Newspaper Strips Kill Comics Industry

By | Tuesday, December 18, 2007 Leave a Comment
Dick Hyacinth dropped a few thoughts into the electronic ether yesterday, and I thought I'd go ahead and follow up/expand on them. The next couple of days' worth of posts here will be my responses to his points. (Of course, what Dick doesn't know is that I have a tendency to kill a topic by simply responding to it in any capacity, so I'll actually be ruining his experiment.) On to Dick's first topic...

"Newspaper strips set back the comics industry/medium 50 years."

Dick's main point here seems to be that newspaper comics, with their small and rigidly defined format, have had a dramatic impact on people's perception of comic books as the two are inextrictably linked by the medium of sequential art.

Well, let's look at the history of the two here for a minute first. Newspaper comic strips came first by at least three decades, and the first comic books were nothing more than reprints of some of those strips. In fact, the size of comic books was originally defined by just dividing a standard piece of newsprint twice more than you would for a newspaper. (For those who don't know, those old comics were about 30% larger than today's.) And when More Fun Comics came about a little later, it's original content wasn't terribly clever or well-executed, especially when compared against, say, the masterful work of Windsor McCay's Little Nemo or E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre.

Indeed, newspaper strips far outweighed comic books with regard to their level of quality for many years. While comic books did have the originality of Superman and Batman, comic strips were drawn by such notable talents as Hal Foster, Lee Falk, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond, etc. The newspaper strip, having been around longer, had more prestige and had already developed as lucrative outlet, both creatively and financially, for sequential artists. The larger format (many comics took up an entire newspaper page by themselves) allowed for greater detail and format flexibility. Comic books were the bastard child of comic strips at the outset, with their smaller format and often lower print standards relegating only those hack artists who weren't good enough to draw a newspaper strip to the pages of comic books. Indeed, the original Superman story was written and drawn as a comic strip, and careful study shows much of the first story has been cut and pasted together to fit the comic book format.

The comic strip indeed continued as the more respected outlet at least through the 1960s. Evidence of this can be seen in many forms. Despite some cartoonists like Walt Kelly being called to testify at the Kefauver hearings in the 1950s, comic strips were largely given a pass in lieu of the significant "problems" that were found in comic books. Many of the "great" comic strip artists like Foster and Caniff stopped working in the 1960s and 1970s. Will Eisner designed his seminal creation, The Spirit, as a newspaper comic strip. Jack Kirby, seeking to graduate beyond comic books, continued to actively pursue a syndicated newspaper strip as late as 1961 and only then gave up because of a painful legal battle over his Sky Masters strip.

The notion of comic books being the primary goal of sequential artists didn't really arise until the late 1960s/early 1970s, when artists like Neal Adams began really pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished artistically. Writers, too, began to see the potential and we see a proliferation of graphic novels, as well as the actual coining of that term. Underground comic creators like Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb began experimenting with new themes. Simultaneously, newspapers began clamping down on comic strip formats, trying to define the structure and content of the strips more uniformly. I don't think it's coincidental that a comic book collector market began emerging around the time that we stop seeing really great newspaper strips.

The problem we run into here, though, is that people's memories tend to linger. People who spent years growing up on great comic strips and lousy comic books continued to see the two art forms in that light, despite the change that was taking place. So it would take another decade or so for people to look up and see things like Watchmen and Maus, and see that Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey really weren't funny any more.

Our next real convergence of the comic strips and comic books comes in the 1990s, when businesses really began to see them as outlets for licensable properties over a result in and of themselves. So we see a proliferation of Garfield and Opus stuffed animals, poorly written animated cartoons with even lousier animation, foil-stamped holographic die-cut cut comic book covers, and character names and likenesses showing up on just about every product imaginable. In both cases, the stories themselves took a back-seat to marketing and the quality of both suffered -- although comic strip quality had declined considerably already so it didn't have as far to fall at that point.

The 21st century has seen a continuation of that marketing emphasis; however, there seems to be some recognition that marketing without quality material behind it is not worth much. So today, we have some legitimately good material, both in terms of comic books and comic strips. What isn't as good, I feel, isn't from a lack of good intentions; but from simply misguided judgment, a lack of true talent, or a series of unforseeable external factors hampering the quality of the end product. In the case of superhero comics, I think there's actually some good talent there and some quality product, but what it comes down to is, I believe, misguided judgments from various parties, resulting in overall themes and directions that I don't personally care for.

Of course, what I consider "misguided" is really "misguided if they're aiming for me as a member of their audience" and I don't know that's necessarily the case. They could very well be hitting exactly where their target market is, and I just happen to no longer be a part of that demographic. Indeed, that may well be a lot of what's happening as many of the comic fans I've seen complain about the current state of superhero books are ones who are passing into their 30s now, and starting to age beyond what marvel and DC want as their readership.

Ultimately, though, the history of newspaper comics and comic books shows pretty concretely that they're generally treated by the lay public as two distinct animals, and whatever public opinion may be held of one has little to no bearing on the public opinion of the other.
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