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Posted at 1:10 PM ET, 11/ 5/2009

Henry Allen speaks: When the reader reaches a tipping point

By Michael Cavna

When the Comics Reach the Readers' Tipping Point

NOTE TO READERS: In the wake of recent newsroom events, more than a few readers have urged and encouraged Comic Riffs to re-post this rant, which was first published two weeks ago today. So, never one to refuse my readers, here's that re-post. All references to "shrinking patience" and "bout" are, quite seriously, coincidental. (I should also note: After Henry read this, he grinned a Cheshire grin, mulled in bemusement for a moment, then offered only two words: "That's. Good.") *Phew.*

Henry Allen's patience is shrinking like a stamp-sized comic. Pica by evaporating pica, the funnypages are testing his will to read. He might find "Judge Parker" beautifully drawn, but it is Henry who will be rendering his decision to swear off the micro-funnies.

"It's not worth it anymore. They're too damned small," he bemoans over the transom. Henry, who happens to be my pod's Pulitzer winner (for a while in Style, it seemed one was practically assigned to every Post pod), won his Prize for cultural criticism -- from Andrew Wyeth to R. Crumb, the man knows more than a wee bit about visual critique. And perhaps just as important to our discussion today, he relishes the well-illustrated comic.

Prompting our newsroom banter is this week's shrinkage of "Doonesbury" in The Post's print edition. In migrating from Style's Page-3 to Page-2 -- and untethering itself from The Reliable Source layout as part of the paper's larger redesign -- Garry Trudeau's 40-year-old strip has lost roughly a half-panel in width.

Henry's verdict: "That's it. It can't afford to shrink that much."

In The Post, "Doonesbury" sees a shrink. (UPS) Enlarge Comic

Thing is, "Doonesbury" still runs larger in The Post than do the comics on the funnypages proper. As many readers know, the consolidation of The Post's comics from three pages to two earlier this year resulted in shrinkage -- which throughout the industry has been on ongoing fact-of-life for many years. This reduction is widely perceived by editors to be a necessary evil, the cost of doing business now -- even given that demographically, many print comics readers are older. It's many of these older readers who write to Comic Riffs to say: Look, you're shrinking me right out of your reading audience.

In other words, one kind of shrinkage begets another.

Which mirrors Henry's latest personal declaration: That the stripping-down point has about reached his tipping point. When even mere legibility becomes a bout, it's tempting to throw in the towel. (As commenter "Mrhode" posted on Comic Riffs yesterday about The Post: "My wife's given up reading the comics in her 40s because you print them too small.")

Many readers, of course, will simply reply: Venture to the almighty Web -- there, the size of your comics is often only restricted by the size of your monitor or mobile device. Which is true. But the hitch and the glitch there are: Most newspaper comic artists still draw their ART so it "reads" visually when super-downsized in newspapers. So it's still print-page size that -- gradually for years now -- has led to an artistic dumbing-down of so many comic strips.

That said, I hasten to add: Visual simplicity and a clean style do not automatically equate with "dumbing-down." A couple of days ago, commenter "ishkabibbleA" asked me in this forum, in part: "Does uber-simplistic artwork lower the instrinsic value of a comic?" To which I reply: (a) Absolutely not; and (b) let's break this down into two distinct types of "instrinsic value."

First, in terms of AESTHETIC value, there's nothing I embrace more than the clean, well-rendered line. To me, a "simple," beautifully drawn "Peanuts" can hold more aesthetic value than highly filigreed artwork that becomes so cluttered -- no matter how stylish -- that all sense of line and composition are deflated if not defeated.

For purposes of today's Incredible Shrinking Comic debate, however, I also contend that comic strips have an instrinsic COMMERCIAL value that depends hugely on how effectively the art works within its specific medium. On this latter count: Such "simple-looking" comics as "Dilbert" and "Pearls Before Swine" (while also being consistently hilarious) actually gain value because at postage-stamp size, they're still relatively legible and their artwork doesn't melt into inky, Lilliputian mudpuddles. On the flip side, often more detailed art -- which for so many decades was an outright selling point of the funnies -- is reduced to annoying eye-chart art.

Given such splotchy Rorschach-test art, readers like the esteemed Henry Allen won't stick around, because they can tell you what such art means without having to gaze at it. It means: "Farewell, because you can kiss my comics readership goodbye."

And trust me, newspaper editors, when I say: That's no small loss. Because although millions of comics fans can barely see the strips in the newspaper, they can read the writing on the wall.

By Michael Cavna  | November 5, 2009; 1:10 PM ET
Categories:  The Comic Strip, The Rants, The Riffs  
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I'm 36 and have perfect vision, but the state of comics pages is making me feel like I'm twice as old with half the ability to see. The current size removes the comics-ness from the comic strips---it places more emphasis on the words, because it now requires more effort to read them. The interplay of words and pictures now leans heavily on the words, and that saps a lot of the fun out of "Candorville" and "Pearls Before Swine." And wordless strips like "Lio" are diminished because the quality of its draftsmanship doesn't get put on full display.

The only strips that survive this horrible situation relatively intact, to my mind, are ones like "Mutts" and "Red and Rover," which deal in relatively simple gags and relatively simple drawings. That's not "dumbing down"---I like both strips---but it does suggest that only a certain kind of strip can absorb this kind of shrinkage and still be worth reading.

Please don't tell me I can just go to the Web. I'm no Luddite, but what I like about the comics pages is the element of surprise---there are certain strips that I'm not a dedicated fan of but which I still like to check out from time to time (like "Prickly City"), but I'm not going to go through the effort of clicking from strip to strip, syndicate site to syndicate site, to do that. It's a demonstrably less-fun experience that way. I want the freedom to occasionally look at "Judge Parker," if only to remind myself that I have no idea what the hell is going on in it.

Please, kill five or six strips, and make the remainder larger. Otherwise, you're rapidly approaching the point where it makes no sense to have a comics page at all.

Posted by: mathitak | October 22, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Here's what I don't get: comics are the ONE thing that newspapers can do significantly better than the web. I can get breaking news from CNN or; I can get sports scores from the web or TV; I can find analysis in any number of places (whether I trust it or not is another matter). And, heck, if I do want to get WaPo columnists and insight, I can get that all for free on the web, too.

But I defy you to show me one other place where I can sit down and read a collection of dozens of my favorite comic strips, all gathered together in one place for easy consumption. Comics on the web are scattered hither and yon, between various syndicates. Sure, I could track them all down, install links, remember to check them all daily -- but I'm more than happy to pay 50c or 75c/day to have someone do all that work for me and deliver it to my front door. The comics are the only reason I EVER read a printed newspaper any more.

So I am truly mystified why no newspapers seem to have picked up on this potential marketing avenue. Go bigger! Advertise the best comics selection, the biggest panels, the brightest colors! Siphon off customers like me, who have given up on our local rags (Sun, anyone?) because they no longer offer anything of value. You'd think, with all the high-priced MBAs around, someone would have figured out how to play up your biggest remaining asset, the one thing that distinguishes you from your competition. Instead, it's all lockstep groupthink, as one newspaper after another intently follows the cost-cutting religion into oblivion.

Posted by: laura33 | October 22, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I agree with laura33. It baffles me that newspapers are cutting away the features with which they could compete with the web in order to focus on printing yesterday's news, where the web is always going to win.

I used to read all of the comics. Now that they've gotten so small, it's not worth the effort. And it's especially maddening to have them so shrunken now that the Post's redesign includes so much empty white space and wastes column inches on pictures of their columnists; obviously, space can't be that precious if the Post can afford to throw it around like that.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 22, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but you can't just go online to find bigger comics. Even online, it's getting harder and harder to read. The Washington Post online has cost me Sunday's Liberty Meadows and Comics For Kids (Both thankfully available at a real size elsewhere). Not too long ago, Lockhorns and Sally Forth also overshrank onsite before getting bearable. Gocomics' Annie requires a zoom for the Sundays, and sometimes dailies. Herald Tribune provides a zoom feature, which is usually needed on Sundays.'s Marmaduke also requires their zoom feature on Sundays.

Necessary evil? How is putting many comic creators out of business necessary? As more and more people complain about shrinkage, more and more people stop reading the comics. How long until papers start dropping them altogether? Or at least the ones generating the biggest complaints? Should the creators be unemployed and homeless just so the paper can save a few bucks? I'd say no, except apparently, we're heading into Yesville.

And really, how long before comic shrinkage gives rise to overall paper shrinkage? Save a few bucks now, go out of business later. Because the rest of the paper can be viewed bigger online. Not sure why papers would adopt a business model that tanks the whole business in a few years' time. But here we are.

Bigger comics equals more money overall, jobs, too. Why is that so hard to grasp?

Posted by: atherworld | October 22, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

laura33, that's an interesting point. I love the comics, but I honestly always thought of them as a perk to the newspaper, rather than a reason for buying a newspaper. The only times I ever equate comics with readership is in terms of LOST readership: eg angry threats to cancel subscriptions because "Family Circus" was canceled or "Get Fuzzy" was offensive. But you're right - comics COULD be a successful asset rather than a liability, and it's surprising that The Post hasn't tried that approach.

Posted by: ishkabibbleA | October 22, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I've stopped reading most of the comics because the effort to read the micro-type is not worth it. An art-busy text-full strip like Doonesbury is completely useless in this tiny format. I have no expectation that this will change for the better. It seems like there was a big outcry when Frazz was moved to the KidsPost, but it's still there. Likewise, the comics.

Posted by: marybindc | October 22, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Although I always scan the obituaries and Metro news, and often the concert reviews, perhaps the primary reason that I have been a WaPo subscriber for many more years than I would care to admit is the pleasure of reading the funnies at the breakfast table. However, as my eyesight has deteriorated and the strips have shrunk, that pleasure is no longer mine. I now have to read the comics online, and I have reached the conclusion that I may as well read **everything** that way, while I'm at it. If the comics were pnce again the glorious full-sized multi-page spread that they once were, though, I would gladly continue to shell out payment for the dead-tree version.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 22, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Many years ago, Doonesbury was able to dictate a minimum size for the daily strip. As I recall, this was the primary reason that it was moved off the comic pages and to a private location in the Style section (although its editorial nature may have played a role, too). I would be very interested to know whether Trudeau (or his syndicate) has dropped or lowered that size requirement.

Posted by: kilby | October 22, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I wondered that too, kilby.

Posted by: marybindc | October 22, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

...and speaking of the brilliance of Pearls before Swine, who would have ever thought one would see Uncle Wiggily in a 21st century comic?

If ever there was a reason for Defending. That. Toon! -- it's the genius of Stephan Pastis. Hats off, gentlemen and ladies!

Posted by: SportzNut21 | October 22, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

SportzNut21 - I have to thank you for mentioning Uncle Wiggily (haven't heard that names in years), but I also have to inform you that is not him in Pearls Before Swine. It's Alice's White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. The clues are the long hole that Larry fell down and the watch the White Rabbit is holding.

As for the size of the funnies, I have to agree with everyone here. I love to read them and don't understand why the powers that be don't appreciate them. Laura33 has a great idea about featuring the funnies as a selling point. I've known many a person over the years who got the paper because of the comics. Why doesn't management listen?

Posted by: elyrest | October 22, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I think the most telling point is that every time the Post cancels a popular strip, the paper receives a flood of protests, and every time that happens, the editors express astonishment that anyone really cares.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 22, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone from the Washing time reading this? It seems like there may be a business opportunity on the horizon. Good point Kilby, I wonder if Trudeau even know it's happened. I'm one of the older readers, and can't read Sunday's Liberty Meadows or Zippy (Irealize the latter doesn't matter to most of you) because even with a magnifying glass the pixels distort the letters. Further, the "new" format seems to have more blank space in the paper and smaller print throughout. what's the saving there? Back to my first point, I would change subscritpions to a paper that could treat the comics properly, as hinted by laura33. Do the editors of the W P ever read these comments, or are they the equivalent to file 13?

Posted by: olddog1 | October 23, 2009 6:22 AM | Report abuse

I'd echo EVERYTHING Laura33 says. Nearly every one of the changes that the Post has undertaken over the past few years has been purely defensive, and not a damn one of them has given readers a reason to buy the print edition. The incredible shrinking comics section is but one example of this.

To read the Post these days, once you get past the front section it's like watching Dan Snyder's Redskins: All gimmicky marketing, surface re-designs, and a management that seems more and more in a bunker mode. I half expect to see Vinny Cerrato named the new Managing Editor and Tom Toles replaced by the latest American Idol winner, in an effort "to reach out to younger readers." It's not a pretty sight.

Posted by: andym108 | October 23, 2009 7:06 AM | Report abuse

The comics page was the main reason I choose the Post over the Times 9 years ago. There were other small reasons, but I remember thinking that any newspaper that had 3 pages of comics was worthy of my business. One of the only reasons I get the paper anymore is so that I can read the comics at lunch. it is my 30 minutes of enjoyment at what the diverse artists bring together everyday. I am puzzled by the Post's business decisions and fully agree with laura33 in that the comics are the one thing that the papers can do better than the web.

Posted by: buckeye96 | October 23, 2009 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Doonesbury? Has anyone tried reading Get Fuzzy lately? It used to be one of my favorites, but it shrank some time ago and now the eyestrain it causes makes it not worth the effort to read it.

Some readers mentioned shrinking the overall size of newspapers...that has already happened to several local ones, including the Hagerstown paper.

Posted by: kroshka | October 24, 2009 1:59 AM | Report abuse

After the Post redesign, I considered quitting comics altogether. I'm in my 40s and have good vision (after serious correction for myopia). If it's work to read the text, I simply don't enjoy them. I'm a subscriber to the dead tree edition, but begin to wonder...


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | November 5, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Allen: On your way out of the Post, please seek out the totally clueless editor who is responsible for moving first "Agnes" and the "Frazz" to Kids' Post, and do what has to be done ("if you know what I mean, and I think you do," as Dave Barry would say). You will have earned the thanks of all WaPo comics readers everywhere (a group which sadly appears not to include anyone in management there). Your departure, along with the daily maltreatment of the funnies, gives all "Style" readers ample reason to become ex-readers. You have our best wishes in your future endeavors, and I hope that in lieu of a gold watch you will be given a gold magnifying glass, so that you can continue to enjoy the comics, albeit with the same inconvenience as all the rest of us over the age of 40.

Posted by: seismic-2 | November 6, 2009 3:18 AM | Report abuse

well said, seismic-2.

Posted by: ishkabibbleA | November 6, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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