By Darryl Ayo
I daydream a lot. I daydream all day. Then I nightdream, which sucks by comparison. You’re probably desperately curious. You say to yourself “what does he think about all day? What thoughts furrow that striking brow of his?” Currently, I’m thinking about what went wrong with comic strips.
Two things that stand out to me are: (1) systemic devaluation of the arts in the United States and (2) syndication paradoxically working against the greater good of the artist. On point ONE: the amount of money that newspapers pay for individual comic strips is laughable. Any cartoonist needs to be in a significant number of papers to make ends meet. On point TWO: syndication gives a small number of strips a national (even global) reach, but combined with the pittance that they are licensed to individual papers for, this created a world in which a handful of comic strips have any potential to be seen at all.
Here’s where history went wrong: comic strips should have been initially licensed for more money and then distributed to local markets rather than national/international markets. Imagine if comic strips only ran in a single paper. Or in a few papers in a single geographic region. Imagine if comic strip cartoonists were paid like staff cartoonists/reporters. They’d create exclusive content, and that would have made the competition between papers more vital. In addition to boasting of one’s reporting staff being better in the local city or municipal region, a paper could boast of being the ONLY place to read the daily jokes of Carl Toonist.
Mathematically, that would also mean that there would be more jobs for individual cartoonists. Especially when comics would be competing for more intimate spaces, local/provincial humor would triumph rather than what we have today in our real world, often bland, accentless, broad comedy. I’m going to give a shout out to my old friend John Goldman (Johnny 5!) who in college (Rochester Institute of Technology) did a weekly strip called “The Adventures of Aimless Boy.” It was a general lifestyle kind of semi-abstract comic–spliced with occasional nods to the very specific local culture of R.I.T. For example, I remember a strip Johnny did about Aimless Boy making friends with a deaf girl. R.I.T. shares a campus and shares assets with N.T.I.D. (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) and hearing/deaf community issues were a big deal.
Just an example.
Comic strips have the great advantage over other formats of comic because they come in brief increments, never seeking to take more than their fair share of a reader’s time or energy. Their nature asks for them to be free. Their brevity asks their creators to be pointed and direct.
Comics get into culture, under the filters. Like how during the media blackouts, Doonesbury can openly talk about the #OccupyWallStreet movement, or how in the height of post 9/11 panic, The Boondocks could vivisect George Bush’s presidency.
I want to marry the summit of visibility with the nadir of obscurity.
At one point, in New York City, you could pick up the free weekday newspaper Metro and find a daily comic strip by Tom Hart, one of the minicomic heroes of the 1990s. His character, Hutch Owen, an angry bum who antagonized corporate America with poetry and anti-capitalist screeds was right in the cruddiest of cruddy newspapers for a brief period in time, being bounced off of the eyeballs of the people who needed to see it most of all–the daily commuter wage-slaves. Why it stopped, I don’t know. Why the Metro doesn’t have any more comics to take that one’s place, I don’t know.
But this is what I’m looking for in a nutshell. I want to see more cartoonists from the so-called “alternative” culture push their work into places where the common person will see it. And graffiti is still illegal, so these newspapers might have to be the place for that. I can hear your eyes rolling from here. Yeah, you. “What about the internet? The internet gives artists the greatest platform of all!” The internet is a wonderful tool but it isn’t the be-all answer to all of art and culture’s woes. I’ve been on record as a huge proponent of webcomics, internet fora as well as digital comics. But I don’t want to live in a world in which comics can ONLY be accessed on computers. Just like I want to be able to listen to music on the radio or (gasp) a concert (watch me slide across the dance floor), I want to be able to see comics exist outside of the circular network of interrelated blogs, fora, download applications and suchforth.
Time out, New York: on the note of #OccupyWallStreet, I just wanted to take a pause and point you toward one of my favorite comics, Octopus Pie (Octopie Wall Street?)
Meredith Gran is one of the most gifted cartoonists alive and she’s got a gift for current events, pop culture, and human characters that rivals any cartoonist that you can think of. Most people have a mental barrier that prevents them from seeing anything contemporary as deserving mention alongside “classic” works in the same field. But if we as a people didn’t have nostalgia-philia, I think we’d have no problem recognizing that Gran stands easily in the same space occupied by the best comic strip cartoonists from the beginning of the medium till yesterday. I stand on that.
So what do you want, Ayo?
I want the best cartoonists in front of a wide, broad audience. I want that audience comprised of more than hard-core comic fanatics. I want comics in general to be more than just grist for the Hollywood blockbuster mill or special-interest features for out-of-touch, touristy journalists struggling to find a link between their dead scenes and the real world.
Basically, all I want is