Death of the Funny Pages IRL

By | Tuesday, July 28, 2020 Leave a Comment
I apparently missed the initial announcement last month, but Stone Soup cartoonist Jan Eliot is officially retired as of this past Sunday when the last strip ran.

final Stone Soup strip

By my count, that makes five nationally syndicated comic strips that have been ended by their creators in 2020. I noted Terri Libenson's The Pajama Diaries and Peter Guren's Ask Shagg ended back in January, and Norm Feuti's Retail ended in February. And I missed previously that Bob Weber, Sr. retired Moose and Molly back in April. Stone Soup has been Sundays-only since 2015, when Eliot opted to cut back in order to travel more, and she mentioned travelling again (once the pandemic allows for it) in her retirement announcement. She's 70 years old now -- she was 45 when she first got syndicated -- and that seems like a good way to spend your time!

Five strips in half a year, though -- that seems like it's pretty significant. What's interesting, too, is that you can't really asterisk this away like so many other things in 2020. You can't just add a footnote like you have to with the Olympics to say, "The 2020 Olympics were moved to 2021 due to a COVID-19 pandemic." You can't even just broadly blame 2020 as a shit year. Two of the strips ended within the first week of the year, and Feuti announced his departure only a couple weeks after that; clearly all the decision making happened much earlier. Feuti and Libenson both quit to work on children's books -- presumably because it pays better; they both had multiple such books under their belts before they left their respective strips. Eliot is definitely viewing this as retirement and, while Guren and Weber haven't made any formal statements that I'm aware of, I believe they both left in order to retire as well. (Weber is 86 and I think Guren is in his mid-60s.)

I'm fairly confident this stems from a combination of newspapers doing worse, and syndicates not adapting to changes in the landscape. More than a few cartoonists have noted declining incomes in recent years because of a combination of those two issues. I suspect we'll continue to see this trend of strips just ending increase, and I wouldn't be surprised to see at least another two or three strips finish up by year's end. Mike Peters (Mother Goose & Grimm) is 77; Greg Evans (Luann) is 73, as is Tom Batiuk (Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft); Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) is 72; Brooke McEldowney (9 Chickweed Lane) is 68; Jerry Scott (Zits and Baby Blues) is 65; Kevin Fagan (Drabble) and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts) are both 64... I'm not saying any of these folks should retire, but I suspect many of them are starting to make calculations about how much money they're making doing comics relative to how much effort they're putting into them. And that's not even considering the younger folks who might also be looking at children's or YA books like Liebenson and Feuti.

I expect syndicates are looking at this and blaming newspapers. Newspapers don't care to respond because they've got bigger problems and besides, most readers seem fine with reruns of Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes anyway. But while newspapers are indeed part of the problem, how the syndicates have responded, I think, is a bigger cause. Or, rather, how the syndicates haven't responded. They seem to be largely relying on the same business model they've used for a hundred years. That's been a problem for at least two decades now, and I expect it -- like many other things -- has been exasperated by the economic depression we're in. I don't see syndicates going away -- they're still syndicating those re-run strips after all -- until the newspaper business dries up entirely. But I can't imagine being either a newspaper cartoonist or someone working at one of the syndicates and not being in a near-blind panic about your job right now.
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