Comic Cuts no laughing matter

I thought that unlike some British newspapers, US papers gave comic strips quite a good deal, but it appears, sadly, it just ain’t true. Economics and ignorant editorial decisions (like the ones behind the Guardian‘s idiot-but-quickly-reversed decision to drop Doonesbury on going ‘Berliner’) are threatening many of them, as an article syndicated from the Los Angeles Times by Joshua Fruhlinger, webmaster of reveals.

( regularly analyzes, deconstructs and mocks comic strips, a site Fruhlinger thought would merely entertain my close and indulgent friends, it now receives about 13,000 visitors and 200 reader comments every day).

Fruhlinger says that despite comic fans’ enthusiasm for their favourite strips, “the only place you won’t find this kind of enthusiasm is in most newspaper comics pages themselves.

“Rather than nurturing a section of the paper that has a built-in and long-lived fan base, most papers across the country continue to dishearten fans by cramming fewer strips into ever-shrinking spaces,” he reveals. “Many comics aficionados have begun to sour on the whole newsprint experience.”

Papers such as the Houston Chronicle in Texas are, it seems, an increasing rarity. The Chronicle offers some 103 strips online (although 66 appear in the print edition) and its web site is a haven for comics fans and a justified source of pride for the paper. “If we like a strip, we keep it, and I hope we continue doing that,” Mike Read, the Chronicle’s web operations and development editor told Fruhlinger.

Fruhlinger also makes the interesting point that many cartoonists are increasingly discovering a more reliable way of reaching their fans is via the internet. This isn’t new to comics fans, online comics are huge, but in terms of monetizing their creations Doonesbury’s web site is obviously a clear example of some success. I’m sure anyone reading this will have their own online favs, be they subscription-only, such as Michael Jantze’s brilliant The Norm – once a syndicated strip it can now only be read on the Web – or Britain’s very own and totally free and totally wonderful Beaver and Steve.

But there’s also the vaild comment that comics are a significant and under-appreciated part of a mix that offers continued reader loyalty to print editions of newspapers in the ‘Internet Age’ — and reader outcry when they disappear from a paper surely proves this. Fruhlinger argues that before the print news medium gives up on new readers, maybe it’s time to “double down on the comics, to make the funny papers a selling point again. Give the comics an extra page. Move the funnies out of the entertainment-section ghetto and into the A section or Sports.

“Better yet,” he opines, “run the daily strips in a stand-alone insert — not just Sundays. Get the advertising staff to start selling against the comics section (why should TV be getting all the ads for sugary cereals and action figures?). Do something, do anything, to make the funny pages interesting.”

Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic could also learn from what cartoonists and the syndicates are doing online with comics: offering collections and tie-in merchandise, even high quality prints of strips and one frame cartoons, just as papers offer discounts on books and other media they review via their dedicated shops.

Whatever the future of comics, I’m still of the opinion that it’s still some years before the Internet, mobile and other future delivery methods totally supplant the tactile pleasure of reading something on paper.

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