The fate of comics after newspapers

From the comic strip "Frazz" by Jef Mallett


Bill Radke: One reason newspapers are in trouble is that you can so happily get your news other places. It's fun to scan the Web for stories. It's easy to, you know, check your stocks on your phone. But there's one part of newspapers that seems to go best with a cup of coffee and some crinkly newsprint, and that is the comics section. Reporter John Rabe wanted to know: What happens to comics if newspapers die?

John Rabe: Jef Mallet draws Frazz -- a sweet, smart comic strip about an elementary school janitor -- out of his home in Lansing, Mich.

Jef Mallett: You dream right from the start that it could be a living. I was able to feel confident enough to go strictly full-time with Frazz after about a year of syndication.

Mallett grew up reading standbys like Peanuts, and now he's making his living drawing a strip that runs in 150 U.S. newspapers. But these days the Detroit News, which runs Frazz, only delivers three days a week, and other papers are shutting down or going online only.

Mallett: Sometimes I worry that they're just so ingrained and associated with ink on newsprint that they're just not going to fit quite as well into wherever newspapers go next.

All comics are already online, but nobody's found a way yet to get the web to pay enough so that drawing a strip can stay a full-time job.

Cartoonists are worried. At their annual convention last month, they held a seminar on "The Future of Newspapers and Comics," where Jim Borgman, who draws the strip Zits, heard from a lot of frazzled young artists.

Jim Borgman: Yeah, you may have a syndicated strip. You certainly need to keep a Web site up. You're probably blogging. Some of these guys have like stand-up acts. They're in bands that. you know, somehow cross pollinate with their strip. One guy looked up at me today and said, "You need a staff to do this."

Cartoonist Darrin Bell has chronicled the death of newspapers in his strip, Candorville, and he actually has a tip jar on his Web site. He says the money coming in from the Web -- not just in tips -- is only a quarter of his income as a cartoonist. But he's not worried about comics.

Darrin Bell: Comics have been around basically since the first caveman found the first cave wall.

One thing we're fairly sure cave men didn't draw on cave walls is crossword puzzles. They debuted in newspapers in 1913.

Will Shortz is NPR's Puzzlemaster and editor of the New York Times crossword. He says puzzles will survive in books and online even if newspapers go away, and the economic impact on puzzle makers will be minimal.

Will Shortz: Honestly, most people are making puzzles cause they love it -- they just love the process - and they're anxious to see their names in print. They're not doing it for the money.

Shortz pays his freelancers 200-bucks for a daily puzzle and a thousand for a Sunday puzzle, but since he publishes the work of more than a hundred puzzle makers a year, nobody's making a real living at this except him.

In Los Angeles, I'm John Rabe for Marketplace.

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I don't think anyone mentioned these two as successful full-time webcomics artists:

Randy Milholland, "Something Postive", http://somethingpositive.net/
Howard Tayler, "Schlock Mercenary", http://schlockmercenary.com/

Tayler supports his entire family (home-maker wife and I think two children) on his income. If that's not "success," I don't think any print comics artists are successful either.

It's worth recognizing, that while there are many self-supporting online webcomics, there are also probably many print comic artists who are understandably worried about losing their main source of income. I think the spirit of the article was well-meaning even if the reporting clearly lacked credibility.

The fact of the matter is, yes, it is possible to make a living using nothing but the web. However, it's worth mentioning that the death of the print comic (alleged death, anyhow) may -- in the short term, at least -- impact a number of very good comics, both in print and on the web. As more strips migrate from print to the web, individual comics may see declines in readership and merchandise sales due to new entries in an already crowded marketplace. How many webcomic t-shirts is the average consumer going to buy during the year? If there are more people hawking shirts, isn't it reasonable to think that each merchandiser may see a smaller piece of the pie?

While I am not forecasting doom and gloom for the webcomic industry as a whole, it's still important to recognize that the money from syndicated print comics is a sizeable piece of the overall income generated by comic strips. The loss of that will have a ripple impact, both on print and web-only comics. I only wish that message hadn't been damaged by a reporter who clearly wasn't in possession of all the facts.

Not to pile on too much, but this is why newspapers are failing. Blogs are forced to fact-check everything reporters put out because of A) shoddy research, B) blatant lies, and C) overall poor writing and lack of a professional voice.

Congratulations, John Rabe. You're killing an industry, and along with it, the very cartoonists' print careers you were reporting on.

This article is absolutely anathema to good journalism. NPR should be ashamed to have published such blatantly ignorant reporting.
John Rabe is obviously either lazy, or heavily biased, and also completely ignorant of how to do basic research. His presence on NPR is shameful and embarassing. He has belittled the successful occupations of many web comics artists while amplifying the pitiful whinging of a scant handful who haven't managed to migrate to the digital world.

I love Marketplace and NPR in particular, including Mr. Rabe here. I understand it's a bit mind blowing for someone who has only ever though of comics as a paper form for super-heroes and slothful cats to consider the internet as a place where comics could really grow. On the other hand, as has been stated before, research makes a good article, and this would have been rejected from my high school English class. There are dozens of self-sufficient webcomics with their own wiki page. It seems lazy, though I can understand why you'd never consider it. Now, I don't think anyone should be fired, but NPR is occasionally a bit slow on the internet. A suggestion: make up for this by publishing an article on the people who make many a living by comics online, including Francesco Marciuliano or the Foglios (who moved from syndicated to both syndicated and online), Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (or failing that, Dave Malki from Wondermark, Randy Mulholland from Somthing Positive, or Spike from Templar, AZ, all of which are incredibly intelligent and eloquent on this issue), and Joshua Fruhlinger (who makes most his money from metacomics, critiquing the paper industry). NPR is my favorite source for news, but I can't even remember the last time I as asked to comment on something that didn't ask me for my webpage, too. I understand a lot of NPR commenters will find it non-applicable, but even so, it's always a way to buy community and make people feel represented online.

There are tons if cartoonists that have been able to make a living from publishing their cartoons from the internet. Five minutes of research could have told anyone that.

Also, the loss of newspaper comics isn't a tragic loss. With the exception of Frazz, Pearls Before Swine, and Foxtrot (which only appears on Sundays, anyways), every comic in the newspaper deserves to be extinct.


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