On Strips: Hints at the Landscape to Come?

By | Friday, December 09, 2016 Leave a Comment
GoComics.com is the digital home of many well-known newspaper comic strips. Which makes sense since the site is owned by Universal Uclick, which is the syndicate that has the distribution rights for Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, The Boondocks, Doonesbury, Cathy, Cul de Sac, Ziggy, The Far Side, Peanuts, and many others. And in early 2017, they'll be launching a completely revised version of their site.

The new site (a beta of which is available for viewing) has a radically different design and page layout. It's clearly designed to be more responsive (i.e. it works equally well on desktop and mobile devices) and it's generally more graphic-driven than text-driven. The current design, as near as I can verify, dates to the first half of 2009, after the iPhone had launched the smart phone deluge but just before everyone (seemingly) had one. So that the old site didn't work especially well on cell phones is understandable, and that type of update makes sense given the increasing usage of cell phones and tablets for online browsing.

Two other noteworthy changes are the use of genre pages and automatic recommendations, and the addition of several social media buttons for sharing, pinning, tagging, etc. All of these updates, again, make sense given how the web itself, not to mention how people use it, has changed since 2009.

Here's the thing that strikes me as interesting here, though. These are all exactly the type of decisions you would make if you were a sort of online collective of comics. Like LINE Webtoons or SpiderForest. I suspect the only real difference is that GoComics has a little more money to throw behind things than some players. (I'm not privy to the finances of any of these folks, but I should probably point out that LINE Webtoons, while new in the US, has a very robust base in Korea; they might even have more money to throw at this than Universal Uclick does.)

This all suggests that Universal Uclick is putting more money into their digital strategy.

Step back a moment and let that sink in.

A syndicate that caters to newspapers is putting more money into a strategy that bypasses the newspapers to directly target the readers.

Now, does this mean you won't be able to read Garfield when you pick up your local paper any more? Probably not. But it does mean that they're recognizing that their old financial model is simply unsustainable, and pivoting to a more direct-to-the-reader mode will ultimately be more successful. Although it's a different type of change, it will kind of feel, I expect, like how Marvel stopped being a comics publisher around 2000 and changed to a "character-based entertainment company" which "utilizes its character franchises in entertainment, licensing and publishing." That is, Marvel still publishes comics, but to them and much of the world, that's almost incidental to the movies and toys and t-shirts and everything else. Likewise, I think Universal Uclick will continue to send their comics to newspapers, but that will be incidental to promoting their characters in licensing opportunities. This is reinforced by their own About page: "Universal Uclick provides editorial development, licensing and other distribution services for iconic brands like Doonesbury, Dear Abby, Miss Manners and some of the most significant comics in history..."

In other words, Universal Uclick is in exactly the same business as Marvel. Syndicates and publishers are gone. It's all about licensing. Given the relative accessibility of printing your own books and print-on-demand, this is almost where it has to go in order for these larger companies to survive. Universal Uclick had been acting as a middleman between cartoonists and newspapers, and newspapers were acting as a middleman between syndicates and readers. In an age where the readers can have direct access to the cartoonists, why bother with the middlemen? So their role has to move away from distribution and more towards a service cartoonists would have more difficulty in handling themselves: the legal crap surrounding licensing. That syndicates continue to syndicate comics is merely a vestigial operation.

I expect they'll try to remain in the middleman game as long as they can, but at some point, creators will stop seeing any benefits to syndication and rely on them only for their contract negotiation services. And at that point, the question I would have is -- what difference is there between a syndicated 'newspaper' cartoonist and a webcomiker?
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