Calamity on the Comics Page

The average middle-class American gets up every morning, grabs a bite to eat for breakfast, and sips down a hot cup of coffee while thumbing through the pages of the newspaper. They may check out the front page headlines, skip ahead to the sports page, or even skim through the business section to see how their stocks are holding up. Those who are fortunate enough to take a peek at the comics page find the time to glance over their favorite strips, but casual readers tend to overlook the struggle unfolding before their eyes. With less space available and more comics to publish, the size constraints that cartoonists currently work under has become unbelievably small. Artistic license is a thing of the past; cartoonists have had to simplify drawings and limit dialogue to simple puns and recycled gags. Though money-driven syndicates try to promote potential talents, business tactics have overrun the spirit of an American original--the comic strip. As Bill Watterson, author of the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, bluntly puts it, "the reader is being gypped and he doesn't even know it" (Cheapening, par. 16). Comics have the capacity for greatness, but too many corporate restraints stand in the way of creative liberty. Although syndication aids in generating revenue and success for cartoonists, business interests and newspaper cuts have degraded a wonderful American art form. For the comic strip to regain its historic potential, newspapers, syndicates, and cartoonists need to reevaluate the industry standards and push aside profit to preserve the art form.

Since its arrival more than a century ago, the comic strip has been inseparable from the newspaper. During a time when local newspapers competed against each other for more readership, the comic strip came about as a way to endorse its publisher by featuring humorous pictorial commentaries. Cartoonists were given an entire page to work with because they had exclusive right to the space. Newspaper editors and cartoonists worked side by side, and under these circumstances magnificent comic strips were created exemplifying artistic craftsmanship. Today, cartoonists work under a different scenario. With the help of big syndication, they sell their strips to newspapers all over the country. The intervention of large scale marketing has been profitable, but only "at some cost to the comics' early exuberance" (Watterson, Tenth Anniversary 8). Comics nowadays lack the ingenuity and experimentation of earlier strips because they try to appeal to a broader public. Watterson is clever to point out this strange relation between the past and present:

Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium's history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. (Cheapening, par. 16)

This 'reverse evolution' summarizes the impact of mass syndication. The drive for profitability has resulted in the decline of originality; comics get watered down and become more repetitive and predictable. There are a few exceptions to the current formula of mediocrity; some cartoonists find a way to break free from the boundaries of stringent regulation after extended periods of success and cooperative bargaining. Though such exceptions are rare, they strengthen the argument for the possibilities of improvement. Comics can be a lot more than what they are today, and history shows an indisputable record of past cartoon masterpieces.

Unfortunately, current conditions indicate that syndicates and newspapers have become inseparable, interfering with the bond between cartoonist and editor. Syndicates have permanently altered the state of comics; the middlemen are here to stay. Their business principles have changed the industry forever, but in addition to setting a new standard, it is meaningful to recognize how they have aided in the vast exposure of many noteworthy comics. In fact, syndication has without a doubt benefited the careers of numerous cartoonists. More exposure means more publicity, and when a cartoonist has widespread appeal, he is more likely to remain prosperous. Indeed some good has come out of this commercial enterprising, but the downs outnumber the ups. As in any business, success comes at a hefty fee.

Cartoonists share the profits in return for nationwide promotion and publication, but they lose more than financial privileges. As part of the deal, syndicates usually demand full ownership of the artist's creation, including copyright, merchandising, and all exploitation rights. The cartoonist either agrees to the contract, or he does not get published: "Without creator control over the work, the comics remain a product to be exploited, not an art" (Watterson, Cheapening, par. 23-4). The financial arrangement lacks some equity, but the art form suffers more than anything. The severity of the issue is hard to put into words. Watterson compares the predicament to a novelist giving his literary agent full character ownership and all reprint, television, and movie rights before he even forwards the manuscript to a publisher (Cheapening, par. 24). As outrageous as it may seem, cartoonists have little choice in the matter. Granted, some syndicates maintain licensing rights temporarily, but the majority still own the characters well after the comic has retired. Cartoonists sign over their artistic license for faulty dividends.

It seems ill-advised to solely attack syndication when the newspapers can be held equally responsible for the problems on the comics page. Nearly everyone is in it for the money, including a good portion of cartoonists, and when money is tight cuts are inevitable. The extreme cutbacks begin with the newspapers who limit publication space and actively engage in the downsizing of 'unnecessary' features. This size constraint means less room for intricate dialogue and plot development as well as restrictions of artistic expression. Syndicates have their own business to run, and they spend countless hours negotiating for space in national papers. Creators Syndicate executive vice president/COO Mike Santiago admits it is a tough market: "It's no secret that the number of daily newspapers--and the space for columns and comics--is declining" (qtd. in Astor, "Retention", par. 7). Competition between papers is no longer a concern, and television has nearly replaced the newspaper as the popular source for information; thus, comics are less beneficial to newspapers than they used to be (Watterson, Tenth Anniversary 8). Consequently, syndicates have begun to limit the number of talents they accept. Online columnist David Astor cites an interesting statistic, asserting that the biggest syndicates receive as many as 7,500 to 10,000 submissions a year and sign fewer than 10 of them ("Retention", par. 1). The odds are obviously not in the cartoonist's favor.

The endless cycle of comic downsizing is a direct result of a lack in cooperation. The essential relationship between cartoonist, syndicate, and newspaper has been strained, and each party is too caught up with their own selfish interests to proceed (Watterson, Tenth Anniversary 8). The three sides are blinded and biased by their own business ideologies. As a direct consequence, the comics page is shrinking at an alarming rate, and the quality of the daily strip has deteriorated over the past couple decades. Having experienced the dilemma himself, Bill Watterson finds the three-way battle unbelievably ludicrous:

The situation is ironic. All across the country, newspapers are going to great expense to add color photographs, fancy graphics, and bold design to their pages in order to entice readers away from the steady blue light of their TV screens. It is strange that after all that expense and work, newspapers refuse to take advantage of the comic strip, the one newspaper graphic that television cannot imitate. (Cheapening, par. 40)

The newspaper is unfortunately an expiring medium--a business struggling to make ends meet. For comics to survive the cycle of downsizing, extreme measures must be taken to reform current standards or to completely abandon the system altogether.

On October 27, 1989, Bill Watterson delivered a formal speech "The Cheapening Of Comics" at the Festival of Cartoon at Ohio State University. A great deal of his lecture has inspired the argument set forth in this essay. After only four years of writing Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson addressed his peers and pleaded for immediate reformation. In his speech, he offered up some alternatives to mass syndication. He firmly believes that newspapers and syndicates are by no means essential to the distribution and publication of comics; Watterson imagines a publisher who understands the true potential of comic art and collaborates efforts to produce a comics magazine (Cheapening, par. 43). This plan of action offers cartoonists the freedoms they deserve without the restrictions of big business. He then goes on to suggest keeping the syndicates but abandoning the newspapers: "Each syndicate could put out a weekly comic book of all its strips," and tap the comic industry by offering subscriptions to interested readers (Cheapening, par. 44). Both of his ideas are worth considering because they return the primary authority to the cartoonist. The collective comic magazine would be a great way to boost quality and space, while allowing room for advertising and marketing opportunities for outside businesses. These ideas have been floating around for the past couple years, but more than a decade has passed and little has changed.

A current possibility that Watterson may have overlooked due to its commercial irrelevance at the time is the internet. Online syndication is an emerging possibility for the future of comics. With infinite space to work with and the growing popularity of the internet, many of the larger syndicates have begun to invest time and money in web page development and promotion. According to Astor, syndicates are not making a ton of money from the Web yet, but it is certainly a growing part of their business. "One young Web player is the 1996-founded iSyndicate, which distributes content to over 6,000 sites," and many other big syndicates have joined the trend (Astor, "Syndicates", par. 18-19). Because comics and syndicates are realistically partners for life, online syndication sounds like a great compromise; cartoonists get an infinite canvas to work on, and syndicates can still distribute and capitalize on the business venture. As long as revenue from online advertising can draw in enough profit, comics could actually abandon the newsprint medium for good. The internet venture has not been carved in stone, as Universal Press Syndicate's Andrews McMeel Publishing reassures that their "primary client and partner is still the print newspaper" (Astor, "Syndicates", par. 22). Newspapers have the time to mend their restrictive ways if they have the desire to remain part of the threesome, but the outcome of online syndication looks favorable with or without their involvement.

The need for a collaborative effort between newspapers, syndicates, and cartoonists is critical to the revival of the great American art form. "The business interests, in the name of efficiency, mass marketability, and profit, profit, profit are catering to the lowest common denominator of readership," and comics strips continue to follow a declining trend in creativity and individuality (Watterson, Cheapening, par. 49). Cartoonists need a leader to step forward and to address the problems that have plagued the comic industry for the last couple decades. Comics have greater potential than even history has shown, but under current conditions the likelihood of a creative revolution is doubtful. If there is any glimmer of hope, it is that comics are here to stay one way or another, and that over time they will reinvent their place in our lives. A medium that is so versatile cannot be contained by restrictions and business ideologies, but it will take more than a funny punchline to solve this problem. Only through determination and equal cooperation will the comics page revive its once radiant shine of imagination.

Works Cited

Astor, David. "Retention Tension For Syndicates: It's Getting Harder To Keep Features Going." Editor & Publisher Interactive
2 Oct. 1998. Online. 27 Jan. 1999. []

Astor, David. "Syndicates Set Sights on Year 2000: Millennium Material, 'Peanuts' Party Coming." Editor & Publisher Interactive
1 Jan. 1999. Online. 27 Jan. 1999. []

Watterson, Bill. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1995.

Watterson, Bill. "The Cheapening of Comics." Festival of Cartoon Art, Ohio State University. 27 Oct. 1989. Calvin and Hobbes: Unplugged. Online. 12 Jan. 1999. []