The comments on the latest Begging for Candy strip got me thinking about comics, syndication, newspapers, webcomics and the whole complicated evolving Thing. I was going to add a comment and realized my brain and spleen contained enough to put in a post instead.

The state of the comics page has been talked about for a long time – how newspapers, especially the comics page, has been in a slow decline for years. All you have to do is open one up and read Close to Home to see the End Times from where you’re standing.

I used to love reading the comics in the paper – it’s what got my interest in cartooning started. I grew up with Doonesbury, Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes. My father introduced me to Pogo. I found strips like The Neighborhood and The Far Side. I even poured over the Wizard of Id and B.C. in their heyday.

These days I read two in the paper – Dilbert and Pearls Before Swine. The others I look at because…well because they are there and I have the page open anyway. My brain reacts either with disinterest or rage. Some strips continued existence makes my skull feel like it’s about to pull a Scanners.

(Full disclosure – yes, I submitted a strip to the syndicates years ago. No, I am not bitterly lashing out over the rejection. It did not leave me mentally scarred or anything – I was a realist and knew it was Long Odds.)

Some because the quality is just mind crushingly lacking. Hey if you can do what you love and get paid, more power to you. But when I see strips that last for years where the art and writing range from blase to painful I start to see conspiracies everywhere. I believe in a higher power as 60% of any given comics page proves the existence of Satan.

The other half are The Strips That Will Not Die. You know which ones I mean. Some of these strips were created by DEAD PEOPLE, which holds some morbid fascination to me. Why does someone spend time keeping a strip on life support instead of working their own creation? What other creative industries turn to the kids to continue pumping out the work? “Star Trek season 9 by Gene Roddenberry, Jr.” Seems to me most attempts to prop up creative work in other areas with stand ins, related to the creator or not, fall flat. For some insane reason, in comics people shrug and keep going.

Let’s be honest: the readers are looking at the work, not the person behind it. There is not a real connection there. For the publishers it’s safe: “Drop Snuffy Smith? Sounds risky.” I do get the loyalty to old familiar strips that have a long (and often important) place in the history of comics. I also see why someone would want to work on one for a period of time. Really I get it. At the end of the day it’s a cartoon – no one will live or die due to what is printed on the comic page. But at a certain point you have to face reality – is pumping out the closest heir you could find to the Far Side niche really helping the creators OR the publishers?

It occurs to me that most of the syndicates and papers may not have any true idea what their readership is like. I have no idea what sales are like for collected strips, but I know many of the long lived strips are not even on the shelves. Print papers have no way of measuring what readers like or not on the comic page. They only way they even try to find out is either a random poll or they pull a strip and see who screams. And God forbid some 80 year old calls up in a fever because Prince Valiant ain’t in the Sundays this week.

So it is quite likely your comics page is sailing blind. I wonder if the editors and syndicates have no idea themselves why they publish many of the strips they do. They may well be guessing, fingers crossed. And they have no reason to change. They’re stone age sailors sailing right for the edge of the world with no plans to change course because that course has always worked (so far as they can tell). When they go over, they won’t have much to say about it beyond ‘people don’t read comics anymore’. Crazy thought: maybe they just don’t read the comics you’re publishing.

So newspapers are in decline, sure. Many artists have moved their work online. The investment is small and the total control over your work is a huge advantage. No worries about upsetting someone in Bumcrap, USA and having to have a tense call with an editor. On the other hand, you have total responsibility for promoting and building an audience. The other missing piece is making a living from it. For every Penny Arcade and PVP there are thousands of others trying to get off the ground. What should worry the syndicates is even with those odds, people are still choosing to go digital instead of pursuing a one in a million lottery win of syndication with it’s fame, fortune and encyclopedia of rules regarding approved material.

Anyway. There was probably a coherent point to this. If I remember what it was, I’ll be sure to add it here.