ROBERT GREENBERGER: Strip show
Johnny Hart passed away the other day and in one of the obituaries I read, it stated Creators Syndicate intended to keep his strips, B.C. and Wizard of Id, still going. It seems Hart had been receiving help from family for some time now and much of his work exists as digital files for repurposing.
Upon reading it, my first thought was, ”Why?” The strips stopped being funny some 20-25 years ago and were coasting on momentum. B.C., which Hart wrote and drew, also was delving into his religious faith with increasing frequency over the years and was far from entertaining.
All of this brings up a host of issues regarding newspaper comic strips and their future. It used to be that the comic strips were a selling point, a way for papers to distinguish themselves. After all, the news, stocks and sports score were the same so why buy the New York Daily News if you also read the New York Post? The News knew comic strips were a key and filled page after page with the best strips possible. The Sunday edition was wrapped in the comics’ section – growing up, the Sundays were started with the latest Dick Tracy on the front and Dondi on the back and in between, there were more than a dozen other features.
The first generation or two of comic strip creators were a fertile, wonderful bunch that gave us enduring figures from Little Orphan Annie to B.C. As a result, as people aged, moved out of their parents’ home and started subscribing to a hometown paper, the comic strips remained a tool to entice and retain readers.
Whenever newspapers conduct reader surveys to figure out which features to drop in favor of new ones, the old standbys still score strongly because of that ingrained habit. Locally, the comics editor at the Connecticut Post admitted that “the blue-haired old ladies” threatened to cancel their subs if beloved strips vanished. And with circulation dwindling, papers have to hold on to every last reader.
The problem, though, has become that many strips have outlived their entertainment value and continue to run only out of habit. B.C. and Peanuts and Marmaduke and many others stopped being entertaining and fresh and interesting decades ago. When the creators have retired, or died, others have continued the features, recycling the same puns, gags and stale humor.
Some of the younger, hipper, creators recognize that such recycling is a kiss of death these days. Jim Davis gave Jon Arbuckle a girl friend in Garfield and Cathy Guisewite married off her pathetic Cathy a few years back, each mining new strip possibilities.
This inertia has made it increasingly difficult for current practitioners of the artform to get a chance for attention. All too often strips get created and syndicates have trouble selling them. First, you have less and less space dedicated to comic strips in newspapers. Second, you have the old and tired strips hogging space that should be allocated to newer strips. Do we really need Peanuts Classic? Especially since they’re running strips from the period when the strip started its gentle glide downhill.
Since the 1980s, the number of new strips started and still running today is very small compared with strips started in the 1930s and 1940s. Partly, they couldn’t gain traction, and partly the latest generation of creators knew when it was time to get off the stage. Bill Watterston and Berke Breathed didn’t want a lifetime grind at their drawing boards and picked when to wind down Calvin & Hobbes and Bloom County. The same can be said for The Far Side and more recently Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks. Unlike their forefathers, who created strips and hung on to them until death do them part; there was less need for the financial security comic strips offered. These days a common lament among creators, young and old, is without a runaway hit, you eke out a living. You don’t get rich like a Chester Gould or Bud Fisher.
Given the dwindling readership, and shorter attention spans of those same people, fewer strips also indulge in serialized stories, or if they do continue a storyline, don’t do it often or for long. The last strip to launch and really do that, and do that very well, was probably Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse, arguably the best strip running today, and one that will no doubt start winding down in the coming years as Johnston herself nears retirement.
In fact, serialized adventure or drama strips, from Rex Morgan to the girls in Apartment 3-G, are in fewer and fewer papers every year and seem increasingly outdated and irrelevant. The few costumed adventurers, such as The Phantom, are also rarely seen despite fine art. The only one to feel fresh anymore is Prince Valiant, now in the hands of Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni, who have taken their love of Hal Foster’s character and their experience in graphic media, and have given new life to Sunday-only feature.
Syndicates seem to be discouraging any manner of continuity strips, going more for those in the Far Side vein such as Rhymes with Orange and Speed Bump. Even new, more traditional strips appear with decreasingly regularity. Brian Basset is a rarity in that he manages two successful strips, Adam@Home (started 1994) and the delightful Red & Rover (started 2000). The former is in a mere 200 papers while Red is in only 60 yet both are considered successful.
You have to wonder, as newspaper owner do, whether or not comic strips remain relevant and necessary today. For every satirical Doonesbury there’s a moronic Pearls Before Swine. Still, there are dozens and dozens of strips available for newspapers and many times that many that exist only on the web (a topic for another day). It could very well be that as newspapers and their web incarnations may once again find that what will distinguish them to the consumer are the strips (and similar syndicated fare).
If that’s the case, the syndicate editors and the newspapers themselves have to see to it that the creative material gets into print. Those that have long since outlived their usefulness, and here we’re back to B.C., need to face extinction with dignity.