Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Funny Business: State of the Industry

“Don't be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it.” - William Randolph Hearst

Since 1976 The Comics Journal has been a premiere source for essays on criticism, news and reviews on both historical and contemporary comics. The new, momentous issue #300 also marks the regrettable withering of the publication from a bi-monthly to a now only semi-annual print edition, and shifting to a more full-service on-line existence. Here's hoping the trade-off balancing out between the two products will still make for an impressive magazine; for years it's happened to be one the main reasons I wander down to our own local comic shop every month or so, ostensibly to pick up the latest issue, but always somehow winding up scoring a good handful of recommended titles courtesy of trusted advise from the owner or staff.
From Tom Spurgeon:
"Fantagraphics' The Comics Journal has announced via subscriber letter ... that they'll be moving more of their coverage on-line after the forthcoming issue #300. This will correspond to making the print version of the magazine a larger, apparently more substantial publication that will come out twice a year. Included in the longtime, award-winning magazine's efforts on-line will be more of the features through which the magazine made its name known -- including its interviews -- and what appears to be a number of staff bloggers added to the roster."
Besides habitually preferring the physicality of an object such as a book or magazine over a computer screen (he said, writing on a blog) I take a dim view of catering to the “can’t wait” demographic – being “at my fingertips instantly” has little to no correspondence with excellence - more often then not it's a detriment, but here's hoping the quality is maintained in both incarnations. Excepting news, which can be found at any number of existing websites (in particular the excellent and informative The Comics Reporter), the relative timely-ness of coverage is pretty much a non-issue; thoughtful, in-depth analysis is always worth any wait, and if I really cared about being in such a big hurry I wouldn't be an artist anyways. But then again, seeing as how my Artistic Attention Deficit Disorder is one big reason I draw cartoons.... and besides, I've transitioned to the web with an effortless maintaining of quality content (ha, eh, oh nevermind).

Anyways, this latest volume of the Comics Journal is devoted largely to a special feature called "Conversations" between pairs of creators. Transcribed in an informal and intimate manner, such well-known artists as Art Spiegelman + Kevin Huizenga, Alison Bechdel + Danica Novgorodoff, Jaime Hernandez + Zak Sally and sixteen others weigh forth with their respective perspectives and experiences. Crossing the many genres of the medium (syndicated strips, traditional comic book artists, editorial cartoonists, independent and alternative etc.) you get a pretty informative grasp of the scene in contemporary comics. Pretty heady stuff for a comics geek - I'm a sucker for interviews of any sort since we're effectively culturally marooned up here, and what with the advent of the web there's no shortage of available resources to get both inspiration and information.

One of the most interesting discussions to me was between Jim Borgman and Keith Knight. They mull over the role of newspapers and small markets in the context of current troubled economic times for the industry, along with the wholesale loss of talent and atrophying newspaper situation. Typo aside, Knight gave our own Ester Republic a nice hat-tip:
Knight: "One of the papers that runs my stuff is this newsletter that, I think, comes out monthly, and they sell it for two bucks a head."
Borgman: "Wow. And where is this?"
Knight: "It’s in Esther, Alaska. They call it the People’s Republic of Esther, it’s kind of like Berkeley. Maybe the Berkeley of Alaska. It’s those little things, you know, they may not be paying New York Times money, but you get enough of these little places, and…"
Borgman: "Well, that’s been the irony of all this to me, is that the cartoonists and columnists are the people who give a newspaper its personality, and they are the ones who everybody’s cutting. So it’s like a race to be exactly the same as everything else, which you can get anywhere. Somebody said it’s like burning the heirloom furniture to heat the house."
In my opinion the importance of localized, topical talent is overlooked and unappreciated, and is this content that will attract loyal readers. This as opposed to the principles of syndication, which undercuts independent, local creators in it's efforts to promote homogenized humor: attempting to appeal to as many people as possible is the standard measure for commercial success . As is immediately apparent in our society, there's a vast disconnect when it comes to the tastes of pop culture versus critical aesthetics. And unfortunately it apparently runs contrary to the thinking of most newspaper editors and publishers, who consistently cut back on the very same content that has any hope at all of engaging the interest and support of the same local communities they ostensibly serve (I'll return to this here later).

Related to this, there's two bigass coffetable-sized tomes that I've been perusing this past week: The Comic Strip Century (1995 O.G. Publishing) Bill Blackbeard editor, and The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977 Smithsonian Institution Press/Harry N. Abrams inc.) (edited by Blackbeard and Martin Williams). Both volumes examine the historical growth of cartooning in newspapers and present beautiful, full-sized reproductions (many in color) of some classic works by the masters of the golden age in this truly American artform. The rise and fall of this unique medium is documented - and I think has direct bearing on the current topic as outlined by the Knight/Borgman piece.

“Try to be conspicuously accurate in everything, pictures as well as text. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more interesting.” - William Randolph Hearst
In the Smithsonian's forward, John Canaday says "comics are ubiquitous" and their "transmutation ... into their current status as sociological testaments for intellectual evaluation" means now we can take the funnies seriously; "the function of art ... is to clarify, intensify, or enlarge our experience, and the comics are now art." On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the introduction by Black beard and Williams, newspaper strips have an "instant and openly demagogic appeal to a mass readership." These two spheres might overlap, especially now when viewed historically, but back in the day it was probably a bit more oppositional: the prevailing works were of a more burlesque, vaudevillian slapstick sort of humor instead of any mature visual narratives. There was also a notable content shift between the AM/PM editions of newspapers, with the evening issue running more ribald and risqué strips. What we have here today instead is essentially the same content endlessly repeated nomatter where you go - it's the aesthetic equivalent of driving coast to coast on the interstates and eating the same shitty food from the same fast-food chains: no regional notes of distinction, no individuality or sense of community.

The rise of the newspaper cartoon is arguably due to the influential publisher William Randolf Hearst, who was behind the first serious outbreak of funnies. In 1898 Outcault's the Yellow Kid began running, and by the early 19o0's six-day-a-week strips were starting to become commonplace. January 31st, 1912 marked the nation's first full-sized daily comics page in Hearst's NY Evening Journal, culminating in a growth from an average 8-page weekend section of comics to 16 pages, or even a 32-page color Sunday tabloid section!

The visual sophistication of Heriman’s Krazy Kat and McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, to name two of the best, point up the comparative weakness in craft on view every day in the majority of syndicated material being produced now. To be fair, along with dealing with the hopeless real-estate issues I'll get to in a minute, the ratio of shining talent seems to be about the same; while there aren't too many examples of Calvin & Hobbes for this generation, back then there wasn't much else to compare with either.
Lavish, oversized compositions and panel design that seems to strain at the boundaries imposed by the page size was a common hallmark of many of these classic comics, as opposed to today's standards being laughably restricted, cramped or oversimplified. The limitations of space imposed by relegation of strips to contemporary dimensions and format was a very big nail in the coffin as far as the future of comics: by the 1940's the full-page works had begun their inexorable constriction to 1/2 page and then on down to 1/3 page sizes. Despite the ingenuity and almost abstractive ability demonstrated by Schulz and others in developing a distinct visual language of iconography, reducing art down to the ridiculously tiny dimensions has effectively strangled the medium and rendered it impotent, ineffectual and irrelevant.

Here I'll take the opportunity to wave around a copy of what my own feature looks like on the published page as seen above. Maybe this is a simple, functional distinction between a syndicated feature versus a local feature: it's a matter of scale. Granted there are the occasional issues when I'm reduced to less than half this size, but that still is an enviable position compared to the usual strips. Size isn't everything anyways - just like the unwritten rule that a good joke will sell a bad drawing - no amount of eye candy can compensate for weak material, and bigger isn't always better (except stroking the ego of the creator). But the point here is, one of the functional reasons Nuggets could never be syndicated is the simple logistics of size: along with the content of the cartoon, the dimensions are not standardized and either wouldn't fit or completely lose their legibility to be printed within the confines of the industry.
This is perversely an opportunity for enterprising cartoonists to take advantage of: there still exists many small-scale alternative and niche market publications to peddle wares to - even targeting efforts to sectional editors (example: sports, outdoors etc.). If the advertising revenue generated by the loss of print space is an issue, try getting a sponsorship from a local business to host the image, much like cross-posting on-line. And speaking of on-line, there's a good case to be made for sucker-punching with the tacit observation most if not all of the syndicated content is already available elsewhere for free - why bother taking up print space with it anymore? Wouldn't it be advantageous to instead reverse course and embrace the diversity of rich talent available right in your own neck of the woods?

“The way for newspapers to meet the competition of radio and television is simply to get out better papers” - Henry Louis Mencken

Now if historically the inclusion of cartoons was a calculated commercial tactic, a marketing ploy to attract new readers and subscribers, then there’s no reason the same approach can’t work today. And I don't mean participating in the deathrace to the bottom with giving it all away for free. I've lamented the implosion of the newspaper's relevance here before, and again, the efforts of syndicates are largely responsible for undermining the value, in both a literal and figurative sense, of the work by local, independent creators. Even in the case of successful "self-syndicated" strips (ex: Tundra) it's only achieved at the expense of selling cheap enough to compete with the big syndicates, which is a no-win scenario (especially for aspiring talent) - except catering to the lowest common denominator mass-market and expanding your base to sell more commercial products.

I'm also very skeptical about the claim in this oft-cited mantra:

"Believe it or not comics are one of the most important features for any newspaper, regardless of its size. Lots of people (including yours truly) will often read the comics before anything else. In fact, even the most specialized and serious periodicals, including magazines devoted to medical research and political rhetoric, include cartoons and comic strips."
I don't believe it because the overwhelming, vast majority of people I come into contact with (especially at the university) A) don't read newspapers, or anything that isn't on-line; and B) of those that do, (including yours truly) I skim the headlines first, then local news, and then the big thing in most communities is always checking to see who died, and who got busted. Myself, I rarely even read the comics anymore - I already know what most of the same old characters are going to do regardless of the situations, and most of the gags aren't funny. So-called legacy strips mostly bore the shit out of me, as they just seem to be milking the cash-cow of corporate commodities. That and I'm usually more worried about coming up with my own lame jokes.

Now just in the time spent writing up this post comes yet another example in the news that now The Salt Lake Tribune is waltzing towards the edge:

"Again, in order to save on newsprint costs, the Sunday Funnies section has been trimmed from eight pages to six pages, but no comic strips have been eliminated. Some of us will need our magnifying glasses to read some of the speech balloons, but it was either shrink some strips or eliminate them."
What is truly stupendous is how they come right out and acknowledge the popularity of comics with their readership - and yet somehow miss out on the fact that they are effectively shooting themselves in the foot:

"Public editors, reader representatives and ombudsmen from across the country know better than to eliminate comic strips."
Which brings me to my point: there's a convergence of issues here throughout this post that add up to what I think could be a remedy for the print-industry's implosion. First and foremost what is needed is another Hearst type figure to wade in and restore the former glory of the newspaper cartoon. In other words, damn the torpedoes and take radical measures like restoring full-page/full-color features, quadrupling (at minimum) the number of strips, giving exclusivity and prominence to local creators - and let them actually earn a decent, living wage.
Such an economic investment will seem counter-intuitive to the business class, but they are completely clueless about anything artistic or what is popular. Look at the long-term success of The Funny Times for example: a monthly publication begun in 1985 that went even further and took out everything except for the comics (and some humorous feature columns).

Another case-in-point that demonstrates the direction the newspaper print industry is taking was the boneheaded move the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner took years ago when it ceased publication of its weekly Sunday magazine "Heartland." From 1984 until the last issue that ran in 2005, this quirky insert featured everything from the writings from Bush Alaska, Interior history, gardening advice, book reviews, science articles, photo essays and a smörgåsbord of local/regional items of interest to residents (not to mention it was the home of a cartoon called Freeze-Frame...).
From an prescient article by Scott Christiansen in the Anchorage Press:
"News-Miner readers are not alone. Over the last decade, newspaper publishers have been killing off Sunday magazines as if they were fattened black bears gathered around a pile of raspberry jelly-filled doughnuts. It's a sad trend for readers as Sunday magazines were once the stomping-ground of journalism's craftiest writers - a space for reporters to stretch their literary legs, rather than just collect and shovel information to readers as fast as possible." (...)
"Smith said MMC's research showed that newspapers weren't making money with Sunday magazines and generally cite sliding revenues as the reason for killing the section. Smith believes publishers may have expected too much in the way of advertising sales and put too little value on the extra readers the magazines brought to their Sunday editions. “I think that's sort of a false expectation on the part of publishers, (Sunday magazines) bring in more readers, so it's possible to lose money publishing them,” Smith said. Creating Sunday magazines that succeed, he said, is “a matter of figuring out what the magazine is about and who it is for.”
I couldn't believe it when they did away with what many in the community saw as the literal heart of the paper: it, the proverbial cherry on top of all the week's issues. But wait - as of a few days ago, they're at it again: the News-Miner will now opt for another sadly self-defeating decision in this spirit of triage, or actually to be fair, it's a calculated effort to spin another step backwards in a positive light. In his column Editor Rod Boyce solicited input from readers regarding the change from piggy-backing on a Pacific North-West regional collective printing of the color Sunday funny insert back to being printed in-house. This necessitates the printing of half the cartoons now in black & white:
"Now we’ve reclaimed control of our Sunday comics. (...) But that, too, comes with a price. The price is the two pages of black-and-white comic strips on the inside of the Sunday comics section. As I said up top, our press doesn’t have the ability to print four consecutive color pages."
While I can understand the rational given the logistical limitations, again, it kinda defeats the entire purpose of having color cartoons run in the first place. In line with my biased opinion, I suggested increasing the color Sunday section from four to (at least) eight pages and running articles or advertising on the black + white sides. That along with quadrupling the weekly comics section. No really. Seriously. Quit laughin' - or maybe this would be a great way to start?

“If you make a product good enough, even though you live in the depths of the forest, the public will make a path to your door, says the philosopher. But if you want the public in sufficient numbers, you better construct a highway. Advertising is that highway.” - William Randolph Hearst

To be sure, the News-Miner has had success doubling its weekly cartoon strip section from days of old (half to full page), plus a recent addition of a full page of editorial cartoons in color to the Sunday Opinion section - but decisions like these alway have to be seen from the view of the overarching questions: is it commensurate with ad space, and will it be seen as an attractant versus a deterrent? There is pretty much an direct one-to-one ratio between ads and content, thus every page of expanded cartoons would in theory have to be matched by an equal number of ads. Priority is given to revenue generated from ad sales as opposed to hinging anything on subscriptions, which seems like putting the cart right next to the horse: it'd be a financial gamble to say the least to see if there'd be a groundswell of support from the community, and also convincing the publishers that this wouldn't diminish the reputation of the newspaper from a journalistic standpoint. At the very least, much in the same way comics encourage literacy amongst younger people, they would also be a way to attract readers into political literacy, engage them with local issues and participation in matters of general citizenship.

I'm not suggesting something so simplistic as cartoons can single-handedly rescue and revive newspapers, but taking all of this post's main points together, it's pretty damn close. And facing the inexorable alternative fate, well worth a shot.

“There isn't as much passion and outrage in today's newspapers. That may be because of a corporate decision, but they've lost their personality.” - Michael Gartner

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