Kleefeld on Webcomics #13: Sparring With Newspaper Strips

By Sean Kleefeld

You’re probably familiar with any number of newspaper comic strips. Hagar the Horrible, The Wizard of Id, Mary Worth… You might not read them regularly, maybe you haven’t even seen one of them in years, but you’re at least somewhat familiar with the premise and maybe the main characters. That’s because A) they used to be the only comic strips available for generations and B) most of what’s being run in newspapers today has been in print for at least the past several decades. The newspaper comics biggest asset, collectively, is essentially longevity.

Webcomics, of course, don’t have that working for them. The very earliest ones only date back to the mid-1980s, and the longest running success stories are barely over ten years old. They are, relatively speaking, the new kids on the block, using different styles and techniques than their print counterparts. In fact, they’ve got an entirely different mindset about comics that has led them into clashes with the old guard of newspaper cartoonists.

Despite taking the occasional, easy pot-shot at old newspaper strips in his online comic Weapon Brown, Jason Yungbluth actually displays a fair amount of reverence for the newspaper cartoonists who came before him. Indeed, much of the comics’ central premise is that Charles Schulz’s creations survive the apocalypse. And even PvP’s Scott Kurtz, possibly the most infamous webcomic creator to rail against newspaper strips, tends to be more against the loss of creators’ rights and the syndication system than the newspaper cartoonists themselves.

So why is that there seems to be such a sharp divide between webcomic creators and newspaper strip creators?

There are undoubtedly many different elements at work here, but I suspect that one of the primary ones is that these older cartoonists don’t have a very firm grasp on what the webcomics people are doing. Wiley Miller inadvertently hit on the issue in this comic…

The “Scotty” in question is supposed to be Kurtz. What Miller seems to have missed is that, while the point of newspaper comics is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the point of webcomics is to appeal very strongly to a select group. Many newspaper comics don’t seem terribly witty or relevant precisely because they’re trying to be all things to all people. The narrowcasting of webcomics means that those creators are free to have a specific voice that might not be interesting or funny to everyone. A webcomic creator only needs a relative few number of really dedicated fans, compared to the huge number of casual fans that are more typical of newspaper strips. The measurements of success of entirely different.

Mort Walker showed that he missed the point in Hi and Lois.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is what happens with middlemen. If someone buys a book with Walker’s cartoons in it, the retailer takes a percentage of the sales for his/her own profit. Then the distributor takes a percentage. Then the printer. Then the syndicate. Then Walker’s agent. A $20 book then only winds up generating about two dollars for Walker by the time everyone else gets their cut.

But most of those middlemen are removed for webcomic creators. If someone buys a $20 book from Yungbluth, he still has to pay the printer and maybe a few other folks, but he walks home with closer to $10. Which means that he makes as much money from selling one book as Walker makes from selling five. The economics are completely different.

This was put on harsh display in late 2009 and early 2010 when Julie Larson tried to change how she approached her Dinette Set newspaper comic. She tried syndicating it herself and using the same model webcomic artists use. But she admitted failure after about six months, not realizing that her comic was based on that broad appeal approach that is so conceptually different from webcomics. That is, she might have more fans than a webcomic but they’re not nearly as devoted to her comic and aren’t as interested in financially contributing to its success.

What was particularly telling in some of the discussion around that experiment, Charlie Trotman of Templar, AZ pointed out that Larson’s big competition wasn’t any webcomic but Peanuts, which was already in its tenth year of reusing decades’ old strips after Schulz died. The animosity is largely initiated from the newspaper folks and seems to stem from a lack of understanding. They’ve been doing what they’re doing for so long, they don’t really know how to change. They’re stuck in a cycle that apparently even extends before their death. Blondie has had six different people working on it after its creator Chic Young died and Dick Tracy has had no less than nine creators working on it since originator Chester Gould retired.

Despite the visual similarities, webcomics and newspaper comics work from very different precepts, almost diametrically opposed ones at that. It’s like comparing a poetry anthology with a chemistry textbook; they both have some superficial qualities that might resemble one another, but they’re so fundamentally different that they’re really not comparable. Of course, if you don’t understand that and try to make the comparison anyway, you’ll really only wind up frustrating yourself when you can’t figure things out.

Related Posts:
Kleefeld On Webcomics #12: What Do You Mean It’s Over?
Kleefeld on Webcomics #11: The Infinite Canvas

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