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Eric: The frightening side of change: why syndicates don't like Scott Kurtz and Keen

So I've been keeping an eye on how the Syndicated Cartoonist Industry is reacting to the slow -- but steady -- encroachment onto their turf by young turks with machetes. Put another way, I've been watching the reaction of the traditional newspaper cartoonists and syndicates to the "syndication" models that Scott Kurtz is trying with PvP and which Keen is trying with KeenSyndicate.

(For those who came in late -- Scott Kurtz is offering a full year, already drawn, of daily PvP to newspapers for free, so long as they have his website's URL. The idea is the exposure to PvP will drive Kurtz's comics sales, drive merchandise sales, and bring traffic to his site which will drive advertising sales. Keen, on the other hand, is offering a full page of newspaper strips twice a week to newspapers so long as they also include Keen's embedded advertising.)

Needless to say, the reaction hasn't been stellar. I've seen a few dismissals of the proposals "on the record" by established syndicate cartoonists. I've seen some "off the record" comments that blister paint off the walls. Let me sum up their position as succinctly as possible:

  • You're doomed to failure, because you're not selling your artwork. You're using your artwork to sell something else.
  • You're causing damage to newspaper comics as a whole because by giving your strips for free to newspapers, you cause them to undervalue the form
  • Any business model that doesn't involve selling the art to someone else directly is somehow less legitimate -- it's not art, it's prostitution (the old "you just want to sell tee-shirts and plush dolls -- you're not an artist" statement
  • I hate you.

It's fear.

Pure and simple, it's fear driving this reaction. And this is the only reaction that many (I fear most) syndicated cartoonists are going to have for any model that seriously (or even trivially) challenges the established system.

Look at it from their side.

They went into this with a very specific plan. They learned to draw -- maybe (even probably) going to school for it. They practiced and refined their craft. They did weekly shopper newspaper cartoon placement and drew comics for their friends. If they're post-world wide web maybe they did a small webcomic and maybe they didn't. Most of all, they drew. They came up with new strip ideas and did thirty strips and sent them to syndicates and got rejected, over and over again. They networked. They joined the societies. They joined the mailing lists. They worked and worked and worked to force an opening for themselves. They got rejected a lot and prized every handwritten rejection note they received, both for its advice and as validation that they should keep trying.

And finally they pulled it off. They got a concept together and some editor liked it and suggested changes. They made those changes. They sent in the revised proposal. And the editors liked it more -- they thought it was funny, and it showed the capacity to sustain. So they ink a development contract, with a series of guidelines. The artist puts together another six week window of strips, this time with an eye to the syndicate selling them to newspapers. The editors come back with a series of changes and individual strip rejections. "Don't do this -- we can't sell this to papers in Topeka. Change this. Take this out. Less continuity over here. More continuity over there. A Lesbian joke? Not until you're bigger, pal."

And the artist makes changes. He reluctantly concedes that some of the content changes makes the strips better. He gnashes his teeth over the others, because he thinks they dilute the strip -- but he wants this. He wants this. And after a couple more refinement passes, they have a package to send out. They do... and a few newspapers nibble.

That's it. They've made it. He's getting paychecks now. He's beginning to make headway. He's a cartoonist. He draws and draws and draws, and sends out packages and gets notes back -- change this character. Don't make this one black unless that's the point. Do you really think this is funny? He learns to value the comments his editors make that improve his strip. He learns to hate the comments they make that slash through what he wants to do. A few more papers nibble, and a few drop the strip. But he's getting some momentum. He has a few conversations with publishers about a collection -- only to hear back from the syndicate that they handle collections and publishing and merchandising, and they need to be cut in on everything, and right now they don't feel the circulation warrants a push. Still, he knows that'll come with time and effort and the slow building of a fan base. He starts getting fan mail. He starts getting hate mail. He starts getting comfortable.

And after a few years of this, he's tired. It's not as much fun as he thought it'd be, but he also loves cartooning with all his heart. He's doing everything he ever wanted to, and if the reality isn't as great as the fantasy, that's life. He's becoming established. He's becoming a name. He's beginning to entrench in the community, and giving advice to kids who're just like him.

Only... those kids don't want his advice. It seems that they're publishing their cartoons on the web, and building an audience for them. Not a newspaper circulation, maybe... but....

And they don't have editors changing things, and they own their merchandising rights, and they write and draw whatever the fuck they way -- Jesus Christ, they say Fuck right in the strip -- and they don't seem to want to make the changes and compromises he had to. They don't want to jump through the hoops or go through the crucible. It's like they want to be like those independent and alternative cartoonists who get published in the Stranger in Seattle and the local equivalents all over the country, only there are thousands of them. And some of them totally suck and some of them can't meet deadlines and he feels better, because all of the advantages of an editor standing herd over the artists just aren't there... but some of them post cartoons every day, and they have book collections and merchandising deals... and they seem to think they're professional cartoonists.

And now they're saying "you know what? The syndicate system is a relic of a different era. We make our money in different ways, but newspapers can be a part of our strategy. Here. We'll give your papers comic strips, if you accept our advertising as part of the package, or if you drive traffic to our site. This'll be good advertising for us."

Now... they're not only trying to leapfrog the system, they're saying the system doesn't matter. They're saying they don't need it, or want it. They don't want editors telling them what they can draw -- if a paper doesn't want to run a strip because of content, that's fine. They're not paying for it anyway -- the artist isn't out anything.

They are, in effect, challenging the tenets that the syndicated cartoonist has based his career and his entire life on.

...and some of them are more significant than the syndicated cartoonists in question.

Seriously. Have a look at uComics and Comics.com sometime. The big guns are there. For Better or For Worse. Doonesbury. Beetle Bailey. Those guys aren't sweating because Chris Crosby is offering comic strips to newspapers. I promise you Beetle Bailey has too much traction and cultural significance to disappear tomorrow. If it got dropped from papers, there would be angry letters.

No, it's all the strips you vaguely know the names of on those pages. Or all the strips you've never even heard of on those sites that are mad as Hell over this. Because those strips are at the early stages of the process. They're trying, damnably hard, to get traction in papers and spread through and begin to have an impact on cultural consciousness.

PvP, on the other hand, already has cultural consciousness. Thousands upon thousands of people read it every day. And they're a good demographic of reader -- young men of an age where they blow cash on video games and expensive high tech toys. PvP got a comic book deal from Image. Do you think Cats with Hands could get a comic book deal? Or CEO Dad? Or Heart of the City?

Note -- I'm not setting an agenda or releasing the hounds against those strips. I'm mentioning strips I've never heard of. That's right, after decades of comics page reading, of spending money on comic strip history, on devouring comic strips in almost every form I could get my hands on... these are strips that aren't even blips on my radar. They might be really successful. They might have thousands and thousands of readers. But from where I sit, they haven't had cultural impact. Not yet.

But Penny Arcade has. And so's PvP, and Nukees. You think Nokia would send these people free cell phones with video games built in if they didn't? They want the audience for those strips to buy N-Gages. They want them bad.

So the syndicated cartoonists lash out. This is literally a challenge to the way they've conducted their entire lives -- and a challenge to their capacity to become this Generation's Wizard of Id or Cathy. (We won't even discuss becoming the next Bloom County or Garfield or Peanuts. These days, there's an overwhelming feeling that that boat has left the dock and won't be coming back. And, with the Internet and cable television and information and entertainment bombarding from all sides, they're right, barring a total miracle -- and that miracle could happen to the web as easily as it does to the Boston Globe.)

You bet they're going to lash out. They're going to say hurtful things and trash talk Scott Kurtz and Chris Crosby. They're scared and they're angry. This is intensely personal. If these alternative models succeed -- and if Kurtz and Keen make their money off of alternative models that don't involve getting paid by the newspapers -- they directly impact the syndicate cartoonist's ability to get paid by syndicates to deliver content for newspapers.

Oh, some of their laments are just plain stupid. My personal favorite are the ones who claim Kurtz et al are sellouts. That's right, sellouts. They're trying to sell merchandise, not comic strips. That cheapens the comic strip. No, really. Honest.

(The stupidity of that statement is self-evident, but I'm on a roll here: comic strips aren't in newspapers for artistic reasons. They're in newspapers because newspapers want to increase their circulation, and a majority of newspaper readers flip to the funnies as part of the reading experience. A huge number read the funnies first. A nontrivial number read them before they read anything else. This is why newspapers have comics, period. Trying to sell tee shirts and mugs and advertising isn't selling out -- it's finding a way to draw and print comics that also feeds the family. There's a lot of easier ways to make money, to be blunt. In fact, it could be said that the artist who sells his comic strips to a syndicate for a paycheck is more of a sellout than the artist who retains all rights and offers the strip, making his money off of book and merchandise sales. But that's almost as spurious.)

What does that mean for people like Scott Kurtz and Chris Crosby? Not a lot. Oh, they're not going to like being trashed by other cartoonists, but they're still going to give it a try and they're either going to succeed or fail. And if they do fail, someone else will try something else. The one thing that's certain is the publishing and syndication landscape isn't what it was in 1990 (or 1980 or 1950 or 1900, for that matter), and twenty years from now new cartoonists aren't going to follow the same steps to reach a point of making money and cultural significance as the current crops do.

And like it or not, there is a growing feeling that not only isn't syndication the only game in town... it's not even the most desirable game in town. Frank Cho, when he pulled Liberty Meadows from the syndicates, made that point extremely well. Crosby and Kurtz are making it again. In his own way, so's Joey Manley. And the folks at PV Comics. And Gabe and Tycho. And J. Jacques. And Randy Milholland. And every person who's now putting food on his table by drawing a comic strip but not sending that strip to someone at Universal Press or King or Tribune Media Services.

That's scary as Hell to the guy who spent his life getting into the syndicate, because it makes him question everything. And so he lashes out.

But it doesn't change what's happening, and it doesn't change what's coming. It doesn't change the fact that things are changing.

So I don't get angry when I read these rants. I feel badly. I feel as badly as I would for people who used to work for buggy whip manufacturers. "I got a good job making buggy whips," they said. "These new 'horseless carriages' won't replace the horse. They can't. And the only way to motivate a horse that's been proven and true is with a buggy whip, like the ones I make for Universal Buggy Whip. So when these new things fail -- and they will, because I can't see how they'd succeed -- the guys working on those new assembly lines are going to be out of luck. But not me. I'll be making buggy whips."

It can be a bitch to see.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 30, 2004 10:18 AM

Comments

Comment from: Joshua posted at November 30, 2004 11:56 AM

It's irrelevant to your point, but I've actually read Heart of The City, and I enjoyed it. It's about a girl named Heart, who lives with her single mom in Philadelphia. There's even some nice geek humor with her friend Dean, a complete Star Wars fanatic. There's at least one collection.

Comment from: Phalanx posted at November 30, 2004 12:12 PM

You know, I've been observing this trend ever since Scott Kurtz made his announcement.

Personally, while I'm all for change, I do think that webcomic-dom's warcies of "The newspapers are dying! Webcomics will change the world" are far too hyperbolic.

Being more realistic; the newspapers are not going to die. You see, a thing... anything that has survived this long is almost certainly going to be far harder to kill than that.

They may be on a decline, but there will be a critical point when they realise this, and begin to change and adapt. Perhaps Kurtz and Keen have provided the catalyst for this, and speeded up the "we need to change the way we do things" process.

What I suspect will happen: The syndicates are going to look to the web more and more for their new comics, to the point where the old system of submitting strips becomes obsolete. Maybe they'll have to change their policies, maybe they'll accept the idea of creator ownership. Maybe they won't. And maybe if they won't, someone else enterprising enough will.

Whether Kurtz or Keen fails or succeeds doesn't really matter. The message has been sent that webcomics exist, they can be rivals, and for better or worse, change is coming.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 30, 2004 12:15 PM

That's cool. I'm all for these strips being good. I just needed some names, and that one just jumped out at me.

(Actually, I think I have heard of Cats with Hands. I'm suddenly afraid I've insulted someone I know.)

Comment from: Phalanx posted at November 30, 2004 12:46 PM

ack! Safari acting wonky and triple posting!!!

Eric, can you delete the excessive posts? Sorry...

Comment from: Shaenon posted at November 30, 2004 1:12 PM

What I don't get is why the guys tootling around in motorcars suddenly want to get into the buggy-whip business.

Webcomics people aren't the only ones claiming that newspaper syndication is dead in the water. I went to a talk by Berkeley Breathed a week or two ago, and he said the same thing. He thinks newspapers will be gone in a generation. And this is a guy who draws a newspaper strip, who's drawn newspaper strips all his life.

I don't like this. Like everyone, I grew up on the funny pages. Nowadays, I study "Little Nemo," Krazy Kat," "Barnaby," "Ally Oop," and "Peanuts" like a fiend. But the funny pages have degenerated into an environment deeply inhospitable to intelligence, humor, beauty, and freshness.

Webstrips like PvP and "Penny and Aggie" ought to be able to make it in syndication; they're certainly better than most of what's currently running in the papers. The days when newspaper strips could at least claim to feature better art than their web counterparts are long over (I like "Pearls Before Swine," for example, but it's certainly not any better-drawn than a mid-range Keenspot strip... and there's stuff in syndication now that is outright pug-ugly). But I don't know if it's worth it.

Also, although it may end up being good for newspaper cartoonists to encounter new revenue models, having to compete for space with material that's being offered for free is pretty dire. I'd be pissed.

Comment from: toddandpenguin posted at November 30, 2004 3:21 PM

ugh, reading this was painful, like a kick in the stomach of my dreams. I can see both sides of the argument and I don't know what the answer is. I don't think you can stop something like this from happening, people have the rights to do whatever they want. I can also see how webtoonists offering their stuff for free might be seen as scabs crossing the picket line by established toonists. The question I would tell those syndicated cartoonists who are upset is to ask themselves if THEY were the ones trying to break into the business, would they not do whatever was necessary? Would they sacrifice their own needs to be syndicated to preserve the model of syndication as it stands? And in turn, how would PVP or KeenSpot answer a challenge to their business? If somebody undercut them to get the same deal, a deal they set up and nurtured. There are a lot of great thought provoking questions here, some of which involves respect and tradition, and on the other hand, commerce, and the answers aren't very neat and tidy.

Being someone on the web, who WANTS to be in the papers, and knowing my dream, were it to happen, might not be as good as I imagined, this whole topic is sobering.

Comment from: David Morgan-Mar posted at November 30, 2004 5:38 PM

I just wanted to say this was a great piece of writing.

As for the issue at hand, there are always casualties when business models change under the weight of new technology. Some people will be unlucky, not through any fault of their own, but through circumstance. Evolution is like that. Relentless, heartless, and inevitable. But not evil.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 30, 2004 5:41 PM

toddandpenguin (I could just call you David, couldn't I?) -- it is and it isn't. The syndicates are there, right now... and your dream remains perfectly worthy. Hell, look at the snark I did just the day before. Unlike Shaenon, I have no problem with people who decide this is what they want to do. Hell, my own dream involves being paid for novels. Now, I could self-publish trivially at this point. All the tools are there. And I have some traction with an online audience. But I want Baen to publish my novels. Or Tor. Or the like. I want to get an advance and rewrite to improve and hand it over and work on the next one.

It's a worthy dream, and so is yours. And I wish you luck for it, and so long as you're drawing Todd and Penguin, whether it's for your own site or for Universal Press, I'm going to read it and occasionally snark it.

Comment from: Chuck posted at November 30, 2004 5:53 PM

Eric, Cats with hands is one of the 3 (or is it 4?) syndicated comic strips by the very prolific Joe Martin (also Mr. Boffo, Willy n Ethel, and one other that I can't remember the name of) He's been on my list of personal faves for quite some time now. I wouldn't be suprised if you recognized this one from following one of the others.. then again, maybe I'm into more obscure comics than you are.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 30, 2004 5:58 PM

That's it. I know from Mister Boffo. He's probably a bad example then, because he's certainly had an impact.

Well, c'est la vie. The essay is what it is.

Comment from: Phy posted at November 30, 2004 6:33 PM

I've been following the Kurtz crusade and this was a great essay. Thanks for following (and snarking) this issue.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at November 30, 2004 7:13 PM

Freak-- thanks. I should have grabbed those myself. I'll do an edit to put appropriate links in on the essay (just the cats with hands link for the Martin strips, mind).

Comment from: ryeman posted at November 30, 2004 9:13 PM

Well written essay Eric, nicely said.

It's a real lesson in being flexible. We all want to be able to draw our funny pictures, so whether it's a newspaper ad or a t-shirt that pays the bills, who really cares? Isn't all that swag cartoonists sell just glorified ads anyway?

So in the end...what's so different?! :)

Comment from: efnord posted at December 1, 2004 7:57 AM

Here's an email I recently sent to The Washington Post:

I recently read the Wired News coverage of your study about declining

readership. Have you considered attempting to revitalize newspaper

comics? It seems to me that as comic sections have gotten smaller,

newspaper readership has declined. Comics were originally brought in

as an attempt to provide something new and differentiate individual

papers in a time of increased competition between papers. Currently,

though, comics are in a very static situation. Why are Blondie or The

Lockhorns still in print? The handful of old people who would object

to the removal of these comics are not likely to subscribe if they are

removed, and are not a consituency that newspapers should be focusing

on if they want to retain any relevance.


I picture an eight-page daily color comics section in the paper,

carrying a fair number of traditional strips, many new strips, and a

number of half and full-page comics. I expect that if you offered Bill

Waterson a full-page strip, you could get him out of retirement.


Full-page comics are a media that is very poorly suited to the

Internet; screens are not big enough, and don't offer enough

resolution.


If newspapers want to remain relevant in the 21st century, they will

need to innovate. Sticking to the same-old-same-old and pandering to

the rapidly aging current readership will doom them.


-----------


Y'know, it's kinda ironic. If newspapers hadn't shrunk strips down so bad, people would never have gotten used to the whole "three panels of talking heads" style that is so integral to webcomics.

Comment from: marbx posted at December 1, 2004 11:09 AM

efnord, I think the reason so many webcomics do the "three panels of talking heads" is that they're imitating newspaper comic strips (the others are imitating comic books, and a rare few are imitating neither). If newspapers had never forced comic strips to shrink down, those webcomics would look a lot different.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 1, 2004 12:25 PM

It's worth noting -- if the Washington Post had eight pages of comics (including full page comics a la Little Nemo in Slumberland and in color), they'd have me as a subscriber.

Comment from: Les posted at December 2, 2004 8:49 AM

I wrote something similar about the reaction Scott Kurtz received to his announcement on my own blog back in August. My entry was more about the reaction of the other cartoonists than on whether or not Scott was likely to succeed as I admit that I haven't a clue whether he will or won't, but that I wouldn't bet against him given his track record so far.

Interestingly that entry on my site recently caught the attention of one of the cartoonists I mentioned in it prompting Bob Burnett to start a new thread on the Toon Talk forums cautioning his fellow cartoonists to be careful about what they say publicly as though my opinions would somehow impact their careers.

Anyway, just wanted to chime in and say that I think you've nailed it right on the head and I look forward to seeing a Toon Talk thread started about your essay in the near future. ;-)

Comment from: William_G posted at December 4, 2004 4:03 AM

"This is literally a challenge to the way they've conducted their entire lives -- and a challenge to their capacity to become this Generation's Wizard of Id or Cathy. "

Eric, I dont think it's a lashing out due to a challenge to their ability to become the next "Cathy"

I'm fairly certain it's a lashing out due to a challenge to their ability to feed their families on a regular basis. It is fear, and a sensible one at that. If someone came into your company and started offering to do your work for free, with a similar-but-not-quite level of quality, you'd be fearing the unemployment line as well.

-William G

Comment from: RPin posted at December 4, 2004 7:01 AM

Heya Bill.

I live in a circunstance quite close to the one you described. Although I'm well-employed at a bank and make more money than I need to live, my family lives off from the income a small drugstore. A drugstore that just died off as in a week ago. My parents couldn't bear the competiotion against bigger drugstore chains that offer medicaments below the price my parents have to pay for them.

I just handed them a year of savings to help them change the business. Things are going to be hard from now on, but so is life.

Sorry to detract from the issue at hand, but my point is: if you can only do one thing to provide your own survival, you're more likely to be doomed than those capable of changing and adapting. I'm not saying the whole "ability to feed their families" excuse isn't a valid one. But honestly, do you think Kurtz should be the one to blame for this? That's how things go in the real life, and maybe I'm jumping into conclusions here, but I don't think syndicated cartoonists would think twice before taking out food from Kurtz table either.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 4, 2004 10:55 AM

William G: I think you have a point, but I honestly think it's both.

On one level -- absolutely. Being able to provide for themselves and their families is at the core of their fear, and should be acknowledged. On the other hand, there are vastly easier ways to feed one's family than through being a syndicated cartoonist. There are reasons they chose this difficult path -- and part of those reasons involve ego.

That's not a bad thing, by the way. Ego fuels art. The belief that what you do is important, and will continue to grow and increase and become culturally significant has a lot to do with the drive to succeed in cartooning. And I honestly believe almost every cartoonist in the syndicates thinks that, with time and energy and talent, they'll at least become the next Cathy. Or the next Foxtrot. Or the next Boondocks.

(The only cartoonist for whom it was purely a question of finance that I know of is Jim Davis, who's interviewed several times that Garfield came from an analysis of the market and a plan for marketing and merchandising. It is possibly intensely frustrating to all the people who are trying for cultural significance to see just how significiant the unabashedly commercial Garfield has been.)

So yeah, you're right. But I think I'm right too.

Comment from: William_G posted at December 4, 2004 11:47 AM

Rodrigo:

Survival of the fittest, huh? I agree, anyone who has just one set of skills to live off of these days is asking to go hungry. But then again, that doesn't make people who are preying on that factor admirable. Kurtz should applauded for being able to take a dead-end medium like webcomics and make a living off of it, but Kurtz has found a hole in the print system and he is trying to exploit it at the expense of others.

Eric:

For sure, ego does drive art. But when art becomes your job, ego becomes far less important. Of course, none of us actually know the motivations of these guys, so it's all assumptions on our parts.

Then again, if what Kurtz and Keen are doing gets accepted as the norm, they'll just be hastening what has been happening slowly since the 1980s, and that's the final removal of comics from newspapers all together.

Comics are no longer a societal presence. The only thing keeping them in print right now is inertia and sentimentality. They're not needed for papers anymore.

Beh, this isnt a board. I'm street-preachering on someone else's front stoop...I'll stop now.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 4, 2004 11:55 AM

William G: you go right ahead and preach. No permits required here. ;)

And in the larger metacommentary, you're right. The decline of newspapers is one of the root causes of all of the anxieties, and this conflict is symptomatic of that decline.

However, I think it will be a long, long time before comics disappear from newspapers entirely. There's simply too much cultural association there. Barring the NYT and the WSJ, naturally, the drive to read the comics page in the paper is still a huge part of "reading the paper." And parents who want their kids to read the paper still use the comics page as a gateway drug.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at December 4, 2004 11:57 AM

Les -- I had actually read your essay and the Toontalk board you refer to. Like I said, I've been following the backlash for a while.

It'd all be an interesting sociology experiment, if we weren't talking about, y'know, real people out there. On both sides. As it is, there's something tragic about it all.

Comment from: gusgus posted at December 4, 2004 5:32 PM

Hi, i just started reading this site recently (a link from pvp). i love the snarks. i've also found this whole syndicates vs webcartooning issue fascinating. I wanted to know if you've ever read Bill Waterson's take on it from back in 1989. Here's a link from a speech he gave and i read a shorter version of this somewhere a while ago. I'm glad it's still around.

http://bob.bigw.org/ch/comics.html

you can go from there to his actual discussion on syndicates, papers, and alternatives to them.

what do you think?

also, may i suggest www.thenorm.com? right now there's an effort to save it from retirement through grassroots membership.

Comment from: Slick posted at December 5, 2004 5:11 AM

Les also has an excellent blog located here: http://www.stupidevilbastard.com/

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