Sunday Mailbag

May 10th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

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!

Comments

  1. Nate says:

    Great post. It’s such a big can of worms to decifer what is considered a “real” comic these days (in terms of being in the professional arena). I agree with you about how there are a lot of amature web comics that any Joe-Schmo (doesn’t particulary have to be a Joe) can put a comic stip online – and it’s not anything worthy of print publication. I’ve seen many good webcomics out there though, and it’s an arena I am progressing more toward than even getting my work into printed markets.

    In some retrospect, I think web cartoonist DO have to pay their dues – because it takes a LOT of readers and loyal fans if they ever expect to make a living online selling merchandise. However, it takes a while to develop that, but building up to that point – it’s possible (to make a living).

    It’ll be interesting to see how everything evolves out of the print medium and into online markets.

  2. Chip says:

    I’m an old school pen/ink/marker artist.
    I’ve been drawing professionally for 30 years and personally I’ve had lots of problems trying to understand,create,color digitally which is the future.

    I can’t even color in a basic B/W theme park caricature in photo shop because understanding the technological terminology,layers? computer color values,opacities,etc. is frustrating and takes hours til I just turn off the computer .
    Brutal.
    I admire guys like Tom and Joe Bluhm who create digitally like its second nature to them.

    My point is for older artists like me-its harder to embrace the web comic age after for years doing it old school.
    Todays generation learns how to draw digitally before it even draws with pencil and paper.

  3. Mike says:

    Sure there are bad webcomics out there – and, oddly enough, hardly anybody reads them. The good ones get audiences, the bad ones don’t. The webcomics that update regularly, on schedule, get readers, the ones that don’t, don’t.

    Ultimately, the income from syndicated comics comes from advertising and book, t-shirt and coffe-mug sales, just as with webcomics, it’s just hidden from the cartoonist because the syndicate does all that. Most print cartoons are basically given away free with the newspaper – how many people do you know who buy a newspaper primarily for the comics?

    So cut out the syndicate middleman, and you end up giving the content away from free, and making your money from advertising and selling stuff yourself. The more you do yourself, the bigger percentage of the money you get to keep, and the fewer sales you need to make to get by.

    I think what a lot of the print cartoonists don’t seem to see is that the syndicate model is going to *die*, and there will simply not be a plug-in replacement that does exactly what a syndicate does. And it’s entirely possible that *nothing* will replace it – each individual is going to have to do the things that the syndicate does for them now.

    I am beginning to think that there is room for someone who will do all the business, web and sales stuff for a cartoonist who simply wants to draw and get paid. Something like what Robert Khoo does for Penny Arcade.

    • Tom says:

      Ultimately, the income from syndicated comics comes from advertising and book, t-shirt and coffee-mug sales, just as with webcomics, it’s just hidden from the cartoonist because the syndicate does all that.

      I do not believe that is correct. Newspapers pay the syndicate a fee to run each cartoon. The fee is based on circulation. The artist gets paid a percentage of the fees paid by the newspapers, usually 50%. A strip running in about 400 newspapers earns the artist well over six figures just for the strip running in the paper. Major strips run in well over 1,000 papers, and the revenues for these newspapers is what drives syndicate profits. Books are a decent revenue earner but merchandise sales are only substantial for the big strips like Peanuts. The other angle is rights to TV and film adaptations, and possibly for advertising.

  4. Mark Hill says:

    You’re correct to dispute that assertion, Tom. While I was under contract with King Features and Tribune Media, I learned quickly that the majority of comic creators do not earn anything from merchandising. Only the biggest features, (those with recognizable characters tied to licensing), sell much of it — sometimes reaching many millions of dollars in added annual revenue. There’s a steep drop-off after those comic features. And no, it is not hidden from the cartoonists as was stated above…any merchandise sales are reported in detail on a monthly statement.

    The majority of income for most successful syndicated comic strips comes directly from newspaper revenue. If anyone thinks that newspaper readers don’t list comics as a primary reason for buying a paper, (as your wife Anna does), ask a newspaper publisher or editor. Or, try being a Features editor at a paper that drops one of those strips. They are usually inundated with hundreds of angry emails and phone calls.

    Your numbers are about right regarding income levels from varying numbers of subscribing newspapers, (400, 1000, etc.) Of course that depends greatly upon how many major daily papers you have vs. smaller papers. One large paper can pay you several thousands of dollars a year, while a small paper will pay you less than a hundred…one can do the math with a large number of either type.

    The only thing I’d add to this whole “can o’ worms” is that most print cartoonists have a web presence now, and certainly see the wisdom of increasing it as time goes on. It’s just that most of them still derive enough income from newspapers to make it more than worth it to continue floating a fishing line in that particular lake. It is still stocked with over 1,000 hungry fish, despite the fact that the population is decreasing. (Sorry about the metaphor…the worms got me going.)

  5. […] what does the inimitable Tom Richmond think about print comics vs. webcomics? Are print comics better? What future is there for […]

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