Newspaper Strip Artists From 2004

By | Saturday, October 29, 2011 Leave a Comment
I came across a copy of Hogan's Alley from a few years ago and it contained an interview with four newspaper strip cartoonists who were all "in the early part of their careers." It struck me as odd at first, largely because I didn't initially realize the interview was conducted in 2004, and all four cartoonists are fairly well-established now. But in double-checking, it seems doubly odd since two of the four artists had actually been in national syndication for nearly a decade when the interview took place. The four folks in question were Dave Coverly (Speed Bump, 1994), Jef Mallett (Frazz, 2001), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine, 2000) and Hilary Price (Rhymes with Orange, 1995).

In any event, there were a few pieces that stood out for me in explaining the industry. More to the point, there was commentary by relative newcomers at a point when newspapers were on a noticeable downward slide, but few people had really acknowledged that yet. I think that it sheds light on A) the social rifts that occur even within the industry and B) the lack of any deep understanding about the internet by the industry at that time.

Price, speaking about cartooning veterans: "It seems like it was a much more insular community. Everyone lived in and around New York, and they went to people's offices, things like that. Now you can cartoon from anywhere. There used to be a real sense of community."

What he touches on here is essentially the same type of thing that's occurred between newspaper cartoonists and webcomic creators. The people who all came into their respective media at around the same time form a community of sorts based on a "we're sharing the same types of problems" attitude. It's clear throughout the interview, these four cartoonists get along well with each other, but there's most of a decade between them. But they all acknowledge that they're competing against Beetle Bailey and Blondie and Dennis the Menace and a bunch of "old guard" strips that aren't even being worked on by their original creators any more.

Pastis: "Editors say that older people threaten to cancel their subscriptions when they try to cancel these dinosaur strips, and I said to them that they're not going to cancel. Every town in this country is a one-paper town. There are like 10 two-paper markets. Where are they going to go? My generation, on the other hand, is not reading the paper like generations past. That's who papers should try to capture."

Interestingly, while they all note the advantages of using the internet to attract/maintain an audience -- Pastis freely acknowledging that his initial success was due in large part to United Features running Pearls on their site before actually syndicating to newspapers -- there is zero mention in any capacity of webcomics. There's no animosity shown towards them; it just seems like the notion of doing webcomics is so completely foreign to them that it's never even considered. As a point of reference, Penny Arcade had been running for six years at this point, and PvP was successful enough that Image had been publishing a print version of the comic for almost two years.

The issue seems to stem from two things. First, these people are cartoonists. Not technologists or futurists or sociologists or anything like that. Their job is primarily to draw funny comics every day, and there's no reason why they would know anything beyond that, unless they specifically took that up as another interest. Second, they all stepped into the cartooning world with the old newspaper syndication model firmly embedded in their heads. They've been told often enough and long enough that the only way to make a living drawing comic strips is how they've done it for the past century that they can't see any other way that it might work.

Coverly: "... no one has absolutely any idea where it's going to go or how anyone is going to make any money. It just seems like if people are reading it, they should be paying for it somehow." (He's actually referring here to posting newspaper strips online, not webcomics.)

That's trying to apply old business models to a new business. I don't know if Penny Arcade or PvP were entirely self-funding by 2004, but they certainly had that new model (giving the comics away for free) in place as something they were aiming for. I presume they were. Girl Genius dropped print comics in favor of web distribution at the end of 2004 and the Foglios were very candid about why they were doing it. So the notion that a webcomic creator could make a living doing that was not only around but proven in practice by 2004.

Don't get the wrong idea here. I like Coverly's, Mallett's, Pastis' and Price's work. I read all of their comics as they come out. But I read them for free online. Legally. But that they also seemed to display, at least in 2004, a complete ignorance of what their competition was speaks volumes to why there's a rift between them (not necessarily these four cartoonists specifically, but newspaper cartoonists in general) and webcomic creators, and why those who work in newspapers are still clueless as to why things aren't going so well for them these days.
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