By Darryl Ayo
Newspaper comics suffer (for many reasons) in part because newspaper editors don’t use their comics pages as an opportunity to express their own creativity. The comics page is an unwelcome nuisance to most paper editors; it needs to be there, but the editors tend to have no interest in it. That’s why comics pages tend to be conservative (old comics) and uninspired. The perfect ideal would be that a newspaper editor took the comics part of his or her job as an opportunity to flex their muscles and exercise some personal freedom. I liken the task to that of a college radio DJ, a figure in American culture renowned for taking pride in finding new things and breaking them for an audience.
While plenty of newspaper comics are dire, there are still plenty available to all three of the major syndicates that–if an editor is doing his or her job–will provide a very personal mix of material for the reading audience. But since newspaper comic editors don’t care (the job is foisted upon them among other responsibilities), they default to whatever already exists along with the whims of the few readers who bother to complain whenever there are changes.
My personal fantasy comics industry works like a hybrid of what we’ve got in newspapers crossed with an approximation of the Japanese comic system for magazines. Here’s how it works in my head:
You’ve got your syndicates who hire, nurture and promote cartoonists to newspapers. The newspaper editors license the strips from the various syndicates in accordance to their own vision of what their comic page should look like. Ideally, this is an important task that the newspaper editor sees as crucial to his/her paper’s success as well as his/her personal enjoyment of career. The Japanese influence that I would like to see is a tighter engagement between readers of newspapers and editors of comic pages. I want to see editors directly engaged with what readers are enjoying and not enjoying. I want comics to routinely be pulled into newspapers and dropped out. I want to see comics more directly in line with what you and I actually care about.
In my fantasy, editors seek feedback from their readers to determine the ongoing enjoyment of the comics. If a comic isn’t doing well (for differences other than “Bring back Beetle Bailey!!”), the editor reconsiders the approach and considers replacing that strip. In my fantasy, comic strips don’t last eternally, but instead, cartoonists cycle through various ideas throughout their careers. A comic might last six months or it might last ten years. In my mind, this is how markets work also. In reality, comics, like capitalism, are rigged so that the weakest tend to survive while the true lifeblood, fresh ideas, are left to whither and die, despite being important for growth.
Newspapers are constantly trying to save themselves. Comics are constantly trying to save themselves. Both are facing an impossible task; they should be trying to save each other. The modern newspaper pre-dates the invention of the comic strip but the comic strip was created to make individual newspapers more attractive. Early strips were highly interesting in part because there was an element of real-world competition that forced all participants to stay on edge and work very hard. Today, with both industries suffering, I am disappointed how neither side seems to recall the glory days when both industries recognized one another’s utility to themselves and to society in general.