In 1989 Bill Watterson, the writer of “Calvin and Hobbes”, a brilliant comic strip about a six-year-old child and his stuffed tiger, denounced his industry. In a searing lecture, he attacked bland, predictable comics, churned out by profit-driven syndicates. Cartooning, said Mr Watterson, “will never be more than a cheap, brainless commodity until it is published differently.”
In 2012 he is finally getting his way. As the newspaper industry continues its decline, the funnies pages have decoupled from print. Instead of working for huge syndicates, or for censored newspapers with touchy editors, cartoonists are now free to create whatever they want. Whether it is cutting satire about Chinese politics, or a simple joke about being a dog, everything can win an audience on the internet.
This burst of new life comes as cartoons seemed to be in terminal decline. Punch, once a fierce political satire magazine whose cartoons feature in almost every British history textbook, finally closed its doors in 2002. The edgier Viz magazine, which sold a million copies an issue in the early 1990s, now sells 65,000. In the United States, of the sprawling EC Comics stable, only Mad magazine remains, its circulation down from 2.1m in 1974 to 180,000. Meanwhile, the American newspaper industry, home of the cartoon strip, now makes less in advertising revenue than at any time since the 1950s.
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During the second world war, paper rationing forced comic strips to shrink on both sides of the Atlantic. Afterwards, the rise of television news culled the number of dailies and all but wiped out evening papers. With less competition, newspapers relied less on cartoons to sell copies. Comic books filled some of the gap, but unlike the newspapers, these were mostly for children. By the 1980s most newspaper cartoon strips were controlled by a small group of syndicates whose executives saw them primarily as devices to sell licensed merchandise. Childish cartoons with weak, universal jokes thrived — think “Garfield” — while more interesting artists struggled to find an outlet for their work. When authors retired, successful strips were handed down to new artists like real estate to avoid jeopardising merchandise revenues. “Mutt and Jeff” — tired by the 1950s — continued until 1982.
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The decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet have broken that system. Newspapers no longer have the money to pay big bucks to cartoonists, and the web means anybody can get published. Cartoonists who want to make their name no longer send sketches to syndicates or approach newspapers: they simply set up websites and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. Randall Munroe, the creator of “XKCD”, left a job at NASA to write his stick men strip, full of science and technology jokes (see above and below). Kate Beaton, a Canadian artist who draws “Hark, A Vagrant”, sketched her cartoons between shifts while working in a museum. Matthew Inman created his comic “The Oatmeal” by accident while trying to promote a dating website he built to escape his job as a computer coder.
Link to the rest at Medium