The only type of comic strip syndicate I would consider joining these days is one that does not exist yet. It is a syndicate where the cartoonists are in control of it, and not the other way around. As far as I'm concerned, a syndicate should exist to serve the needs of its cartoonists. The cartoonists are the ones with the talent, the creativity, and the vision, thus a syndicate needs them more than they need the syndicate (or so, this cartoonist would certainly like to think! :-)). Unfortunately, for the past 100 years or so, the tail has been wagging the dog, as the syndicates have controlled the cartoonists. The syndicates have forced cartoonists to hand over their cartoon creations, and bow to their will, because cartoonists have had no other choice if they wanted to work in the business (or so I believed).
I suspect that this new syndicate would have to be formed by the cartoonists themselves, or at least, by someone who loves comic strips, and wants to see the medium improve and prosper. This syndicate would be unlike the current syndicates on the go today. It would not be an employer to the cartoonist, or even a partner. I see this syndicate as a service, a cartoonist's co-operative. I'd like to think that any cartoonist should be able to avail him/herself of this service if s/he is willing to pay for it. (Keenspot/space is now sort of the online equivalent of this.)
This new syndicate would be akin to Image Comics. Image was formed when a group of the most talented Marvel Comics artists (Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and others) left Marvel in order to form their own company. These men were tired of the standard work-for-hire practices of the major comics companies, the lack of fair profit-sharing from their work, the lack of job security, the lack of editorial control over their work, and the general lack of respect that the major comics companies have given its greatest talents over the years. They were tired of being cogs in a corporate wheel, and they wanted out. They wanted to work for themselves, not some less-than-grateful company. From this discontent, Image Comics was born. The big boys at Marvel weren't too concerned by this defection to Image by their best talent. They figured that Image would collapse within a few months, and these renegades would soon come crawling back, looking for their old jobs. Well, Image has had a few failures, but ultimately, they have persevered, and have come out with some of the most successful comic book titles in history. They have taken a big bite out of the sales of the Big Two comics companies (Marvel and DC). The Image creators own their own work. Todd McFarlane owns Spawn and has complete control over what he wants to do with his character. Spawn is earning money for him, not some big company. (I'm less than enamored of the way McFarlane put the merchandising of Spawn ahead of the books themselves, but hey, it's his call, at least.)
Now, could you imagine if retired cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, and Berkely Breathed got together and formed a creator-controlled syndicate, similar to what McFarlane et. al. did in forming Image? And imagine if other popular cartoonists, like Scott Adams, Jim Davis, Garry Trudeau, and Lynn Johnson were able to leave their current syndicates and join them? This would be the death knell for the comics syndicates of today.
Note: when I raised some of these issues in the rec.arts.comics.strips newsgroup, a lot of people seemed skeptical that a group of cartoonists would be able to form and manage their own syndicate. The arguments (not unfair ones, either) went that cartoonists are not business people, and that they probably wouldn't do a good job of handling the business side of things. Even if they were adept at the business side of running their syndicate, wouldn't this severely cut into their time spent at cartooning? (I really got into it with Mark Evanier, actually, but by no means was the debate unpleasant. I appreciated him taking the time to share his point of view.)
IMHO, cartoonists don't necessarily have to be business people to set up a syndicate on their own (though of course, the more business savvy they have, the better off they'll be). Could not these cartoonists hire the right people to run the syndicate for them? Whoever is running the syndicate would have to answer to whoever formed it. Now this still may mean that the cartoonists in question would have a little extra work on their plate each day, as they have to keep an eye on how things are being run. But wouldn't the extra freedoms (if, as I assume, there are extra freedoms) that come with having more control over your career be worth it? If not, then I guess there truly is no need for a cartoonist-controlled syndicate...
But for now, let's assume that it would. A creator-controlled syndicate would work for the cartoonists, not the other way around. The syndicate would handle the business aspects for the creators, at the discretion of the creators. The artist who joins this syndicate would retain complete control over his/her creation. S/he would not give up the rights to their characters to the syndicate. They would not have to do what the syndicate tells them to do. If the cartoonist wants to license his/her creation to death (a la Garfield) that's his/her decision. Or if they're only interested in drawing cartoons, and to hell with licensing (a la Calvin and Hobbes), they can do that too.
As well, the cartoonist would have complete editorial control. S/he can push the envelope as far as s/he wants. The cartoonist can opt to have somebody within the syndicate act in an editorial capacity, and oversee their strip. At most, the editor(s) in this syndicate can recommend that certain aspects of the strip be changed. But ultimately, the cartoonist will have final say over what changes, if any, are to be made. Thus, if an artist was bold enough to include an explicit sex scene in his/her strip, the syndicate's editor can, at most, strongly recommend that the scene be dropped. The cartoonist can, if s/he wants, insist that the scene remain, and off the strip goes to the newspapers. That collective thud! sound you'd hear would be every newspaper editor dropping said strip from their paper like the proverbial hot potato, mind you. Thus, the cartoonist would end up suffering for the risks s/he took, and they'd have nobody to blame but themselves. Still, as a cartoonist, I want that sort of control for my strip. I want to be able to take chances with my strip. I'll gladly take responsibility for my screw-ups. But if I've pushed the envelope in the right direction, then I reap the rewards. This sort of set up would, I believe, make for better comic strips in the long run. The comics would become fresher, bolder, more daring, and more interesting. The readers would benefit, the newspapers would benefit, and the cartoonists would benefit.
Thus, "with great power comes great responsibility", as Spider-Man's slogan says. So, if you use your strip to piss somebody off, and they decide to sue, you're the one who has to deal with it. The syndicate is working for you, not the other way around, remember. If you don't take the syndicate editor's advice, and you get in trouble, the syndicate should not be held accountable. This would be part of an agreement that you would have to sign with the syndicate.
If you join this syndicate, you would also have to agree to pay a certain percentage of your earnings to the syndicate, in order to take care of their business costs, overhead, salaries of the staff, etc. But that's about all you would agree to. In other words, you wouldn't have to sign a contract with this syndicate. You are free to leave the syndicate if you can get a better deal elsewhere! (I can see the the heads of the major comics syndicates passing out in horror at the thought of letting their cartoonists have this sort of freedom.) Or you can leave if you're tired of the business, and want out. This is your career, so you should have complete control over what you want to do with it.
(The ideas in my previous paragraphs have also been criticized. It has been pointed out that newspaper editors want stability on their comics page. They don't want to take a chance on a comic strip whose artist may decide to up and quit in a month's time. Nor do they want comic strip that could decide to get all weird on them at any time. Too many comic strips like that would give the syndicate a black eye. So, perhaps some sort of a multi-year contract is needed between cartoonist and syndicate. Perhaps editorial control should be exercised in extreme cases, as well. I hate the thought of it, but these options may be necessary to solve potential problems...)
How would this syndicate recruit new talent?
It is my belief that virtually anyone who is serious about becoming a career cartoonist should have a shot with this new syndicate. The cartoonist should be given a chance to prove him/herself to the syndicate. His/her work should not be accepted or rejected merely on the whims of a submissions editor. The syndicate should be open to the notion that all the comic strip ideas they receive have potential, and should showcase these strips to newspaper editors across the country.
Before you dismiss me as a total lunatic, here's how I see this as working. Not just anyone can submit their comic strip to the syndicate. To submit, and get a chance to have the syndicate showcase your work, it's gonna cost you. It should cost the cartoonist at least 100 bucks if they want to submit, perhaps even a couple hundred (your mileage may vary). For the money, the cartoonist gets samples of his/her strip published in a monthly magazine that the syndicate sends to newspaper editors across North America (if not around the world). Each cartoonist gets a page (maybe a couple of pages) in this magazine to show off their best stuff. The editors could then fill out a checklist of what comic strips (if any) they like, and send (or e-mail) the checklist back to the syndicate. If a cartoonist gets approval from a significant number of editors, then the syndicate will offer to represent him/her.
The fee you'd have to pay would serve two purposes: first off, it would help take care of the costs of publishing the monthly magazine, as well as whatever other costs would be incurred in handling your submission. Secondly, a 3 digit fee should dissuade casual cartoonists. If you're willing to pony up the dough, this means you're serious about getting into the business.
(Upon further reflection, allowing any cartoonist to join the syndicate merely on the basis of their willingness to pay to be promoted by the syndicate would not work. It could be very bad for business. Certain standards would have to be met by the cartoonists. For instance, the syndicate could and should reject any strip that is blatantly racist. I'd like to be able to say that the syndicate should gladly take the money from any cartoonist foolish enough to try to syndicate such a strip. Guaranteed no newspaper would touch the thing with a proverbial 10 foot pole. But the mere fact that the syndicate is doing business with a known racist cartoonist would upset a lot of people, including newspaper editors. This would probably kill the chances of any other cartoonist with the syndicate getting a chance with the newspapers, and this in turn would kill the syndicate itself. Bottom line: if a strip would be genuinely bad for the syndicate's business, they have no obligation to try and represent it.)
Here's another idea: at the same time, showcase these same comic strips on the syndicate's website, and let the people have a look at them. Surfers would then have the option of voting for whichever new comic strips they like. (Of course, the voting process would somehow have to be safeguarded, so that you couldn't vote for the same strip more than once, and stack the deck, as it were.) This might also give the syndicate, and newspaper editors some ideas as to which strips could become popular.)
But what if your comic strip doesn't make the grade? How about this: if your comic strip is approved by only a small number of editors, then you will receive the names and addresses of these editors, in case you'd like to contact them and maybe work out an agreement with them on your own to publish your strip in their papers. As well, the syndicate's staff will have a look at your strip, and send you a written analysis of it, telling you what they think your strip's weaknesses are, and what you can do to improve your work.
On the other hand, if practically every comics editor who sees your strip sees it as the second coming of Calvin and Hobbes and is screaming for the chance to put your work on their comics page, the syndicate will definitely offer to represent you, but you can still say no! If you think you can get a better deal with another syndicate, you are free to take this information, and bring it to them. (This is currently the case with Keenspot. We the cartoonists are not locked in to any long-term contracts, and can leave any time we want.)
My idea of letting anyone
who's willing to pay have a shot with this syndicate also came under a
lot of criticism. Would not this syndicate become a bottom-feeder, willing
to take on any old piece of crap, if the price is right? Might this not
make comics editors shy away from this syndicate, if they get a reputation
for carrying a lot of sub-standard junk?
Unfortunately, I may have to concede the point here, as well. But I'm much more reluctant to do so. If the syndicate I envision recruits cartoonists the same way that the current syndicates do so, then this becomes another version of the Syndicate Sweepstakes: submit your comic strip, and maybe it will be the one we pick (out of 4,000 submissions) this year to represent!! This is what I want to get away from. I mean, who knows what the public will like, and what they won't? That's why I feel that every cartoonist who's serious enough to pay to get their work shown to newspaper editors should get that chance. The more people your comic strip is exposed to, the more likely it has of becoming successful, or so you'd think. Perhaps there is some sort of happy medium that can be reached. Ideas, anyone?
(Note: While I still maintain that all cartoonists who are serious about getting their work published should at least be given the chance to be represented by the syndicate if they are willing to pay, I will gladly concede one point that Mark Stanley made. In an e-mail to me, he pointed out that for any sort of undertaking like this, the syndicate in question would have to put its best foot forward. That is, for the first magazine (and maybe even for the first couple of issues), only the best of the best should be showcased, in order to better compete with what the current syndicates are offering. Again, this raises the question of, who determines what the best available comics for this project are? I suppose that any cartoonists who were previously with other syndicates would automatically be included in the first issue. As for the rest, well, as Mark puts it, "Who chooses which is the best can be done either by e-mail [or some sort of consultation] between the organizers, or by a single tyrant." This way, the odds-on favorites of success should hopefully be able to pave the way for everyone else to at least be given a once-over by newspaper comics editors.)
What Mike said...
(After reading the above essay, my friend Mike Dominic came up with a few interesting ideas of his own. Below is the body of an e-mail he sent me, that I thought you might like to read.)
You mention in your essay the idea of a monthly magazine to distribute cartoon material. I don't think you realize the potential you have in that idea.
Ask yourself: why does the syndicate get so much money for each strip it sells? How is it able to trap cartoonists into long-term contracts. What does it do to qualify for the exalted status it claims? The answer is simple: sales and marketing. The syndicates of today do the legwork for a cartoonist by using their network of contacts in the publishing field to promote their chosen artists. This not only involves a lot of time and money expenditure on the part of the syndicate's sales people, but also creates in them a sort of elitist attitude, as there is no doubt that individuals will more aggressively promote those strips which they like best themselves (and it is certainly their right to do so). However, what if a lot of this work and non-objective bias could be eliminated? Would this not improve the artists' situation and open the field to more newcomers? I think it would.
Let me propose this as a hypothetical situation: next month, instead of having salespeople visit newspaper editors, the syndicates publish a Previews style magazine with about 1 week's worth of strips from each artist. The newspaper editor then reads this catalog at his convenience and fills an order form for the strips his paper wants to run that month. the order form is faxed/e-mailed to the syndicate who ships the work and bills the paper's account the standard fee. The next month, the same thing happens, and the next and the next, etc.. No salesman comes to visit, there's no haggling, no fast talking, no meetings to be scheduled. In how many ways would this be an improvement over the current system, at all levels!!!
Think: the editors get
to read the material on their own schedules, and they actually get to see
a fair example of the strips, to compare them to other strips and to make
choices based on their own wants. If a strip fails to deliver, they can
drop it with short notice and are not bound to contracts. Best of all,
they do not have to deal with salespeople.
The syndicates can reduce manpower. They no longer need to send sales reps all over the country. They no longer have to wheedle their way into editors' offices. Instead, their focus is on creating a quality package of material to send out to the prospective buyers. The creators get better representation. Not only is there now room for more of them, but they are also assured that they will not have to face the prejudices of the sales person or syndicate editors. At last, the strips can stand or fall based on their own level of quality! This also means that the cartoonist gets a greater share of the loot. The syndicates can no longer claim the high operation costs they do now, and salaries are lower and fewer. Also, the need for long-term contracts is eliminated as, for the syndicate, quantity of buyership will replace quality, which is where sales works best anyway. The quality does not disappear, but it is now less a concern of the syndicate....in fact, diversity becomes their watchword as they try to present a package that will appeal to all tastes!!!
The creator is just as responsible for his own work....if he does not do it well, it will not sell. But he is no longer under the whiphand of the syndicates.
How can this be done? Simply. For form, look to the field where it is already being done: Diamond Comics' Previews magazine. Although their format is friendly to consumers, it is really intended for retailers as that is their direct market. They try to present a unique, user-friendly, diverse package to convince retailers to take a chance on new and smaller books. By taking a percentage of cover price, they increase their own profits by increased sales. They do not have to do any promotion of their own; it's all done for the price of producing a monthly magazine. Cheap.
For content: there are thousands of wannabe cartoonists out there who would gladly fill the pages of such a publication, and using the same standards as Diamond uses (see: Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing) would ensure a minimum level of quality.
For guidance: why not approach the Diamond people themselves with this idea? They already have the corporate structure and the experience to do this.....it would be little more than a sideline to them, but would radically change the cartoonist marketplace.
....And further....look at the back pages of an issue of Previews sometime.....it's not just comics. It's books, games, CCG's, TPB's, beer steins, lithographs, et cetera ad nauseum. One stop shopping for all your merchandising needs. If even a mediocre cartoonist wants to merchandise himself to death, and if he can get the product out on schedule, the magazine will help him do it as long as the sales are happening. This is a cartoonist's heaven!!!
Do yourself a favor....go out and get a copy of Previews from [your nearest comics shop] and study it....picture it with strips instead of comic books, and you will see that the idea translates very neatly.
I think that such a radical approach is necessary if you are really interested in changing the face of comics syndication. It is not enough to try to change the system from within. You need to grab it and give it a good shake by rethinking the basic idea of it. Only in this way can you restructure it with the balance in favor of the creators, while at the same time giving a fair shake to the business people who do the "legwork".
(Note: if you want to contact Mike, and discuss these ideas with him, he can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. I know he'd love to hear from you.)
So what do you think?
I'd really like to get your feedback on all of this, particularly if you are a fellow cartoonist. Is an idea like this feasible? Could a creator-controlled syndicate work? I'm certain that it could (though not necessarily by implementing all my ideas. ;-) But yes, I still feel a creator-controlled syndicated run by some of the biggest names in the business could fare quite well, if run properly). Remember, Image Comics was supposed to fail (according to the "experts"), but it is still going strong. The artists who created Image believed in themselves, and that's what cartoonists need to start doing, as well.
As for my ideas on how this syndicate would recruit new cartoonists, well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that it would fly. I'd like to think it would. But there's a good chance that each month's magazine would probably have a lot of sub-standard material in it, from cartoonists who indeed want a career in the business, but at this stage of the game, simply don't have what it takes to gain a foothold in the comic strip market. Would newspaper editors be willing to wade through a lot of dreck every month, in hopes of finding the odd diamond amidst the rubble? I don't know. Have you got any better ideas?
Again, what do you think? Am I a visionary, or merely full of what makes the proverbial grass grow green? I wrote this essay, and have been posting to r.a.c.s., in order to learn as much about the business as I can. Even if all my assumptions and ideas can be proven wrong, then I still will have learned something. I don't claim to have all the answers, which is why I want to hear from you. If you think I'm wrong about some (or all) of this, let me know. But it's not enough to tell me I'm full of it. I'll want you to try and improve on what I've got written. As in, "this idea wouldn't work. What if we tried this?", or "This is how this idea could be improved..." In other words, if you're a pessimist or a naysayer, keep it to yourself. Don't waste your time, or mine.
Do cartoonists need newspapers?
How's that for a radical question? But it's one I've been thinking about since... well, almost since I started writing and drawing Bruno the Bandit, and learning about the comic strip business in the process. And as you know, the more I learned, the less enamored I became of the way cartoonists are treated by the syndicates and newspapers (though again, I now admit there was a bit of "sour grapes" on my part).
The market for comic strips is shrinking, or so I've read. There are more and more good cartoonists these days who are competing for less space on the average newspaper page. Most major markets these days have only one newspaper, so there's not as much competition to grab the best strips. And in many cases, papers carry less comic strips than they did in years gone by. Often, when a paper needs to cut costs, the comics are the first to go under the knife. (Also, last year I learned from Bill Holbrook that the rates that newspapers are paying for their comic strips haven't changed since the seventies!)
Why has the situation gotten so bleak for cartoonists? Some cartoonists have grumbled about the way newspapers do business with them. They complain about newspaper editors who are unsympathetic to cartoonists, and who supposedly resent the popularity of the comics in their papers. Is this the case? I'd like to think that it isn't, but...
One theory I absolutely, positively DON'T believe is that comic strips just aren't as popular with people as they were in years gone by.
Hmmm... wait a minute: I may have to back up here. Maybe today's comics aren't as popular with people. But maybe that's because so few of today's comic strips are all that interesting. It seems that extreme simplicity, and totally non-controversial subject matter are the norm for most comic strips, along with the fact that far too many comic strips have been running for decades, and have gone far past their prime. As well, today's comics are so small that they need to be read with a magnifying glass, and they're placed in boring, unimaginative grids on the comics page. Is it any wonder that people aren't as captivated by comic strips as they once were?
So, who decided to make today's comics so bland and unappealing? Was it the choice of the cartoonists themselves? Maybe...
Even though the comics have suffered all these setbacks over the past several decades, they still maintain a respectable level of popularity among newspaper readers everywhere. Readers become fiercely attached to their favorite strips, and woe to the unthinking newspaper editor who decides to drop one of these strips.
Thus, as far as I'm concerned, the notion that comic strips just aren't popular with people doesn't hold water. (They're just not as popular as they could be, I believe.) But for some strange reason, the market for comics, we are told, is shrinking.
Maybe it's time for cartoonists to up and make their own markets, rather than have it made for them by the syndicates and newspapers. I honestly believe that if cartoonists can find alternative ways to get their comics out to the public, they can be even more successful than they are now. Especially if they give up the blandness, simplicity, and tiny comic strip sizes that have been forced on them over the years, and are given a chance to blow us away by living up to their full potential!
(Again, I'm not suggesting that cartoonists become businesspeople. Only that they hire, or form partnerships with those in the business world who are sympathetic to their cause. But hey, if there are cartoonists who can do both at once, then more power to 'em!!!)
Currently, I can think of two ways that cartoonists can free themselves of the need for newspapers, and get their strips out to the public. I like the first idea much better than the second, but it's probably not feasible at the moment.
Sell your strip on-line
This is what I wanted to do when I first got a web page for Bruno the Bandit. I reasoned that if I could get a few thousand readers who would be willing to pay me a few pennies each day for the chance to read the day's strip, then I'd have no trouble making a living. But since then, reality has kicked in (and kicked me in the head). For one thing, it's been a lot harder than I expected to get readers to come to my site. I've done a fair bit to try and promote my site, without spamming, or otherwise becoming a 'net nuisance (though I wasn't even above that, at the very beginning), but the numbers are nowhere near what I'd need to try to sell Bruno on-line.
But oh, if only I did have a few thousand fans each willing to each pay me a few pennies a day to read Bruno...
The situation would be ideal. I would retain complete ownership and control over my comic strip. No syndicate or newspaper editors would tell me what I can or can't do, or what I should or shouldn't write about. My comic strip would go straight from me to you (as it does now), with no middlemen to muff things up for us. I could take whatever chances I wanted with my strip. I could change the strip's format, content, etc. I could change the strip's size, and add color to it, if I wanted. In other words, I could be a lot more adventurous if I wanted, and if any changes I made were good ones, then hopefully the strip would become more popular. But, if you the readers didn't like what I did, then I would know immediately, as I'd lose readers, and make less money, thus necessitating the need to stick with what works.
Make no mistake, dear
readers. If, by some miracle, I all of a sudden do gain a few thousand
readers, I will seek to squeeze a few pennies out of you every day. At
the moment, there seems to be no other way for me to make a living off
of Bruno. The attempt may be a complete flop, but what the hell?
I've got nothing to lose anyway. But relax, dear readers. For now, the
numbers don't nearly warrant an attempt to sell Bruno on-line, and
perhaps they never will.
So for now, rack this idea into the "pipe dream" category. But the Internet is becoming more and more commonplace in our lives. More people are coming on-line every day, and "e-commerce" is a rapidly growing business. One day, cartoonists will be able to sell their comic strips directly to the public, without needing help from syndicates or newspapers... and I'd like to be one of them.
(Actually, I do have a few thousand readers, if my web stats are accurate. But mind you, I have no intention right now of setting up a "micro-payment" system, to force you to pay to read Bruno. It wasn't feasible then, and it's still not feasible today. I honestly think the only thing some people will pay to see on the 'net is pornography, and that's because a vice is being catered to. Online comics are not a vice... well, at least, not for most of you. :-)
Mind you, there are "micro-payment" system available now, through Paypal, Amazon, and others. Many of my fellow online cartoonists are using these systems, not to force people to pay to read their 'toons, but as a sort of online "tip jar", whereby you can throw some money at your favorite cartoonists if you like their stuff.
Also, when I wrote this, I had no idea about how banner ads could make money for one's website. For a while there, banner ads were bringing me a decent monthly paycheck, thanks to the deal I have worked out with Keenspot. Alas, with the whole dot-com shakeout, banner ads are not as profitable as before, and the money we Keenspotters have been earning has now mostly been going towards our server fees. It would appear than banner ads are no longer a viable way to make money for one's online comic strip. Will this change back? I wouldn't count on it.
Of course, there are other ways your online strip can make money as well: through the sale of books, and merchandise based on your strip. But to be able to earn a living at this, you more than likely will need a huge, and devoted fan-base. Still, our most successful online strips have a readership that may only be a fraction of that of an average syndicated comic strip. The good news, however, is that the average reader of these strips are a lot more devoted to them, than the average reader of most (but not all) syndicated strips. Most of the comics in my local newspaper I read out of habit. But I actively seek out my favorite online strips. Sluggy Freelance may not have as many readers as, say, Hi and Lois, but there are a lot more Sluggy fan sites on the 'net, and while there's an alt.comics.sluggy-freelance newsgroup, I've yet to encounter alt.comics.hi-and-lois.)
But until then, perhaps we need to look at more practical ways to get our work out to the general public. How about...
A daily paper for comics
This idea was thrown at me in an e-mail by Mark Stanley. He wrote: "It should be possible to start an alternate paper like USA Today. Call is something like Comics, and just do an all-comics newspaper. Being an "independent", you wouldn't be competing with the syndicates directly, and might be able to get around the "local area of control" that you get with the regular newspapers. (ie: If one newspaper in the city carries Dilbert, the other city paper can't.)"
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Why not publish an all-comics (or at least, mostly-comics) daily paper, a comicspaper, if you will? Publish it with the comics as the main attraction, with the focus on cartoonists giving the readers the best comic strips they can create. Even after 100 years, comic strips are still a popular form of entertainment, not because of the limitations of size and content placed on cartoonists by syndicates and newspapers, but in spite of them! The medium seems to have regressed, as comics have become smaller, simpler, and often derivative of each other. I like to think that a comicspaper could reverse the process.
A comicspaper would give readers more of what they want in their comic strips: more space, more variety, more content, more heart and soul. The chief goal of the paper's cartoonists would not be to keep the artwork and content as simple and as bland as possible, but to do the best comics they can possibly do. I'd like to see the paper available across North America, if not around the world. Chances are, the paper would have to start small, perhaps a tabloid-sized publication of no more than 6 to 8 pages, with the goal being an expansion in the number of pages as the paper becomes more popular.
Variety would be the key to this comicspaper of ours. Even starting with the size of the individual strips. The cartoonists would be encouraged to work in the size that they feel most comfortable working at. If, every day, they can fill a page with good, solid material, then by gosh, they should get a whole page, and not be required to tell their stories in 3 or 4 tiny panels every day. On the other hand, if a cartoonist is comfortable working in the current format, then that's okay too. However, at the very least, even if the cartoonist does do a standard 3 or 4 panel strip, the strip will be reproduced on the page at a significantly larger size than it would be in a newspaper. That way, the cartoonist would be able to add more artwork, dialogue, and detail to his/her strip. The strip wouldn't need to be just a couple of panels of "Xeroxed talking heads", as Calvin and Hobbes put it. And why not add color to the strips? If the cartoonists want their strips to be in full color every day, then that option should be available (though not required, as many artists like to work in black and white) as well.
Unfortunately, with a paper like this, there would have to be an editor, or editorial board, who would get to decide which comics would get in to this paper, and which comics wouldn't. As you know, I don't like that idea because I don't trust an individual, or small group to decide which comics the public would like, and which they wouldn't. Ideally, every cartoonist who's serious about a career in the business should at least get a shot at having his/her work be seen by as many people as possible. But for a paper like this, it would be way too much trouble to consult with the public every time a new comic strip is submitted. At the very least, however, perhaps the comicspaper could have a website, with a section featuring new talent. Those who visit the site would be able to vote on which submitted strips they like the best. Thus, when a strip in the comicspaper is to be replaced, or if the comicspaper is ready to expand in size, the editors could use the data gathered to help in deciding which new comics should get a spot in the paper.
I don't foresee the proposed comicspaper as being the ideal solution to the challenge of getting the best comics out to the public. No doubt it would have a completely new set of problems all on its own. But I do think it would represent the best challenge to the status quo, and give the industry a much-needed kick in the ass. A comicspaper could only run so many comic strips, thus a lot of good cartoonists are still going to be left out in the cold. But when the paper expands in size, then more spaces would become available, and more cartoonists would gain exposure for their strips. Better still, if the comicspaper is a success, then it will spawn imitators, which will encourage competition. Thus, even more spaces become available to aspiring cartoonists, and the best strips have a better chance of getting seen.
(Having said all this, I should point out that it is not enough for a cartoonist to merely do a good comic strip, and submit it to the comicspaper. If the paper is getting hundreds, or even thousands of submissions every year, there is a good chance that yours will get overlooked. Your best bet is to find your own ways to get your strip seen by the public, by, say, getting your work published in a campus or local newspaper, or by showing your strip on-line. If you can bring a fan base to the paper's editors when you go to submit, then you should have that much more of a chance at getting a space, when they go to look for new material.)
It's already been pointed out to me that a comicspaper like this would run into is that it could end up turning into a sort of "farm system" for the current syndicates. The syndicates could see which comic strips are the most popular in the paper, and then go after the artists, by offering them huge amounts of cash. I'm not entirely sure that that would be a problem. What's wrong with the comicspaper being a "farm system" for the major syndicates? When and if a cartoonist leaves to jump to a syndicate, there will hopefully be plenty of other aspiring cartoonists waiting in line to take his/her place.
I don't feel that the comicspaper should get in the way of the cartoonist's ambitions. If the artist wishes to jump to a syndicate, in order to make more money, s/he should be allowed. There's a good chance, however, that the artist would have to give up a lot of freedoms for the promised pot of gold. They wouldn't be able to do the strip at whatever size they feel like, and they may end up being restricted in the type of content they'd like to put in their strip. Still, it should be their choice.
As for me, my goal is to be able to make a living by drawing and writing Bruno the Bandit. But I want to be able to do it my way. If a comicspaper offered me the chance to do that, well, that's all I'd need. I would not jump ship and join a syndicate, even if they offered me a ton of money to do so. Well, maybe I would if they allowed me to retain complete control and ownership of my strip. But chances are, that would never happen.
Hopefully, the comicspaper would attract cartoonists who are interested in creating the best strips they can, as opposed to only being in it for the money. And I'd like to believe that this paper could become a big success because it allows the cartoonists to do what they do best. Thus, the cartoonists would be financially rewarded anyway, so there'd be no need to jump to a syndicate. But even if the paper turns out to become little more than a farm system for the big syndicates, what's wrong with that? In sports, the minor leagues play a valuable role, so why not in the comics business as well? But in this case, I think that the minor leagues would end up being a helluva lot more interesting to watch than the majors.
Of course, a comicspaper wouldn't have to be all comics, just as a newspaper is not all news. Perhaps to encourage other readers, other sections could be added: a games and puzzles page or two, an entertainment section, etc. Maybe there could even be a page devoted to the news. The best bet would be to put it on or inside the last page. Have a handful of stories every day, that are little more than summaries of the latest current events. We wouldn't allow any story to be longer than, say, 150 words. And we'd try to stay away from material that's controversial, or too in-depth for our readers. It would be best if we kept the news material we published as simple as possible, as we wouldn't want to frighten our readers with anything too challenging... (When I first published this, I got a few e-mails from people who didn't get the humor in what I said here. Of course I was being facetious, but some people criticized me for wanting to do a "role reversal" of news and comics. Perhaps I should've included a ;-) or two .)
The Bottom Line
aspiring cartoonists, have got to stop looking for newspapers and syndicates
to give them a break. Chances are, it ain't gonna happen! The market for
comic strips is currently shrinking, and it is the fault of the cartoonists
themselves... if they continue to maintain the status quo. There is no
need for the market to continue to shrink into oblivion, if cartoonists
themselves are willing to take matters into their own hands by looking
for alternative ways to sell their work to the public.
As always, your thoughts on the subject at hand are most appreciated. I'd love to hear from you, so please e-mail me if you have any thoughts, comments, criticisms, what have you to add to the debate.