Wednesday, May 08, 2002

See who in the funny papers?
Maybe I'm coming at this from the wrong perspective.

Newspapers have been losing readers to television for years, and struggling to compensate for it. The logical response, and one that many papers have been exploring, is to identify what newspapers can do that television news cannot -- then do it more and better.

Depth. Television barely has time to do more than strike the news a glancing blow: Newspapers, done right, can take possession of a story and explain it in depth and context. In addition, television is compelled by its nature to homogenize its news, so that every story appeals to everybody. If the viewer is bored, he might change channels, and This Can't Be Allowed. Newspapers have no such pressure: No one imagines that every reader will read every story from beginning to end, nor should they. But if they want basic information, it's there: if they want more, see page 17a.

Local interest. Again, in a medium where every story must appeal to every viewer, you dare not invest too much of your time in a story only the northeast suburbs will care about: Everything is, or must appear to be, world-shattering. Newspapers can and do have regional news, sometimes regional editions, to better serve a fragmented demographic.

But there is one thing, a simple feature that newspapers have contained for over a century, a feature that readers have proven repeatedly is a subscription maker -- or breaker. A feature that becomes a tradition, a welcome part of the reader's day in a way that nothing on television can do.

I refer, of course, to the comics.

Yes, this is another one of those gripes about how small the comics are these days. The editors say they can't afford the space to print them larger: I say they can't afford not to.

Some of the artists and writers of these beloved features get it. Frank Cho took Liberty Meadows to comic book format rather than continue sparring with Creators Syndicate over size and content. Bill Holbrook's Kevin and Kell is an unexpected epic of a strip, an all-at-once funny-animal / soap-opera / adventure / social commentary readable only on the web (and in a handful of "dead tree" collections).

Some creators don't get it, as this story from Fox News proves.

Some pop culture experts and cartoonists warn that the comic strip is a dying art form because the antiquated ones � like Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Peanuts, Dick Tracy and Hagar the Horrible � are given most of the space on newspaper pages.

I can't believe they're seriously suggesting that comics that people read should be cancelled anyway because they're old. (Dick Tracy and Hagar no longer run in the Atlanta daily. A lot of people I know aren't even aware that the Phantom, Prince Valiant, and Tarzan are still in production.)

..."There's a finite amount of space to run comic strips � less now than 50 years ago," [editor-in-chief at King Features Jay] Kennedy said. "There are fewer two-paper cities and a lot of papers have shrunk their page size."
...Experts cite the increased cost of paper, the downsizing of newspapers and the economic recession as factors that led to the funnies cutbacks.

The comic strip is a dying art form not because popular long-running strips are allowed to continue running, but because they're cramming three pages worth of comics onto a single page at postage-stamp size and near-fax-quality resolution.

I realize that young comic strip creators have to suck up to the editors, since that's who's buying the product (or not). The syndicates could be representing the artists' interests to the papers, but do not. The syndicates (who have no financial incentive to change) are allowing the editors to define the problem, to the artists' detriment. The future of the medium has become a battle between old strips and new ones for the scraps of column inches the editors deem to be "the most we can afford". But that's not what it's about, and we readers know it.

It is counterproductive -- and appalling -- to turn the creators against one another, as if it is Mort (Beetle Bailey) Walker's fault that Zits isn't seen in 500 newspapers daily. (FoxNews mentions "some pop culture experts", but all the quotes come from Coury Turczyn, editor of PopCult. I'm unable to find any such remarks at the magazine's website. Perhaps I'm not hip enough. I'm cynical enough to think this may be an intentional ploy to drive up page views there, since PopCult has no "search" button.)

Subtlety of expression is still possible in a daily comic strip, as a glance at "For Better Or For Worse", "9 Chickweed Lane", "Stone Soup" and "Rose is Rose" will show, if you can find a newspaper in which they are printed large enough to tell.

But if editorial and feature content is only there to fill the space between the advertisements, then it doesn't matter.

If newspapers finally do die as a medium, it will not be because television, radio, or the internet have taken the lead in delivering spot news. It will be because they've deliberately abandoned the niche in the household that only they can fill.

No comments: