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Getting Published—Comic Strips
posted October 10, 2004

Getting Your Daily Newspaper Strip Syndicated

Comic strips are distributed to your local newspaper through companies called syndicates. Syndicates process and provide exclusive content to newspapers. That content includes advice columns, opinion pieces and comic strips. Peanuts? Syndicated. Dear Abby? Syndicated. Arriana Huffington? Syndicated. And so on.

Syndication has become a big contributor to one very appealing aspect about the comic strip business. Namely, syndicates make it possible that a successful comic strip can be distributed to one hundred or one thousand extra papers with very little in the way of increased effort or hassle for the cartoonist. Syndicates feel very close to their cartoonists not just for the potential profit involved, but also because the distribution of comic strip is at the historical heart of their business.

Cartoonists are typically paid half of what a strip brings in, while the syndicate keeps the other half. The amount cartoonists are paid depends on the size of the newspaper's circulation -- higher-selling papers will pay more than lower-selling papers for the same strip. Newspapers may buy a strip and not run it for a while, as a way of keeping something in reserve in case it becomes a national hit and perhaps keep a competitor from buying it first. Some newspapers will run certain strips in their on-line editions only. On a daily strip such as Hagar or Hi and Lois, Sundays and Weekdays are sold as two different packages. Many papers may buy both and run your strip seven days a week, but others may buy only one or the other. (This may be a preference or it may be that a newspaper buys its own Monday through Saturday strips but uses a Sunday assembled by a larger paper.) Many syndicates will pay a minimum guaranteed amount for a certain period of time to keep an artist or artists from starving to death before a strip gets rolling with enough buys to make for a decent living. How many this is depends on the size of the papers who are buying, but any normal mix of newspapers over 100 sales is usually enough to surpass this minimum.

Despite declining newspaper sales in many markets, comic strips remain potential moneymakers. Launching a strip through a syndicate takes advertising and sales staff effort that at least one syndicate estimates will average out to one quarter of a million dollars per strip. Nearly everyone who sees their comic strip make it into the papers has had to endure a long and sometimes humiliating submissions process. The good news is that the syndicates are always looking for the next breakaway hit. The bad news is that syndicates sort through literally thousands of strips to launch the three or four they might get behind in one calendar year. And even when those seemingly insurmountable odds are overcome, one out of three won't last a year in publication before being cancelled.

Following are the major syndicates for original comic strip material, their addresses, and the page on their web site that speaks to submissions. There are usually one or two other syndicates doing one or two comic strip that you can track down at any one time. For what it's worth, and this is probably totally unfair.

Creators Syndicate
5777 West Century Blvd. Suite 700
Los Angeles, CA 90045
Submissions Info

King Features Syndicate
Attn: Jay Kennedy
300 W. 57th Street, 15th floor
New York, NY 10019
Submissions Info

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

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

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

Five Tips to Getting Your Submissions Off on the Right Track

I worked on a strip called Wildwood for three years, which was syndicated through King Features and developed from an unsolicited submission. So unlike some of the areas in which I address the comics industry, I actually have some practical experience and insight as to how these things might work. More importantly, as very few people seem to talk about these things in a straightforward manner, I can hopefully muster some plain-talk advice.

1. Do What The Submissions Info Asks You to Do

Like any other groups of creative people, cartoonists will sometimes overestimate the value of what they're doing as an excuse not to conform to the submission requirements. This is a really bad idea. Submit materials in the right proportions. Submit material in the number and format asked for (some may want dailies only; some may want dailies and Sundays). The closer you are to preparing product according to specifications, the less work they will have to do with you in order to get you up to speed. You are being judged not only for the skill of your work but for your ability to turn in work consistently and in a professional manner.

2. Think Broad and Narrow

One thing I've taken away from talking to syndicate editors and cartoonists who have been successful is that the best submissions have both a definable narrow appeal and a wider appeal. Mutts can be described as a strip for people who own pets and know about issues like animal adoption. Its execution, however, is such that anyone familiar with animals or even certain personality types can enjoy it. Zits may have specific resonance in households with teenagers. Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman try to make their strip appealing in a way so that anyone even barely familiar with teenagers -- if only because they were one a long time ago -- can appreciate the humor. Garfield, The Boondocks, and Luann were all successful strips pretty early on in their runs because they spoke to and for audiences who were previously underrepresented on the comics page, and did so in a way that no matter how different in tone than what had come before they did not entirely lose the appreciation of a wider audience.

This isn't a totally restrictive rule, as there's always a strip that seems to become successful despite surface similarities to a previous effort. But knowing both of your audiences -- the one that will seek your strip out and the one who will run into it -- may help put you over the top.

3. Every Single Strip Should Explain Itself

It's said that the early episodes of the television show M*A*S*H always had a scene with the doctors in the operating room, because it was believed if they didn't show the costs of war on every episode, audiences would be like to forget about it. Similarly, comic strips have to explain themselves to an audience for a time before they can rely on their audience's knowledge of the characters to be part of the joke.

Take Calvin and Hobbes. After a few years of his popular run, Bill Watterson could make his readers laugh simply by showing a picture of Calvin grinning from ear to ear. It was funny because readers knew Calvin, and could tell by an expression that something mischievous and funny was on the way. But early in the strip's run, before audiences got to know him, Watterson wrote jokes that in addition to being funny explained who Calvin was. At his most daring, he might do a joke that depended on Calvin being a little kid and saying something that might not typically come out of a little kid's mouth -- because any reader could see with a glance that Calvin was a little kid. But he could not count on readers knowing his characters the way he knew them, not for a while.

Each strip in your submission should be funny if it's the very first strip someone reads.

All submissions need to be consistent and very entertaining, but a great submission will unpack every single thing a newspaper editor needs to know about a strip before they buy it and that an audience will need to know for ten years of enjoyment. Look at the first six weeks of any successful strip, usually the first several pages of the first collection, and you will usually see a masterful introduction to a new world that doesn't feel like an introduction at all.

4. It's the Writing (Mostly)

It's my belief that very few strips are sold solely on their visual component, although there are many excellent artists working in comic strips, such as Patrick McDonnell and Terry LaBan. Good art can make your strip stand out, but good writing is what makes a hit. The art can be competent or simply serviceable, and if the writing is good, sharp, and funny the strip may still have a chance for syndication. The best way to learn how to write for strips is to study ones that you like, do some, and then ruthlessly edit and examine the ones that don't work.

You need to noodle with this until you find a sense of humor or way of writing that works according to your sensibilities. But in general, and looking at the most successful strips, I would suggest: keeping your wordplay to a minimum, as a lot of dialogue can knock people out of the flow of reading; unless really skillfully done sarcasm comes across as people being mean rather than funny so avoid it; let the visuals carry some of your humor if at all possible, as this is something that comics can offer people that morning radio or television really can't.

5. Keep Trying

The most difficult time in any creative person's life is the time of not knowing, the period between when the strip leaves your mailbox and some sort of reply comes back. Okay, outright rejection is much worse, but the waiting stinks, too.

My memory is that syndicates are really good about getting some sort of response back to everyone despite the number of submissions, even if it's only a form letter. It's self-motivated: syndicates don't want to anger a potential developing talent, even if they're not yet ready; and they certainly don't want you hassling them for a response long after the strip has been moved off of their desk. Any suggestions that come back with notice -- a scrawled note in the margin, a check-off item on a list -- should be treated with respect and followed if at all possible. A rejection is a terrible ego blow, but it can work to your advantage and make your eventual published work that much stronger.

So keep trying. Jim Davis submitted a strip about insects before he came up with what became Garfield. Charles Schulz had an enormously tough time getting started before hitting it big, eventually, with Peanuts. Most working cartoonists have a non-starter in their past, and you probably will, too.

Getting Your Weekly Newspaper Strip Published

There's not a whole lot to say about alternative weekly strips right now. Alternative weekly strips are comic strips of varying size that are nearly always skewed towards smarter adult readers -- that doesn't mean the strip can't roll around in stupid humor, just that it's a stupid humor that smart people can appreciate, if you know what I mean. They appear in alternative weekly newspapers, often known as alt-weeklies. Alternative weekly newspapers are those substantial but advertising driven and therefore usually free papers that provide off-center news and arts coverage for a specific urban center. Examples are New York's Village Voice, St. Louis' Riverfront Times, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The top ten urban centers tend to have two or three such publications, like Portland, Oregon's Willamette Weekly and Mercury.

The best on-line listing for alternative weekly newspapers is probably this one from Common Dreams.

Alternative weekly newspapers have been home to several great strips in the last forty years, most famously Jules Feiffer's self-named feature, which ran for decades in the Village Voice. Other notable strips that have appeared in weekly strips, all of which still do, are Ernie Pook's Comeek, Underworld, Maakies and Life in Hell. Simply the fact that Feiffer no longer runs in the Voice, where for years it was the flagship feature of the paper, should give you an idea of how the market has changed for strips. Only the fittest survive. Alt-weeklies make for a difficult market to penetrate, and an even more difficult market in which to sustain a run at a paper for more than two or three years. When a few years back Seattle's The Stranger, a notoriously cartoonist-friendly newspaper, switched its emphasis from several recurring features to a mix of every-week strips and special one-offs, cartoonists across the nation took notice.

Most alt-weekly strips start with one newspaper, the cartoonists forging a relationship with the paper's art director or whichever person on staff makes a decision on comics (you can usually start with the art director, though). Many if not most do their strip for a very modest fee, if not overall at a loss. A successful strip can add newspapers based on good word of mouth and the fact you have a developed strip to show an art director, although this may be harder than it used to be. While the riches of daily strip syndication are nowhere to be found for the practitioners of such strips, some cartoonists prefer the creative freedom alt-weeklies offer. Many of the most successful cartoonists who publish this way do end up with book collections and some have even used the exposure as a launching pad for other pursuits.

Good luck!