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Right War, Wrong Front: Initial Thoughts on Newspaper Strips Vs. Strip-style Webcomix
posted December 13, 2004
 

As on-line strips grow in popularity, there are rumblings of a sprawling, several-fronts feud between the makers of on-line strips and the businesses supporting traditional newspaper comics. You can read about it in articles like this one, or you can see a more oblique version of this rhetoric at work through analyses of "what's wrong with comic strips" from sources like Websnark.com. It's probably one of the most popular underlying issues in the non-comic book part of comics, with the same currency right now in those areas of endeavor as the effect of manga had in comic book circles a year ago. I need to examine the issue more closely, and get past my own preconceptions, but here are a few of my original thoughts on the matter.

It's worth noting that the rhetorical heat may far exceed the fire of actual business at stake. The passion fueling these arguments probably comes from two places. First, newspaper strips have one of the toughest entrance thresholds of any entertainment arena, certainly the toughest in comics. One half of one-tenth of one percent of submissions make it to the point they are offered for newspapers; two-thirds of those fail within a year. When alternatives start to present themselves that are much less daunting and offer a chance to do strips for a living based on different criteria than what goes into a well-launched comic strip, it's bound to result in a little chest-swelling and talk from the newly empowered artists. Who doesn't support the way of doing art that may affordsyou a living? And because the success of on-line comics has been largely fan driven, and I mean that in a good way, you have the passion of the fans entering into these arguments as well, usually on the on-line side.

The second reason these arguments may be overheated is because the newspaper strip business is in an interesting, turbulent time right now. While comic strip hits are still being made, largely from new talent, they aren't generally huge, huge success stories. The wider issue of newspaper circulation shrinkage is even more important. Fewer newspapers generally equals fewer slots for strips. In addition, newspaper readership has now shrunk past supporting two-paper markets in most major cities, the absence of competition making for a massive change in the way strips are positioned. Cost concerns have begun to make doubters out of many big papers about tcomics in general, or at least not afraid to question their price tag. Someone can correct me if Iā€™m wrong, but I don't think the money offered on a paper-by-paper basis has changed by much in years and years. Times are tough all over.

Most of the arguments made by on-line strip people and fans have little to do with more than a strong belief in self. The most frequent offense is the assumption a popular on-line strip or group of same would be able to replicate its/their success in the newspapers simply given a chance. Like it or not, drawing an on-line audience is very different than supporting an audience through a newspaper. It's the difference between Lewis Black doing five minutes on The Daily Show and Dave Barry taking five minutes of your time in 1500 Sunday newspapers. Securing an audience from a worldwide sample is not building a coalition of local fans.

Another misstatement I frequently is casting the argument between webcomix and newspaper strips in terms of an imbalance in creators' rights or as a corrective for a close-minded sensibility. As far as I know, it's up to the cartoonist whether they or the syndicates own a strip -- it's largely a non-issue now. There are a lot of creator-owned strips out there, and they don't operate any differently. Syndicates do have their rates and rights, and it's arguable whether those polices are always fair, but it's obviously still profitable enough for some people for webcartoonists not to adopt moral superiority as a given. I also think it's bad to assume that there's a large audience out there for crudity or even adult humor. I like Frank Cho and respect his talent, and have had my own run-ins with syndicate editors, but it's dangerous to rewrite the history of his attempt to syndicate Liberty Meadows as a romantic struggle by a lone cartoonist against censorious syndicate people and their small-minded newspaper clients that independent-minded on-line cartoonists must now keep in mind. Liberty Meadows had passionate fans, but it wasn't 1973 Doonesbury. It wasn't even as popular as Fox Trot. There's nothing to be gained by holding it up as something the newspapers did wrong, some opportunity they missed. Different comics have different markets, and different media exist to best reach certain markets. On-line cartoonists might be better off realizing they've created a wonderful new way of potentially making a living and gathering a market and recognize that they're not automatically a corrective for other ways of doing business.

That's the thing about even the most enormously successful on-line strips: they've built themselves in an entirely different fashion than most newspaper strips. Most benefit greatly from being able to cast their nets worldwide, to bring more members of a certain niche than exist in any one town and to do so through a technology that many of those niche dwellers are likely to make use of. Comics as group draw readers to a paper, and may affect the choice between one paper or another in some few cases where that's still a factor, but I can't think of anyone who really believes that significant numbers of people have become newspaper readers through the appeal of a single comic or a smattering of them since the heyday of Milton Caniff. And that was before these supposed rabid fans had a chance to seek a feature out on-line and bypass the newspaper altogether.

Also, you have to remember that in many cases a specific skill set is called for that simply doesn't need to exist in on-line arenas. Many of the best on-line comics benefit from an immersion in the content and a resulting passion for the characters that newspaper comic strips can't count on at all. I imagine that's what King Features Editor Jay Kennedy means when he says he's never seen a single comic strip on-line that he'd syndicate ā€“ it's not that they all suck, it's they don't need to have the chops to make a joke work by itself for a wide audience day after day after day until the other features of the strip seep in. And thus the vast, vast, vast majority of on-line strips haven't developed those skills.

So comics strips and on-line comics really don't fight in terms of potential models for newspaper publication. What's ironic is that when they fight at all it's in the opposite direction. On-line media has baffled print media people since its early 90s rise, newspaper syndicates included. It sounds dumb to say it out loud, but Internet comics got on-line first, some with subscription models that fans used to seeing their newspaper strips free in the paper largely won't go for (not yet), and others with various free models that have made it hard for the syndicates to position themselves on-line in the most effective way possible. The notion of free content as advertising or publicity (intentional or not, "getting the word out" is the default motivation for free content offering) works only as long as there are other ways to make money with this earned publicity. Yet the syndicates are seeing one such avenue slowly diminish (print publication) and another they're probably not set up to do in a way that's profitable for most of their cartoonists (licensing) all by itself.

My guess is that the move of certain on-line strips into print arenas ā€“ individuals offering their strips for free, on-line syndicates putting together print comics sections -- will continue to be noted in much greater significance than they actually have in terms of impact on the bottom line of the strip business. I really don't see any strips breaking out into hundreds of papers that way unless they were to secure an independent contract with one of the strip distribution companies like the syndicates have and could guarantee publishable content (in other words, by being even more bland than what's in the paper now). I would really be surprised if there are 100 editors who would be willing to undergo the potential headache of a free agent for the sake of having a popular strip that may or may not match the audience love for Get Fuzzy or Pearls Before Swine. Where the fight gets interesting is if all print media companies move on-line in a more serious ad revenue way in the next decade. Can the traditional syndicates find models to make money that pays the cartoonists and themselves at the levels they're accustomed to? I don't see many forward thinkers in terms of on-line formatting and publication models being hired by syndicates right now, and maybe I should. On-line strips and newspaper strips are different enough they don't compete in print, not really; if they're forced to exist in the same on-line world as it looks they might with more at stake in years to come, those distinctions will have to be reinforced, and made to extend to the chosen business models. That's a fight that will be worth talking about. If I were an on-line cartoonist I'd use the print syndicates for what they are and seek to fortify my own way of doing business, because very, very soon, you'll have a lot more company.

*****
Eric A. Burns of Websnark.com wrote in to disagree with the implications of citing his article in this essay; his letter appears here.