It's No Joke: Comic Strips Are Big Business


Attention shoppers! The following items, thanks to the comics industry's expanded nucleus of marketing devices, are now available at your local department store:

Garfield balloons, greeting cards and pajama tops. Garfield coffee cups, party napkins, alarm clocks, nightgowns, stuffed toys and stickers. Garfield shirts, calendars, books, house slippers, mud flaps for trucks, bookmarks and women's underwear.

Not to mention Garfield on suction cups clinging to car windows.

"We designed those to go on bathroom mirrors and people's picture windows. It never occurred to us that people would stick them on car windows," says Garfield's creator, Jim Davis.

"That brought us a lot of attention and it makes us nervous. People are talking about it too much," he says. "I have a closet full of cartoons that have mentioned this."

It was a marketing strategy that backfired, but one of the few such problems Davis has had to worry about on the way to seeing his funny orange cat become a pop-culture icon.

This is a story about comic strips and big business, about an industry in which a cartoonist like Davis can draw a cartoon cat and end up with much of the profits from a major pet food chain's $73-million advertising campaign. Davis was in Allentown recently for the unveiling of ALPO Petfoods Inc.'s new line of cat food, which is being advertised with commercials featuring Garfield.

If the comics section seems little more than a frivolous bunch of cartoons and running gags, consider what's been happening behind the scenes of the nation's funny pages:

* A decision by Universal Press Syndicate to yank its comics from The Dallas Times Herald and sell them to the competing Dallas Morning News prompted the Herald to file suit against the syndicate. Times Herald attorneys argue that by losing such strips as "The Far Side," "Doonesbury" and "Tank McNamara," the newspaper will be at an unfair disadvantage in Dallas' newspaper wars.

* Cathy Guisewite, creator of "Cathy," has hired an attorney to challenge certain aspects of her contract with Universal Press. Guisewite declined comment on the dispute, but industry sources say she is charging that her contract violates California's labor laws which restrict companies from compelling employees to sign contracts of more than seven years in duration.

* "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson recently told an audience of students that comics have been "cheapened and corrupted" by product licensing. "Syndicates are only too happy to sell out the comic for a quick buck," Watterson said.

* "Family Circus" creator Bil Keane waged a successful battle last year with King Features syndicate for the rights to own his comic and its characters; the agreement came 10 years after the syndicate he once worked for threatened to bring in another cartoonist to draw "Family Circus" if he didn't approve the terms of his contract.

"I do know of a couple of situations where certain cartoonists are demoralized by the fact that the characters they invented 20 or 25 years ago are owned by the syndicate, and are not theirs," said Mell Lazarus, president of the National Cartoonists Society.

Their morale hasn't been helped by the newspaper industry's decline in recent years. Cities with two competing dailies are now few, a fact that forces syndicates to scrounge for potential customers.

Paul G. Eberhart, assistant director of sales and international sales manager for King Features, said syndicates are paid roughly the same fees for most strips they were 10 years ago. The fee newspapers will pay is determined by the paper's size, whether it faces stiff competition from another paper, and the strip's popularity. Newspapers can pay anywhere from $10 to $500 weekly to run a comic strip.

"In the good old days, when you had two-newspaper towns, editors would go out and aggressively buy comics hoping that one would catch on and develop a following. Now they're less eager to take chances on a new strip," said Brad Bushell, vice president and sales manager for the New York-based syndicate, United Media.

Artists and syndicates are at odds over the question of who should own the rights to a comic strip, and Bushell said artists are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue.

In all but a handful of cases, syndicates own the rights to each strip and its characters. That means that United Media's United Feature Syndicate owns the rights to "Marmaduke," not its creator, Brad Anderson. Cartoonists have traditionally surrendered the rights to their strips when a syndicate agreed to represent them. Now some cartoonists are sorry they did.

"I do not own my creation and I feel that one should. In that respect, I'm sure all cartoonists feel the same way," said Bob Thaves who draws "Frank & Ernest." "I have asked for the rights time after time, and they have refused. They view it as a corporate asset, and they probably don't think they should give it away."

Syndicates spend from $15,000 to $30,000 to sell a new comic strip, Bushell said. That means they need to be assured that a popular cartoonist won't stop drawing his strip or take it to a competitor before the syndicate makes a profit. In many cases, cartoonists are asked to sign contracts of 10 and 20 years, said Richard S. Newcombe, who founded Creators Syndicate two years ago, and now serves as its president.

Newcombe believes that cartoonists should have the ownership rights to their work, and to walk away from working conditions they don't like.

"It should be voluntary at all times, just like a marriage. If the creators are very unhappy then they should have the right to renegotiate their contract or leave. And that was called radical when I started," Newcombe said.

Not all cartoonists would walk away if they had a chance. And Lazarus admits that it might be hard for the public to sympathize with their angst ; the nation's newspaper cartoonists earn from $50,000 to $30 million annually, according to industry analysts. The two top moneymakers are Charles Schultz's "Peanuts," and Davis' "Garfield."

"I'm doing well. I can't complain," Davis said. "If you have a good program, good salesmen and good reputation, it really doesn't matter who owns the rights. I am in a very small minority of cartoonists who is content with his agreement."

So is Anderson, who draws "Marmaduke" for United Feature Syndicate. About 10 years ago, a manufacturer began producing Marmaduke dolls, a move that angered Anderson because he had not authorized their sale. The syndicate's attorneys contacted the manufacturer and distributor.

"They made them pull the toys off the market and destroy them. If it had been me trying to handle this alone they probably would have snowballed me," Anderson said.

Yet Eberhart expects that more cartoonists will follow Keane's example and try to wrestle ownership rights away from the syndicates. To the cartoonists who want rights to their work, ownership is a question of principle.

"The cartoonist is the guy who should be steering the ship, not the other way around," Keane said. "I considered it morally wrong for a corporation to own a creation."

Keane does not see anything wrong with a cartoonist making additional income by having "Family Circus" characters endorse infant formula or laundry detergent. And he, like most cartoonists, isn't opposed to seeing his strip generate spin-off products such as greeting cards.

"That's a result of our marketplace, which has changed dramatically," said Bob Duffy, Universal's vice president for sales. "A lot of the auxiliary businesses that many cartoonists are in have become very important."

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