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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 07/21/2008

The Morning Line: Honey, They Shrunk the Strips

By Michael Cavna

Cartoonists have joked for years -- through gritted teeth and inky fits of frustration -- that newspapers publish their strips so small that the occupation has been reduced to scribbling on stamps. But some days now, when we look at the narrow-depth, four-panel comics -- such as "Prickly City" -- we're convinced the panels are literally the size of stamps.


Four-panel cartoonist or postage-stamp designer? The line continues to shrink. (Universal Press Syndicate)


So what the #$%&! do you do? Well, some of your real options as a cartoonist are:

(1) Convert to a three-panel strip.
Good luck with that. For some comic strippers, how you write gags is as inborn as left-and right-handedness: You're either a three-paneler or four-paneler. (How "For Better or For Worse's" Lynn Johnston works in five panels is a whole 'nother matter for another time.)

(2) Cut your wordiness waaay down.
Some strips lend themselves to "Mutts"-esque brevity (or go silent like "Lio" -- a sly decision in a world of comic philately). But some strips -- like a verbose "Non Sequitur" -- are damned if they're gonna pop their fat word-balloons. (The legendary, and legendarily ornery, political cartoonist Paul Conrad represented a whole other camp -- he told me cartoonists who use so many stinkin' words should just up and become novelists.)


Hello, Editor? Yes, I want to report a breach of legibility. (Universal Press Syndicate)


(3) Take a stand and watch how fast your client list plummets.
Most any creator not named Trudeau who dictates strip dimensions to editors today will soon have fewer newspapers interested in his/her services than "reporter" Jayson Blair. Which leads to...

(4) Find another line of work.
Why, there's always children's books. And Web comics. And children's books. And scribbling three-dollar caricatures for tourists on the boardwalk. And did we mention children's books?
And as Garry Trudeau noted here last Tuesday, even political cartooning slots are endangered. (Two days later, the L.A. Times waded into this topic too.)

So there you have it: Syndicated cartoonists are between a professional rock and a hard place -- and both the rock and the hard place are getting harder and harder to see as they shrink. And then there's always the option that an artist suggested to me once: Newspapers should include a tear-out plastic magnifying glass every so often with the comics pages. Well, at least that's one solution that shows a little vision...

So, for you devoted print readers, would you rather have fewer strips bigger OR more strips smaller?

By Michael Cavna  | July 21, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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