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A Note on the Comics Business

It's difficult to get into a discussion on the comics industry without quickly lapsing in the kind of "I didn't want it anyway" whining usually found in high school newspapers under the headline "Why I Hate Senior Prom." And yet, it has become painfully obvious that two simple words define the state of comic strips today:

Death spiral.

Ever since "Bloom County," "The Far Side" and "Calvin and Hobbes" abandoned the industry in quick succession, the comics page has failed to command the critical mass of reader interest needed to make it a growing industry rather than a declining one. Thus the death spiral: fewer readers lead to heightened fears of risk lead to a page populated almost exclusively by "golf strips." This, not surprisingly, leads in turn to fewer readers.

Factors such as newspaper consolidation don't help either, but today's booming economy strips away most excuses for failure. We're witnessing an explosion of entertainment alternatives, and comics are being left far, far behind. Compared to other entertainment options, the comics page offers a standard of humor which is startlingly unfunny, a decency standard 40 years behind the times, and an entirely defensive long-term strategy best described as "hammer your niche until you die." There are standouts of course, but the industry's exemplars (e.g. Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau, Lynn Johnston) are succumbing to attrition far faster than they're being replaced.

Ask your under-55 peers about their favorite comics and they'll likely either answer "I don't read the comics anymore" or cite such shows as "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "Dr. Katz" and "South Park." The talent on the comics page didn't disappear, after all -- it just moved elsewhere. And the audience followed.

Alarm at this situation is shared not only by whiny independent cartoonists, but also by a surprising number of successful mainstream cartoonists (who would rather be a part of a cutting-edge industry than a sinking one). Both tend to trace the problem to the conforming influence of syndicates. Syndicates claim they're just catering to editors. Editors cite "reader feedback" (i.e. 100 seniors with speed-dial) as the impetus for all their comics-page decisions. And the death spiral continues.

What can be done about it? The first step is a commitment by cartoonists, syndicates and features editors to evolve the industry as a whole, not just defend their shrinking pieces of it. This means giving fresh talent a real chance (yes, there's some self-interest at play here), bringing humor standards into the '90s and learning to not cower in fear when 100 seniors with speed-dial call to protest the appearance of the word "damn" on the comics page that morning. Short of that, exposing "Cathy" as a misogynist and catapulting her into the deepest reaches of Siberia would be a small, but nonetheless satisfying, step in the right direction.