Q: I’m just wondering if there are any particular syndicated strips that you are a fan of (past and present), what you think of their decline with the newspaper industry, and how you feel about the growth of web comics?
A: I was a huge fan of Bloom County back in the 80’s. That strip consistently made me laugh. I also liked Peanuts, B.C. and enjoyed many other strips as well. I also liked Calvin and Hobbes but that was popular right at the wrong time for me… it ran during my college years, my marriage, move to Atlanta and the births of three of my kids. I don’t even think we had a newspaper subscription all those years, so my C & H diet was sparse.
Today I like a lot of strips, my current favorites being Pearls Before Swine (and I’m not just saying that because I owe Pastis money) Zits, Baby Blues, Speed Bump and Lio. There are many others I enjoy but those are the first ones that come to mind. The Lovely Anna is the comic strip nut in the family. I get two papers so I can read how much the Minnesota Twins stink in two different sports sections, and she gets two sets of comics.
The best strips for me are the ones that combine great writing and great art. Cartoon strips are all about the writing… great writing and mediocre or even just passable art still equals a great strip. Bad writing and great art still make for a bad strip… great art cannot save bad writing, but great writing can survive bad art. When the two combine, like in Calvin and Hobbes and Zits, it’s magic.
Web comics…. that is a real can of worms in the cartooning world right now. The dynamic of the business of comic strips is changing as newspapers die off and the main source of mass consumption of news and entertainment gradually moves to the internet. In the newspaper/print cartoon strip business model, strips are chosen, promoted and sold to newspapers and publications by a “syndicate” like King Features or Universal Press. For the last 100 years cartoonists who “make it” have their strips chosen by third parties, i.e. comics editors, for syndication. There is a certain validation and accomplishment to that… so many people try out for strip syndication but few ever make it, and even fewer become a 500 to 1000 paper monster. Web comics cut out that independent party that decides if a comic is “good enough” to be syndicated (i.e. published). Anyone with a computer, internet connection and a web host can “publish” their comic strip on the web. Web cartoonists either don’t make any money from their work, or make money indirectly selling merchandise and printed collections to their readers. As far as I know, only Michael Jantze‘s The Norm is a subscription based web comic… and that one doesn’t really count as he was successful in syndication first before moving to the web.
There are lot’s of bitter and heated debates going on in cartooning forums about print vs. web cartooning. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call the two types “print cartoonists” and “web cartoonists”.
Many print cartoonists feel that web cartoonists aren’t legitimate professionals because they did not pay their dues by breaking in to a print medium that is notoriously difficult to get into. Some feel without an independent party (editor) to decide a strip is worthy of syndication, there is no validity to a claim of being a “professional” strip just because it’s on the internet. Some traditional cartoonists cite that no one actually pays to read these strips, but rather those few that actually make a living doing a web comic sell T-shirts and other stuff to a small (comparatively) but loyal following.
Some web cartoonists, on the other hand, accuse traditional cartoonists of clinging to a dying business model, and of not acknowledging the excellence of some web comics simply because they are not published in a newspaper. Many are unhappy because they feel that their genre of cartooning is not recognized by organizations like the National Cartoonists Society. They argue that the editors that pick the strips don’t know what’s good and what is not, citing what they consider to be terrible strips filling the comics pages, including moldy oldies that have not been funny or relevant for years. Some feel they are quite simply being snubbed and left out of the party.
I think each side has valid points and each side is also in the wrong on some points. It’s true that with no one to tell a cartoonist his or her strip is good or not, anything can get “published” and the majority of web comics out there are amateur work…. bad writing, bad art, bad execution, poor professionalism. However it’s not true that ALL web comics are like that. There are many I’ve seen that are as good as the best in the newspapers. It’s not true that syndicate editors don’t know the difference between a good and bad strip, although it might be more accurate to say they know the difference between a strip that will SELL and one that won’t. The “good and bad” of a syndicated strip is mainly in personal taste. Even a strip you might hate in the comics section is done with a level of professionalism that most web comics do not equal. A lot more goes into a strip than just a gag and some funny pictures… layout, storytelling, design, execution… these are all things that are of a professional level in syndicated strips. Syndicate editors make sure of this. Many web comics have good ideas and funny gags and even good art, but suffer from poor draftsmanship, layout, etc. Finally the idea that there are no worthwhile web comics is just plain wrong. There are some excellent ones out there, it’s just that there is no simple delivery system to find them as easy as a daily newspaper sitting on your doorstep in the morning.
My take on web comics is that while the web is definitely the future of comic strips, it’s still in its relative infancy. 95% of the web comics I’ve seen are amateur at best, and the best ones seem geared toward computer geeks and gamers, which makes sense as they are still the majority of those who spend their time on the web. I’m not their target audience, so few web comics appeal to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate and respect the good ones.
Eventually someone will figure out how to make real money with web cartoons, then you will see traditional cartoonists jump to the web and the competition will become much more fierce there. That won’t happen until the majority of consumers start getting their news and entertainment from the internet, but that day is coming one way or another. Eventually web comics will just be comics, but the delivery system will be different and the appeal of comics that make it on the web will have changed. There might be “editors” at central web portals that pick comics to run, or the marketplace may decide which ones are successful and which are not. Either way only comics with a strong mixture of commercial appeal, good content and concept and professional execution will be successful.
Thanks to Curtis Horsburgh for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!
725 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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