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A Brief Overview
posted October 10, 2004

Comics, Briefly

What is Comics?

People know comics when they see them, right? Something that is comics mixes cartoon art and the written word to make either a single picture or a series of pictures. Spider-Man and Family Circus, right?

Well, maybe. Perhaps more than any other art community, people close to the field of comics actively debate the definition of their medium. Many adhere to a verbal-visual blend theory given best expression by the cartoon historian R.C. Harvey: comics mix words and pictures. In recent years, a sequential art definition favored by cartoonist Scott McCloud has gained favor. In McCloud's view, comics are a series of pictures, with or without words, and the progression between the pictures is where the art takes place.

This debate is more likely to be crashed by some third party than ever resolved. The inexactness of the definition may have something to do with the fact comics has borrowed elements of visual art, the written word, music, and even film as it has grown. It may also be partly because its development was marked by decades (if not centuries) of stop and start progress that owed a great deal to parallel more established forms of expression. Whatever the reason, the result is that the term "comics" can encompass a wide variety of formats and formal

I appreciate the sloppiness of the definition, because it allows easier access for comics to encompass a wide variety of formats and formal alternatives. Popular forms and formats of comics include serial comic books, daily and weekly newspaper comic strips, graphic novels, the editorial cartoon, gag panels, web comics, and Japanese manga.

Comic Strips, Briefly

Newspaper comic strips appear in most daily and weekly print newspapers, and on-line at syndicate sites, newspaper sites, and some personal sites hosted by cartoonists.

Strips are created by artists and distributed through syndicates, of which there are three big ones (King Features, Universal, United Media) and a few smaller ones (including Creators, Tribune, and Washington Post Writers Group). Syndicates sell and then distribute the work to those who buy it. In exchange they generally split the monies received for the strip 50/50. The most popular comic strips stand to make a lot of ancillary money through film and television options, licensing, and book collections.

A standard strip contract runs for ten years with a five-year option; a tiny percentage of those who try get into the newspaper and last that long. A newspaper comic strip section usually offers up some startlingly old features (the stll-popular domestic comedy Blondie; Beetle Bailey) and some fresh-faced newer works like Mutts and The Boondocks. The most popular strips running as of Fall 2004 are Garfield, re-runs of Peanuts, Blondie, For Better or For Worse and Dilbert.

Many people still love newspaper strips, for reasons not the least of which is the fact they afford cartoonists a chance to make a very good living. Many believe that strips are generally better now than they were twenty years ago, yet perhaps not as good as they were in the 1920s through 1940s, the heyday of such popular features as Little Orphan Annie, Skippy, Terry and the Pirates, Thimble Theatre and Wash Tubbs. The number of top 50 strips in the last 50 years is paltry. A particularly unfavorable list might include only Peanuts, Pogo, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury and The Far Side as memorable strips of the last few decades.

Weekly Newspaper Strips, Briefly

Weekly newspaper strips are those that appear in a system of alternative weeklies, papers that cover local arts and politics in various regional-and-up North American cities. They have a proud tradition going back to the Village Voice and their inclusion of the comic strip Feiffer by Jules Feiffer. People who have worked in alt-weeklies to varying levels of acclaim include Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware and Tony Millionaire. Weekly newspaper strips are generally self-syndicated, and tend to start with a local paper as a primary sponsor.

Comic Books, Briefly

Comic books gained a foothold in the mid to late 1930s as a way to package popular strip reprints for sale on newsstands. With the emergence of Superman in 1938, original content became the prime mover within the field. Although many equate the comic book to superheroes, several genres have enjoyed sales success: crime, westerns, romance comics, funny animals, and horror among them. Except for a brief period in the 1970s when the wider culture's fascination with all things monsters put many such books back in the schedules of established comic book companies, superheroes have been largely dominant since that time.

There are several comic book publishers of different types in many cities throughout North America. Marvel and DC publish different "universes" or filled with superheroes (Marvel is Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America; DC is Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) where one character might conceivably interact with others published by the company. Other important publishers are Image, a superhero and fantasy publisher created by six Marvel comics artists in the early 1990s. Its comics include Savage Dragon and Spawn. Dark Horse, a company that came out of the independent genre comics boom of the 1980s, made a name for itself as a licensing tie-in and adventure comics house. They do the Star Wars comics and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Archie Comics join Marvel and DC as companies that survived from decades past to now -- they continue to publish the adventures of Riverdale High in a variety of digest and comic book formats, although at smaller circulation numbers than in decades past. Most of these companies manage licensed properties and pay their creators page rates with a chance for royalties.

An interesting subset of publisher is the alternative, independent or "arts" comics publisher, which is to the big companies what small independent film produces are to the major studios. Coming out of the taboo-busting tradition of counter-culture underground comix of the late 1960s and 1970s, these publisher produce comics in a wide variety of approaches that mirror the full range of movies and books one might find in multiplex and bookstore. These publishing companies work like small book companies, publishing original created by cartoonist authors who receive royalties. Important publishers of this type include Fantagraphics (Love and Rockets, Hate, The ACME Novelty Library), Drawn and Quarterly (Optic Nerve, Palooka-Ville), Highwater (Teratoid Heights) and Top Shelf (Blankets).

Although comics have recently made desperately headway into bookstore distribution, the primary source of business revenue for most comes from a series of independently owned comic book shops. The major comic book companied turned to the shops in the late 1970s and early 1980s when newsstand distribution began to shrink to dangerous levels. Comic book shops -- the number of which in the last 15 years has shrunk immensely and on the distribution level has consolidate to essentially one giant, Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. -- buy on a non-returnable basis in return for bigger discounts. This aided the art in comic books movement and small publishers by taking away the capital necessary to risk massive returns. Still, many argue the move to specialty shops and out of sight of most of North America has hastened comics' decline as a popular art form.

Editorial Cartoons, Briefly

Editorial cartoons are those commentary features that tend to appear on the op-ed page of a newspaper. They are currently shrinking from view as newspaper reading in the United States continues to decline. This has meant cutbacks at many papers, an overly sensitive policy when it comes to aggravating potential advertisers, and has also removed local competition from market where a cagey editorial cartoonist could provide a paper with a specific perceived edge. Editorial cartoons are an older newspaper tradition that has long been in danger of calcification, young cartoonists falling prey to making their work look like past masters rather than seeking their own styles. Editorial cartoonists have long been employees of sizable local newspapers, splitting their time between local and national issues. With syndication, and an increasing tendency for papers to cover items on the national agenda at the expense of polarizing local controversies, many newspapers have dropped their local editorial cartoons.

The great men of the field working right now include the Australian native Pat Oliphant, whose work appears in syndication and in special commissions to leading East Coast newspapers; Tom Toles, who replaced the late Herbert Block at the Washington Post, and Paul Conrad at the L.A. Times.

Gag Panels, Briefly

There was a time when gag panels had roughly the same place in our culture as television comedy writing: a kind of invisible running dialogue between funny, smart people and the rest of us that could be accessed at any time but remained largely disposable and anonymous. It is now a lost art relegated to expressions of retro nostalgia, pornography and a specialty magazine-driven market with the upscale The New Yorker a difficult to reach Shangri-la.

Gag panel cartoonists are different than editorial cartoonists in the variety of styles offered and an approach that features a more generalized humor or general satire over specific points and targets. Gag panel cartoonists generally work as freelancers selling individual cartoons to various publications, which may require a great deal of touch-up and re-doing in order to full an editor's needs. Some of the great practitioners of the field include Virgil Partch, Peter Arno, James Thurber and Abner Dean. Except for the tight-knit community of artists that serve the needs of The New Yorker, there are really no prominent gag panel men currently working. Some talents that could have been first rate had they lived 50 years ago, such as Sam Henderson or Ivan Brunetti, work primarily in comic books.

Web Comics, Briefly

With the rise of Internet usage in the late 1990s and a corresponding need for new content, web comics began to become a popular form of on-line art and entertainment. Much of the bulk of people doing web comics is made up of cartoonists whose work is inappropriate for whatever reason to be published as a newspaper comic strip. Other are formalists who take advantage of things like easy coloring, movement within panels, and the "infinite canvas" that the Internet provides to do several wildly creative comics reminiscent of the precocious early works done in comic strips.

The marriage of computer screen and comics has been a fruitful one thus far, although in terms of business models the field is wide open. Some merely put their work up for free, asking for the occasional donation. Steve Conley of Astounding Space Thrills briefly made a splash when he found a way to syndicate his strip for web site use through click-through advertising sponsors. Businessmen like Joey Manley have tried an anthology model reminiscent of cable TV, where dozens of strips and their archives appear on-line and can be accessed as a group for a low fee. His Serializer site, set up to host arts and alternative style comics, features an editor, cartoonist Tom Hart, whose tastes in large part determine what appears.

Manga, Briefly

Comics are an international art form. Europeans have long enjoyed comics as mainstream entertainment, with series of oversized comics "albums" (a magazine-sized hardback color volume) like Tintin and Asterix delighting generations. Markets in France and Belgium were also among the first to develop an industry for comics that supported adult genre and even artistically significant work as a matter of course. They have enjoyed a lively but small presence in the North American comics market since the mid-1980s, both as hardcover albums and in Heavy Metal magazine. Many Europeans are also fond of American comic books, particularly the Walt Disney comics as drawn by creators such as Carl Barks and Don Rosa.

Japanese comics have made a much, much bigger splash, particularly recently. Translations of important or popular manga works like Akira and Barefoot Gen have periodically entered the American marketplace. But with cable television and the newer networks latching onto the expressiveness of Japanese animation (anime) and giving it a consistent platform in the State, interest in the paper format versions has gone through the roof.

Companies like Tokyopop and Viz have been able to marry their translated manga with formats that make them desirable for kids, such as series of books that cost less than $10 for each volume, and the thick newsstand anthology Shonen Jump which looks somewhat like the original publication format for such works in Japan. These companies have also placed them in places other than comic book shops, most importantly "big box" bookstores like Border's and Barnes and Noble, and they have smartly translated works that appeal to neglected groups like teenaged girls. In three short years, sales have swelled to roughly one quarter to one third of the size of the traditional American comics market.

With a number of genres on which to draw and a close relationship to television product, manga should be a significant presence in the American market for years to come, if not the dominant one.


Prominent Comic Strip Syndicates

Creators Syndicate
Richard S. Newcombe
5777 West Century Blvd. Suite 700
Los Angeles, CA 90045

King Features Syndicate
Jay Kennedy
888 Seventh AVe., 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10019

Universal Press Syndicate
4520 Main Street
Kansas City, MO 64111-7701
816- 932-6600

Washington Post Writers Group
1150 NW 15th Street
Washington, DC 20071-9200

Tribune Media Services
435 N. Michigan Ave Suite 1400
Chicago, IL 60611

United Media (United Feature Syndicate/NEA)
200 Madison Ave
Fourth Floor
New York, NY 10016

Prominent Comic Book Companies

Marvel Comics
Joe Quesada: Editor in Chief
Dan Buckley: Publisher
10 E 40th St
New York, NY 10016

DC Comics
Paul Levitz: Executive Vice President and Publisher
Dan Didio: Vice President Editorial
Bob Wayne: Vice President Sales and Marketing
1700 Broadway
Seventh Floor
New York, NY 10019

Image Comics
Eric Stephenson: Managing Editor
B. Clay Moore: PR & Marketing Coordinator
1071 N. Batavia Street, Suite A
Orange, CA 92867

Dark Horse Comics
Mike Richardson: Publisher
10956 SE Main St
Milwaukie, OR 97222

Fantagraphics Comics
Gary Groth: Co-Publisher
Kim Thompson: Co-Publisher
Eric Reynolds: Publicity Director
7563 Lake City Way NE
Seattle WA, 98115

Top Shelf Comics
Chris Staros: Co-Publisher
PO Box 1282
Marietta, GA 30061-1281
770-427-6395 (fax)

Drawn and Quarterly
Chris Oliveros: Publisher
Peggy Burns: Marketing and Publicity
P.O.BOX 48056
Montreal, Quebec
Canada, H2V 4S8
514-279-2221 (Oliveros)
514-279-0961 (Burns)

Major Distributor of Comic Books

Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc.
1966 Greenspring Drive, Suite 300
Timonium, MD 21093

Prominent Magazines That Cover the Comics Industry

Comic Book Artist
Jon B. Cooke: Editor
PO Box 204
West Kingston, RI 02892-0204

The Comics Buyer's Guide
Maggie Thompson: Editor
John Jackson Miller: Editor
Krause Publications
700 E State St
Iola, WI 54990

The Comics Journal
Gary Groth: Editor
Dirk Deppey: Managing Editor
Mike Dean: News Editor
7563 Lake City Way NE
Seattle, WA 98115

Gareb Shamus: Publisher
Brian Cunningham: Editor
151 Wells Ave
Congers, NY 10920