Romancing the Strip

By | Tuesday, December 13, 2022 1 comment
I'm fairly certain Bob Kane never touched this Batman strip.
There seems to be little concern when new/different creators take over a comic book. The changes are noted, certainly, and someone always declares the outgoing team to be the best ever and completely irreplaceable and someone else always declares the incoming team to be the best ever and will make for a game-changing comic but, by and large, there's generally not a lot concern from within fandom about the shift. The attitude is certainly understandable with corporate-owned comics, but I've seen this on creator-owned work as well. Even books that seem at first uniquely tied to the creator's particular style, like Mike Mignola's Hellboy, have never really experienced upset when someone else steps in.

But people seem to have this romantic notion that that shouldn't happen on comic strips. That the creator who originated the strip should be the only one who touches it. Or, at the very most, if a creator is approaching retirement age, it's kind of okay if someone else in her/his family picks up the strip. Although, even then, it seems questionable. I recall more than a few "they should retire this" commentaries when Johnny Hart died and his grandsons took over B.C. -- even though they'd been helping on it for years prior anyway. I believe there was some upset when Jeff Keane took over Family Circus from his father years ago as well.

I can't help but wonder how that came about. It's actually a long-standing tradition that comic strip creators can/do get replaced. Lee Falk turned over art duties on Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom to Phil Davis and Ray Moore respectively, both within weeks of launching those strips in the mid-1930s; Harold Knerr took over The Katzenjammer Kids from Rudolph Dirks in 1914; and William Randolph Hearst put a string of artists -- including Winsor McCay! -- on Buster Brown after Richard Outcault left in 1906! And conversely, the expectation in comic books was that the creator stayed on the book indefinitely. John Romita initially assumed they would cancel Fantastic Four and Thor when Jack Kirby left Marvel; artists hid their personal illustration style under C.C.Beck's when they drew Captain Marvel; and Bob Kane was contiuned to be creditted with art duties on all Batman stories for years after he'd actually drawn anything.

We've actually got comic strips with switching creators dating back over a century, and the assumption that a comic book creator would stay on their own strip going on at least 50 years after that. So why/how did that seem to switch? When did it become fine when a comic book creator stepped in on an existing property, but a comic strip creator could not? Was any of that influenced by creators such as Bill Watterson, Gary Larson and Charles Schulz not allowing anyone else to work on their strips? I can understand a "relaxing" of sorts on what's considered acceptable versus not, but these both seem like complete reversals, which is what strikes me as most odd. Anyone have any ideas?
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Ted Dawson said...

Oh, boy, I just wrote way too much of a response to this. This topic could fill a book. It's a very interesting question and article, and I hadn't really thought about it that way before.

I'll do some severe editing here....

I have more experience on the strip side. Until fairly recently, the syndicate owned the copyright and kept the right to replace you. A cartoonist's best chance was to make it to the end of the 10-year contract and renegotiate.

The first cartoonist I know of who escaped the cycle was Milt Caniff, leaving Terry and the Pirates and starting Steve Canyon with ownership. But who else could do that? A lot of what has kept many cartoonists on their strip was their popularity, which gave them a certain amount of power.

I was lucky to have the first comic strip attorney, and he helped me negotiate the horrible boilerplate contract. I retained the copyright ownership, rights revert back to me, and while I couldn't be "fired," the syndicate could hire someone if I was physically unable to do the work.

One of the problems through all this is that it's every cartoonist for themself. Collective bargaining is illegal, so the publisher/syndicate always has the power.

With comics books, it's hard to imagine a time when human beings ran things. I suspect that basic things determined if a creator stayed on a title; if it was selling, if they got along with publisher, met deadlines, got paid fairly, liked doing it enough to stay on it, and whether the character got popular enough where one person couldn't do it all.

Should a comic book or strip 'die' with the creators? If we're talking about Art, then Yes, because it ceases to be Art after the creators are gone. It's just a product.