Toon Musings: Comics and Relevance
I’ve been in a funk lately, contemplating the present sorry state of my primary avocational love, the funnies. Based as they are upon the health of the newspaper industry, it’s gotten to be downright depressing, as the bad news for print journalism in general, and newspaper comics specifically, seems to come in a rapid and unceasing torrent.
This particular gut punch came with the news that Terry and Patty Laban have decided to call it quits with their syndicated strip Edge City. They cite exhaustion, and the sense that the form (i.e. newspaper comics) has lost relevance. Are they saying that comics have lost their relevance in the context of people’s daily newspaper consumption? Or is it that daily newspapers themselves are no longer relevant? Both?
Anecdotally, I’ve heard that it’s getting harder for even a syndicated cartoonist to make a living. One always hears about the giants of the profession: the Charles Schultzes, the Bill Wattersons, the Mort Druckers— the elite folks, whose strips appear in over 2000 papers— who make in the high five figures per week, even when considering the syndicates’ sizable cut, not even counting the merchandising revenue. But pity the poor journeyman, who’s only showing in a couple dozen places. Nowadays, with fewer papers, and when even those surviving papers are running fewer comics, is it even possible to pay the rent and put braces on the kids? Can they even afford to live the bland suburban life their strips often depict?
Editors are increasingly looking at the funnies as an unnecessary expense rather than a lure for readers, as they were originally conceived. One can debate the wisdom of this view, especially with printed media ceding readership to the internet at an alarming rate. And the phenomenon is not limited to newspapers.
When I was a kid, I read Mad Magazine, which was almost all comics. Later in life I subscribed to the National Lampoon, which had a Funnies section, a consistent favorite. The New Yorker is famous for it dryly droll panel cartoons, and runs an annual Comics issue. I used to look at Playboy occasionally, for the pictures— the cartoon pictures, that is (not exclusively, I admit, but that’s not germane to the topic at hand). Comics were part of our shared experience, our common culture.
And, increasingly, now they’re not. Mad is still around, as are a number of more juvenile kids’ magazines, but, for adults, the cartoony options are growing scarcer. The Lampoon is long gone, and now Playboy has announced a redesign. Gone are the explicit nudie pictures, to be replaced with less explicit ones. Also gone are the comics. Granted, the cartoons they ran could at times be a bit skeevy, lurid, sexist, etc., but they were well executed, by the masters of the profession. And they were a source of income; that’s how they attracted the masters of the profession.
Well, at least we still have The New Yorker. And the Internet. Thank goodness for the Yahoo! News portal, which offer comics. Oh, wait. No, they don’t anymore.
I despair for the state of the funnies.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.