Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 6, 2007

Anatomy of a Lost Illustration Gig

imageOne of the most important things to remember about comics is that for as much time as the business may spend shooting itself in the foot or elbowing its way to greater economic glory, comics and cartoonists also participate in other industries that can change from underneath them no matter how skilled their contributions. Any smart history of comic books will include elements like the general state of newsstand print sales at key moments through the decades, or how commercial illustration has found a place for or closed the door on comics art and comics artists via different companies and different trends.

Has another market begun its final decline? The cartoonist and illustrator Robert Ullman used to provide illustrations to the City Paper in support of Dan Savage's syndicated "Savage Love" column. He was recently informed that he would no longer be asked for such work at the end of this calendar year. Ullman's a fine illustrator with a slick, appealing style, but the Savage gig seems to have been one of classic "added value" -- spooning on a bit of attractive art onto what is generally a popular feature. It's value in which the paper is no longer interested. So a gig that Ullman tells CR he's had since mid-2000 is over, unless Ullman can rally reader support to his cause. He reports a significant amount of contact from readers and friends and fans, both on-line and during a recent appearance at SPX, from people whom one would suppose will now present his case to the publication's editor.

imageWhat makes this story interesting is that it's a sign of two elements hitting alt-weekly publication that have caused them, like their more traditional daily print cousins, to consider ways to cut costs: the loss and fear of continued loss of advertising revenue to on-line alternatives, and the purchase of publications like City Paper by bigger media companies which bring with them the usual regime change tweaks and perhaps, it's been suggested, a more rigorous approach to the bottom line. Not only should this have an impact on illustration work, but such papers' comics are obviously going to be in play. Lynda Barry as much as said so in moving her work on-line in a more significant fashion, and if you stop and think about it, it's hard to think of anyone who's broken out of that once-vital corner of the comics world in a dozen years.

You can read a lot of artists' perspectives on the matter on this thread at, including pretty damning words from Michael Kupperman. As for Ullman, he remains generally hopeful about the market and paper he continues to serve despite the recent, specific setback. Asked if his situation represented a general trend away from illustration in order to better serve the bottom line, he replied. "I think that's the way it's trending, definitely, but I'm not ready to pull a sheet over the corpse quite yet. I do, and have always done, a lot of work for alternative papers, and I've always seemed to be able to keep my head above least up until now. I don't know, I would think that with all the conglomeration that's going on with alt-weeklies these days, that there'd be more money for things like illustration, not less."
posted 1:18 am PST | Permalink

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