By Darryl Ayo
Comic books and graphic novels are wonderful but I’m at a point where I realize what the comics field has left behind when it largely abandoned newspapers. Let us reach across the aisles and get reacquainted with our syndicated brethren.
Here’s the short of it: comics in North America began in the newspapers, and they have never been more popular and successful than when they were the highlights of newspapers. Now I can hear that guy in the third row from the back: shut up guy. Newspapers are NOT dead, nor are the comics within them. The newspaper is alive and kicking–although competing with television and the internet for media control.
Right now, there are wonderful comics coming out of the comic strip syndicates. I personally love:
Tina’s Groove by Rina Piccolo
Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson
Zippy by Bill Griffith
I hasten to warn you that none of these comic strips are published in New York City newspapers. I know, I’ve checked.
I also like:
Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau
Mutts by Patrick McDonnell
Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller
These CAN be found in New York City newspapers.
But to me, this isn’t enough. This simply isn’t enough. I realized that from the comic strips I personally like, only Doonesbury attempts sustained longform storytelling. Meanwhile, in the past, the popular comic strip Dick Tracy by Chester Gould was brilliant at keeping newspaper readers at the edges of their seats day after day. I can only imagine that these 1930s comic fans had their old-timey hats leaping off of their heads every day. Dick Tracy predates comic books’ Batman. There were other longform comic works that kept the daily commuter pumping sweat and gritting their teeth in anticipation. Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, to name some of the popular ones.
Today, we look at this type of storytelling and say that it doesn’t work in newspaper strips, it’s better to put it in a graphic novel. Now–no disrespect–nobody is going to see that graphic novel. Whereas everybody and their mother saw Popeye in the ’30s. There’s no question about it–if you want your longform magnum opus to be seen by anybody outside of the same 200 people, you need to get those comics into the hands of the common man and the common woman and the common child. Common people! It’s common sense.
So I’ve sworn off graphic novels for the time being. Not because they’re bad, but because I believe that if we want comics to be successful, we have to think big…by thinking small. Small enough to fit in the comic page of the local newspaper.
There are too many cartoonists in the United States syndicated comics industry. Or alternately, there are not enough. Syndicated cartoonists make money by having their strips licensed for modest fees to many newspapers. What if those newspapers only hired cartoonists on an exclusive basis and paid them higher individual rates? What if a cartoonist worked for Journal News and produced a daily strip to entertain the community of Lower Hudson, New York? What if the editors of newspapers pulled their heads out of their hindquarters and remembered why so many Americans fell in love with the newspapers in the first place?
For cartoonists, the benefits would be clear: if newspapers were competing on a local market and comic strips were being distributed in small geographic arenas, there would be more jobs for “cartoonist,” just as a matter of course. This is where North America’s vast landmass becomes an economic asset for small businesses. Over the last forty years, with the ever-rising ubiquity of large, global businesses, North Americans have been struggling with the opposite: losing local jobs to monopolizing businesses. Comics largely wiped themselves out of competitiveness decades ago because of this. Before the weight of monoculture crushed the rest of North American small business culture.
I think that the North American Comic Strip is a perfect tool for varied storytelling, both longform and short form, both comedy and tragedy, from vignette to continuity. I think it’s about time we started thinking honestly about what we as a comics culture have lost when the comic book world largely divorced itself from the comic strip world and vice versa.
And I think that the role of the syndicate in newspaper comics is in flux but that this institution still has a great deal of ability to help broker cartoonists and advocate for their clients. The syndicate, to my mind, could still function in its current role of agent, facilitator and liaison for comics-bearing-newspapers and their client cartoonists. What I’m interested in is a shift in focus.
There’s potential markets out there, but we have to restructure the way we think about things.