Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Comic Strip Culture

Let me first apologise for two things, I kept promising to do a blog-piece on these strips long ago, and now that I finally get well again and get round to it, newspapers in the US are dropping strips and some are even dropping comics pages, and secondly, I'm sorry about the scans, but I really wanted to capture something of the scale of the broadsheet-sized comic sections so they lose bits of strips - what can you do?

On the other hand, it looks like a good time to finally get it up here because one of my fellow British cartoonists, the talented Alexander Mathews, has a strip called King Monkey that he is hoping to place with a syndicate in the US, soon, and I'm also sending a strip, that I'm very excited about, to the US in a week or two. Now, even at the best of times the comic strip business is very difficult to break into, never mind during these challenging times, but I think that both Alex and I should at least give it go. The usual cartoonist maxim should apply, "if you don't send it in, it's already rejected".

I'm a huge fan of US strips, and by that I mean strips that the US syndicates distribute because some of my favourite strips are produced in Canada, but there are a good few cartoonists out there who can't say a good word about them. I have to say I think that on the whole, the syndicated strips are underestimated, especially in the US, where people seem to take the things for granted. They should try living here in the UK, in Edinburgh, for instance, a city of 500,000 people, where the local paper, the Edinburgh Evening News, carries two comic strips, Hagar and Garfield, and it shrinks them to about 3/4" x 5" and it really doesn't care how squished and squashed those two strips look. They are an afterthought.

Despite coming from this comic-strip-challenged culture, young Alex and I are willing to take our chances in the spiritual home of comic strips, the US, where a tiny handful of British cartoonists already have their strips syndicated. One of those pioneers is Roger Kettle, one half of Beau Peep and the writer of Andy Capp, who, like me, is amazed that the fantastic collections of strips that the US readers enjoy is regarded by them as too few, or too small, or unvaried. Oh, to be sure, I understand where some of the older strip fans are coming from because I once had a collection of vintage Sunday Funnies that were as big as an old British Topper comic, and as thick as a phone book, but come on, these things are a joy, rich and varied and colourful and a testament to an art-loving culture.

There is a serious point to this, of course, the US is, I think, as is clear from the samples of the newspapers below, much more comic, or comic strip, literate than the UK. The papers I've posted below, from 2004 and 2005, supplied by Mike Lynch, Dan Collins and Jay Nocera, show the sort of daily and weekly diet of comic strips that US beginning cartoonists, and would-be comic strippers, grow up with. Picture it, as the beginning cartoonists in the US are practising their craft the sheer variety of the visual language of the comics, the beat of the language, the form of the jokes, the cleverness of the language, is all there to be soaked up even before they first pick up a pen and dip it in the ink. And what is crystal clear to me, looking at the comic pages below, from the Boston Sunday Globe, the Hartford Courant, the Columbus Dispatch and the New York Daily News, is not just that comic strips are taken much, much, more seriously in the US than they are over here, that's a given, but also that there is a very real respect for the cartoonists and the reader, and a clear attempt to run comic strips that will appeal to a very wide audience.

The following full colour comic sections are about the same size as a Sunday Times broadsheet and as thick, if not thicker, than a British kids comic, with a wide range of strips covering everything from Dilbert to Prince Valiant.

I once asked, on Darrin Bell's old Toontalk forum, why American cartoonists often thought they were not real bona-fide cartoonists unless they had a syndicated strip out there, especially since lauded cartoonists like Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes were clearly world-renowned cartoonists without working in that oeuvre. Of course it was a rhetorical question, the answer for me was that comic strips are part of the American psyche.

Copyright of the comics pages above rest with their respective publishers, and the various cartoonists and agencies.

So, should we pity poor Alex and poor Rod as they send their creations of to be measured and judged? Well, no, not really, you see the work is done and the syndicates are the top market for main stream comic strips, they are the Super Bowl, the F.A Cup final, the Olympics, they are the ultimate test for a comic strip. How on earth could we resist sending the work to them? It may seem like a cliche, but it is the turning up and taking part that counts and you never know, one of us or both of us might just sneak one by them. Wouldn't that be something?


montyandrosie said...

That would indeed be something - that would be brill!

I will follow your progress with every optimism.

Great post.

montyandrosie said...

Oops - didn't mean to be anonymous. Susan Alison

alexander matthews said...

Sneaking one past them sounds like we are trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Some recently chosen strips do feel like that, but I hope our work wows them so much they HAVE NO CHOICE but to syndicate it.

At least, that's how it plays in my head.

Thanks for the mention, Rod. A great read, as always.

Rod McKie said...

Hey, you never know Alex, the "wow factor" works for me. It's a long shot of course, but it's just great to picture it in the pages. I can see King Monkey nestled in there.

Hey Susan, that's very kind of you, your optimism will be greatly appreciated.

Mike Lynch said...

Wishing you good luck with your submission, Rod!

Rod McKie said...

Hey Mike, thanks. It might not float, but you just never know in this business - it is still thrilling to be trying it out. How great is this job?