Doonesbury, the Pitfalls of the Buffer and the Benefits of Web Publishing

To describe the comic strip Doonesbury as successful would be a monumental understatement. This year marks 35 years the strip has been in print and it appears today in over 1400 newspapers. Unlike a lot of the syndicated comics out there Doonesbury’s creator Garry Trudeau has embraced the web and what it can help accomplish for him in terms of visibility to an increasingly non-newspaper subscribing public. Trudeau has partnered with the web magazine Slate to make the Doonesbury comic strip available online. You would need to use the site to access the archives, but the most recent strip is always readable on the Doonesbury site the same day it appears in papers.

Like all the books tell you is good cartooning practice, Trudeau creates a buffer of his work. Of course, there’s also the time it takes to get a strip ready for print that requires strips to be created ahead of time. Regardless, Doonesbury is a daily strip and Trudeau creates the comic several days in advance. But, Doonesbury has the added complication of being politically topical and when current events take a sudden and dramatic turn that buffer can mean a lot of wasted work.

Up on the Doonesbury site now you can find all of this week’s comic strips, but these strips won’t be seeing print. They are all about the confirmation hearings of Harriet Miers, the embattled Supreme Court nominee who suddenly withdrew from consideration. Because of the surprise change in the story the strips Garry created are no longer relevent. A week’s worth of effort out the window. In newspapers this week, Doonesbury will be all re-runs instead.

This is a great example of the benefits behind webcomics. Without the web these strips would be lost. They’d sit in Trudeau’s drawer or even worse get thrown out or something. But, thanks to the concepts behind webcomics not only do we get to see them, but we get to see them while the issue is still topical. I can imagine that without webcomics these strips might eventually appear in a published collection of Doonesbury somewhere down the road, but who’s going to remember what the political atmosphere surrounding the whole thing will be a year or two down the line? With webcomics we get to see not only the future of Doonesbury, but an alternative timeline to boot.

I found the link to the Doonesbury comics through T. Campbell’s blog and I really thought this is a very cool example of how webcomics are being utilized in new ways, even from traditional creators. This brings about a whole slew of potential uses traditional print cartoonists could have for webcomics. Did an editor reject a comic for some particular reason? Post it to your site so your fans can check it out anyway. Do you want to introduce a new character to your strip, but you aren’t sure if it’ll work out? Make a few comics, post them to your site and ask your fans what they think. Your strip got cancelled? Keep it going on the web. Need to blow off some steam? Make a few strips of your characters swearing, shooting each other or making out.

If anyone has any more examples of this sort of thing please post about them in the comments section.


1 thought on “Doonesbury, the Pitfalls of the Buffer and the Benefits of Web Publishing

  1. In the 1950s, Walt Kelly (in his comic strip Pogo) produced alternative strips for newspapers skittish about publishing political satire. They were innocuous funny animal strips involving fuzzy bunnies (periodically, you’ll hear the term “fuzzy bunny strip” applied to a comic that goes out of its way to be harmless). Most of these “fuzzy bunny” strips are included in the various collections (though hardly representing an alternative timeline).

    Interestingly, modern technology has made the lead time for Doonesbury significantly smaller. Before the internet, Trudeau and his assistant (the guy who does the lettering and the inking) worked via FedEx. Trudeau would send his assistant a whole wad of strips, and the assistant would work them over and send them to the syndicate. The lead time was a couple of weeks. Now, they can work much tighter to the deadline. To be honest, I can’t really think of an instance where Trudeau has had to pull strips in the last fifteen years…

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