At the beginning of 2018, we’re on the cusp of something that might arguably be one of the biggest changes to newspapers in generations: Comic strips, one of the newspaper’s great standbys, are starting to “age out.”
This took quite a long time, but two major things have happened in recent weeks that suggest a major sea change is on the way: the January death of Mort Walker, who was responsible for creating Beetle Bailey and co-creating Hi and Lois, and the decision by cartoonist Guy Gilchrist (who has plenty of years in front of him) to stop doing Nancy, whose final edition published on Sunday. Together, that's the loss of probably like 100 years of institutional knowledge on the comics page, with Walker providing most of it.
Certainly, the legacy of these strips is significant, and the comic pages have certainly dealt with worse. And it’s currently not clear if Gilchrist is getting replaced or not, nor does it look like Mort’s son, Greg, is likely to end Beetle Bailey anytime soon.
But one has to wonder if, considering the age of these strips (Nancy is 80 years old!), we’re going to see some big movement on the comics page in the coming years. With newsprint becoming a luxury and a whole lot of voices making some digital hay at the moment, it’s worth wondering whether we’re about to see some major comic-page shifts that rethink the section entirely.
Certainly, there's room. Currently, King Features Syndicate is making chatter about trying to build some TV shows tailor-made for Netflix and Hulu, which seems like a another way of saying that the comics pages aren't so exciting anymore.
And we’re two decades on from an era in which a single Connecticut county was responsible for much of the output of the comics page due to the necessities of the postwar publishing machine. Two decades ago, the most one could hope for out of a comic strip was wide syndication, a potential bookstore or greeting card presence, and maybe even a Saturday morning cartoon. Call it the Garfield model.
Nowadays, a comic strip that was never designed to show up in a newspaper is responsible for a prominent set of video game conventions—a phenomenon that, on its own, suggests that there's a stratosphere far beyond the comic pages of yore. Nowadays, talented comic artists are far more likely to convince the public to support their work on Patreon, rather than praying that a syndication service notices their work.
And some of the most prominent comic artists of the past two decades—Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder comes to mind—have chosen to expand their creative horizons beyond the comics page. Heck, even Garry Trudeau has stopped doing daily Doonesbury strips.
One has to wonder if a newspaper might get more value from its potential audience if it rethinks its comics-page model some. Consider Marvel, which has reshaped the movie blockbuster in its own image over the past decade, in part because it turns its films into events.
In contrast, comic strips are bastions of consistency, but consistency is an attention-grab dead end. What if the comics section, for instance, was built around events—perhaps one week, the entire section is given away to a single artist, or a comic book is included with the Sunday newspaper, like that time Prince gave away an album in a British tabloid? Sure, you might upset the people looking for bridge, but there’s a much larger audience that doesn’t care about bridge and has no reason to pick up a newspaper in 2018.
From a marketing standpoint, newspapers are built around consistency in an era when many more people want events from their popular culture. And newspapers do this because they’re scared of all the angry calls they’re going to get if they drop Peanuts, even though we lost Charles Schulz nearly two decades ago.
I’m not saying that the daily comics page should go away by any means, but in an era where space is a luxury and we devote space to reruns or retreads instead of the bevy of fresh voices you can find online, something eventually needs to change. Our creative mediums are more flexible elsewhere, and when the newspaper itself is at risk, we can’t talk about the sanctity of a single page.
Even if it’s one populated by Beetle Bailey.