Getting a new comic strip added to any newspaper’s comics pages is becoming a Herculean effort. Dwindling newspaper readership causes belt tightening for editors and is leaving little space for new blood in the cartoonist pool.
However, harder does not yet mean impossible and over the past few years some new and young cartoonists have gotten their start with print syndication. These young creators are bringing with them more open attitudes toward the internet and it’s place in the comics industry.
Hogan’s Alley is a magazine dedicated to covering aspects of comic art with an emphasis on comic strips and more specifically the history of comic strips. From time to time the magazine will cover more recent comic strip works and on rare occasion it will include a few details about what’s going on in web comics. Despite the almost reluctant feel to web comics coverage the articles that do mention web comic activity have not been hostile, but the whole idea is still treated as some fringe, underground concept.
In issue 13 of Hogan’s Alley there is an interview with four young and recently syndicated cartoonists (most syndicated cartoonists I’ve seen in person average between 50 and 70 years old, so my use of the terms ‘young’ and ‘recent’ are relative). The nine page interview, titled “Four of a Kind : A Cartooning Roundtable”, was conducted by Hogan’s Alley Editor, Tom Heintjes. In a section of the printed interview the subject of the internet and it’s influence came up. The following is an excerpt from the interview. How the cartoonists view the web and it’s influence on their comics is an interesting read.
Dave Coverly (Speed Bump)
Jef Mallett (Frazz)
Pastis (Pearls Before Swine)
Hilary Prince (Rhymes With Orange)
Tom Heintjes: Has the Internet changed the way you work?
Pastis: Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have been syndicated. United picked up the strip for syndication, but then they had doubts about whether they could put it into newspapers. So they put my strip online and basically just watched the hits, which is commonplace now, but it didn’t really happen much then. And when Dilbert’s Scott Adams endorsed it, the hits went way up, and I held the audience for months. So they decided that I could hold readers and they could get me into papers. So without the Internet, none of that would have happened.
Price: How important is the Internet for you now?
Pastis: Really important. You can really get a feel for what’s working and what’s not working. People who e-mail you – whether they’re complimenting you or insulting you – generally have an agenda. But someone just talking about you on a random Web site is a pretty honest assessment. Because of that, I know how people react to my work. I don’t know how guys did it before the Internet. Imagine doing a strip, and eight weeks later someone sees it and writes a letter, which goes through your syndicate, and three weeks later you get the letter.
Heintjes: Is it possible to pay too much attention to reader reaction on the Internet?
Coverly: Oh, yeah.
Mallett: I try not to pay any attention. Patty [Mallett’s wife and letterer] will Google me.
Coverly: That’s too much information.
Mallett: [Laughter] One other thing that’s nice about the Internet is not being totally at the mercy of newspapers. If one newspaper doesn’t carry you, people can still find you. Before, if newspapers didn’t carry you, people would have no way of knowing about the strip. Now they can find it out there.
Price: Yeah, but it’s kind of a Pyrrhic victory. If it gets dropped in a paper and people get it online for free ? on a fulfillment level it’s a good thing, but economically it’s not great.
Mallett: As long as all the strips are available online, it’s kind of a wash. It will be really sad if newspapers say, “Well, the hell with it – readers can get all comic strips online, so we’re just going to use that page for something else.”
Coverly: I think the whole industry is in a big transition right now, and no one has absolutely any idea where it’s going to go or how anyone is going to make any money. It just seems like if people are reading it, they should be paying for it somehow.
Pastis: There are pluses and minuses. In the old days, if there’s a big paper I’m not in, no one is writing that paper. I am a non-factor. Nowadays, if someone from that town writes me, I’ll ask them to write to their paper. Suddenly, a newspaper editor who has never heard of me is getting letters from people in his city. So without the Internet, that doesn’t work. But as Hilary said, there are negatives, too. If you get dropped from a paper, everyone would write, because you’re not going to see that strip anymore. But now the rage is tamed. The reader will say, “Ahh, I’ll just read it online,” and that’s not good. But the syndicates are starting fee-based subscription services, so we’ll see how that works.
The full interview can be found in issue 13 of Hogan’s Alley.