. I know it's not for everyone... but for some, it's worth a shot. My life won't end if I don't get syndicated - I know there are many other ways to make a strip profitable. I just never tried syndication and I think Penny and Aggie is worth a shot. Believe me when I tell you that syndication is not everything for us.

As for Garfield, well... I'm with Chris Crosby on this.

Okay, confession time.

Garfield -did- inspire me to do the first writing I ever did for the sheer joy of creation.

Yes, I was about eight or so.

No, none of it survives, and damn good thing too.

Yes, it involved major trademark and copyright violations.

Today, Garfield does not inspire per se, but it does have a few useful lessons to teach.

(1) Even if you're doing a theme or story across several strips, each and every strip/page must have its own little punch.

(2) If you're doing a multi-page or multi-strip story, keep it short and keep it focused. Readers coming in blind shouldn't have to go back two years to find the beginning of the current storyline, or else they should be able to pick up in midstream.

(3) Intellectual humor and character interaction are nice, but readers laugh just as hard at familiar, cheap gags. Don't ignore the low road.

(4) Clean, consistent art sells.

One lesson I'd prefer to leave behind, could I afford to:

(5) Never fail to get someone else to do all the work for you. }:-{D

And one final note of confession. (pardon me while I dig through boxes and bookshelves)

... here it is, a battered, worn, copy of "Garfield: his Nine Lives." The second life- which was NOT used when they made the TV special- was about Garfield the Orange, pet of a group of Vikings brought to the 20th Century the Captain America way- frozen in an iceberg that somehow navigated itself up the St. Laurence Seaway. (Don't ask.)

I mention it for one panel, one measly panel, when the Mystic Power of the frozen petrified weasel Booga recalls the assimilated Vikings back to their roots. In this particular panel, the stereotypical Valkyrie type Helga, who had become a hard-nosed middle manager, stares down as, among other things, the power of Booga causes her bosom to pop the buttons from her business shirt.

That was my first exposure to a concept which I couldn't get away from now even if I wanted to... and I have Jim Davis (who wrote the story) and Mike Fentz (who co-wrote and illustrated) to thank for it.

I -am- shame.

That Garfield 'Nine Lives' book is killer. I still have it and it still rocks!

I've lost most of my love for Garfield but (like most) loved him as a kid. In 3rd grade I could draw a flawless Garfield from memory...

This was a fantastic post. I love the funnies, and I love analyzing them like you did. But even though you mentioned Trudeau, I think you neglected the fact that he's a big-name troublemaker -- almost zero merchandizing aside from the books, and wasn't he the FIRST cartoonist to take a sabbatical? -- but he's ALSO a long-term moneymaker. He's been around since the 60's, and he'll most likely keep at it until he retires or dies. To me, he's the model most cartoonists should try to live up to. (He's not my favorite cartoonist ever -- that would still be Schulz -- but business-wise, for the newbies, he's probably the guy to imitate.)

Also, even though syndicates are still the owners of most strips, there are an awful lot of newer strips that are coyrighted by the creators, too. It's slow, but things are changing, hopefully for the better.

"When WLBZ recently announced that Eddie was suffering from Alzheimers, I guess there was a decent little outpouring of support from Maine... but the Maritimes went nuts with cards and letters. They estimate that before the Canadian Cable system really took off, Eddie Driscoll's audience was in the millions."

That sucks.

Yeah, Eddy was pretty much our link to the big sexy world that was the American entertainment industry.

Berni Roscetti from PBS did the same for us with the BBC and Dr. Who.

SuperHappy -- well, no one except apparently Ian McDonald. On the other hand, if Garfield did feature exhortations to Crom and the cutting off of heads, I'd probably have it in the daily trawl.


Actually, if you're going to come into comics through practice working with another comic, a relatively bland one is probably the best start. Ian does say that it was a somewhat warped Garfield, and, although i doubt we'd ever see them, I have a suspicion that by the time Ian stopped woorking with them his "Garfield" was something far different, more creative, and far more hilarious than anything actually written in the proper canon....

William G -- Bernie's still at PBS all these years later. I don't know if he still does "Dear Box 86" any more or not, though.

Sadly, WLBZ doesn't do nearly as much home grown entertainment these days, or so I'm led to understand. It's not the same kind of world where local TV stations needed to provide big chunks of daily entertainment for their viewers. Syndication has consumed these things. There's no sign of anything like the Great Money Movie on their schedule any more.

Mlle. Storms -- I agree. That's an excellent article, and I second the recommendation. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

My pleasure. Tom Spurgeon is very well-informed in the world of comics, and I feel that he has written a very well-informed, and balanced perspective, without any of the emotions that you see coming from both sides of this ongoing debate.

I highly recommend his blog.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)