Cartoonists feel the squeeze
Picture the scene: a room full of cartoonists, sipping cocktails and making small talk. What might each of their text balloons say about the state of cartooning today?
Lalo Alcaraz’s would be succinct. “We’re going to hell in a handbasket,” said the creator of the comic strip “La Cucaracha.”
Alcaraz suspects that will be the consensus this weekend at the National Cartoonists Society’s annual convention in Hollywood. It’s usually a time for fun, culminating in a black tie dinner where the best comics are given Reuben Awards. But like so many others in this changing economy, cartoonists are suffering. With newspapers cutting space and in some cases folding, print comic strip illustrators are finding their livelihoods threatened.
“We live and die by our newspapers,” said Cathy Guisewite, who created the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976. “We’ve all built our careers on trying to be content for newspapers. If newspapers are struggling, then we’re struggling as well.”
Readers of several major newspapers have seen the comics reduced or re-sized in the last few months.
In late March, the Washington Post announced it was dropping five print comics, including “Little Dog Lost” and “Zippy the Pinhead” -- though, all five are still available on the Post’s website.
A month earlier, the Oregonian announced it was dropping 10 comics to cut back on costs.
In December, the Florida Times-Union cut eight strips from both its daily and Sunday comics. The paper instituted a “Comic Strip Survivor” voting drive through which readers could pick which eight of the 16 strips would be eliminated.
Some newspapers that have moved to a Web-only format, such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., have kept their comics in online form.
But cartoonists whose strips survive are forced to be even more succinct in their storytelling as newspapers shrink their allotted space for comics.
“There’s less you can do in the size of the panel that current newspapers provide,” said Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine.”
“In the old days, comics were often full pages. Now, they’re squeezed down into tiny little boxes that don’t give much more room than what it takes to do a talking head. It’s sad to see something that was so important to cartooning becoming marginalized.”
The un-funny reality has made the print comics scene a challenge for newcomers, according to the Post’s Micahel Cavna, TV/theater editor and the man behind its Comic Riffs blog.
“I think it’s brutally hard to break into print comics right now,” Cavna said. “It’s like ‘Star Wars,’ when you’re trying to shoot to get the Death Star . . . that tiny little room of error -- that’s where cartoonists are left in the print world. The window is yet narrower to succeed.”
Lisa Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of United Media press syndicate, says the syndicate receives hundreds of submissions each year, of which roughly eight are selected for syndication. That doesn’t mean those eight will be distributed to newspapers; some may get a Web-only launch.
“It’s very difficult for a newly launched strip to reach its potential than if it had been launched 10 to 20 years ago,” Wilson said.
“New comics aren’t getting the attention they should be. But I still think newspapers are a good place for exposure. And we will continue to try to feed the best comics to the newspapers despite the fact that they’re in a difficult place right now.”
Historically, comic strips were used to build readership and lure readers from competing papers, said Stephen Worth, director of the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive. But there are few markets left with competing papers.
And, Cavna adds, with rival forms of humorous entertainment, a cartoonist’s funniness can often feel bland.
“If you’re being exposed to ‘The Daily Show’ or ‘Funny or Die’ videos online and then go to the comics page, even the best writers can just feel tame or sweet,” Cavna said. “There are edgy comics out there, but newspapers aren’t, for the most part, going to risk running them. They’re not going to risk scaring their more traditional and established readers.”
But like their newspapers, cartoonists are finding other ways to distribute their content. Though cartooning online may still be in its infancy, some cartoonists have found a way to generate enough revenue to make a living at it.
Jeph Jacques, 28, operates QuestionableContent.net, an online comic strip. The first strip appeared in August 2003; by the next year, Jacques was able to support himself and his wife from the revenue generated from merchandise and ad space sold on the website.
“There seems to be, among some of the older, more established cartoonists, this sense of incredulity that people can make a living doing comics online,” Jacques said. “Online comics have the advantage. We’re getting a more diverse crowd; a younger crowd. And word of mouth is a lot quicker.”
Neither cartoonists nor syndicate representatives interviewed for this story provided figures for how much money a syndicated cartoonist makes. A cartoonist’s contract with a syndicate is determined on an individual basis. Typically, the more clients a cartoonist has and the bigger the newspaper’s circulation, the more money a cartoonist can expect to make.
And those not entirely convinced by the revenue stream generated online are looking to animation as their next target. Alcaraz has dabbled with producing “somewhat animated” editorial cartoons and has pitched an animated version of his comic to Fox. Pastis also expressed an interest in getting “Pearls” animated.
Cartoonists should explore all options to avoid producing content that makes readers squint their eyes, Cavna said.
“Soon, they’ll have to start including plastic magnifying glasses for free with every comics page,” he said. “Shrinking them anymore becomes almost pointless.”