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Posted at 2:15 PM ET, 01/13/2010

How would you change the comics? A veteran editor opens a window

By Michael Cavna


It's my favorite quote about newspaper cartooning that I've seen in many moons, and I think the reason is because some of the ideas are so practical, they can ring as radical.

The quote comes from Dave Astor, whose longtime beat was syndicates. Writing this week in The Comics Journal, Eric Millikin asked the former Editor&Publisher journalist the ol' "If I Were King" question -- here reframed with a Seussian twist. The passage read as such:

MILLIKIN: This is the Dr. Seuss "If I Ran the Circus" question: If you were running a newspaper chain or comics syndicate, what risks would you be taking? What do you think the industry ought to be doing that they're not?

ASTOR:   If I were running a syndicate, I'd add more alternative-type comics and keep only the best "legacy" comics (which, as many cartooning fans know, are those comics whose original creator is dead - often long dead). The fewer "legacy" comics, the more slots there would be for talented creators trying to break into the business. I think a syndicate should have a mix of all types of comics, but, in general, the current mix is too tame and not modern enough to attract enough of the young-adult readers needed by daily newspapers.


And if I were running a newspaper chain, I'd publish dozens of comics in each of the chain's papers, have a staff editorial cartoonist at each paper, and let reporters do livelier writing. I'd also settle for a smaller company profit and smaller executive salaries in order to pay for those dozens of comics, pay for those staff editorial cartoonists, and not lay off reporters. Obviously, no corporate-type person would let me run a newspaper chain in real life!

Bravo, Master Astor. Part of the reason I enjoy his thoughts involves what is being acknowledged:


1. Newspaper cartooning needs to take risks. For the health of these comics and editorial cartooning, standing pat is not a smart option. Many newspaper readers are continuing to migrate from print to Web for their funnies consumption, but the physical print comics remain an essential entry point for so many readers.

2. Too many "legacy cases" will bore the reader into disinterest or retreat. Astor is absolutely right when saying he would curb the number of "zombie strips." Zombies constantly need fresh blood; so, too, do the comics.

3. Comics pages trend toward the tame -- and thus lame. If TV's late nights were made up of only Lenos (likable but intentionally bland) and Lettermans (old-school ironic curmudgeon), the late landscape would be dull indeed. Comics need more Colberts, Craig Fergusons and Jon Stewarts -- like them or no, the counterprogrammed brands of humor make the mix so much richer.

4. Political cartooning provides a special perch. On the whole, the newspaper's staff editorial cartoonist still, inexplicably, seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. And yet few jobs at a newspaper provide such an immediate connection and raised profile with local readers. Yes, the political cartoonist will -- and should -- spur reader complaints. Yes, the political cartoon will -- and should -- take up some valuable print real estate. But yes -- the political cartoonist is to be protected and cherished like an endangered species.

There you have Master Astor's opinions. And there you have mine. We invite you to share yours.

By Michael Cavna  | January 13, 2010; 2:15 PM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  | Tags:  Dave Astor, Editor & Publisher, Eric Millikin  
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Comments

No, no, vampires need blood. Zombies need brains.

Oh, wait. That's even more apropos. Carry on!

Posted by: justvisiting73 | January 13, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Both you (Cavna) and Astor confuse two issues: Newness vs risk taking, and the role of a comics editor vs the role of an employment agency.

Any comics editor is going to face a permanent dilemma, which is that the edgier the strips he selects, and the more deadwood he cuts, the greater will be the howls from the peanut gallery.

I mean, Jesus, you've still got thousands of people out there who think that "Speed Bump," "The Family Circus" and "Mother Goose and Grimm" are funny. But as long as you keep pandering to people like that, the less free space you're going to have to introduce genuinely funny newer strips, like "Watch Your Head" and "Pearls Before Swine," not to mention a few legacy strips that leave ANY current strips in the dust in terms of "edginess," like "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" or "Krazy Kat."

IOW I know it's not PC to say this, but your problem in great part is your readership. What you really need to do is to forget those cute little reader surveys, which are likely stacked by unemployed cartoonists, and talk to someone who actually knows something about the history of comics and knows the difference between funny and not funny. Someone like Warren Bernard. And if you don't know Warren, I think I'm beginning to understand your problem.

Posted by: andym108 | January 14, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse

andym108 writes:
> Any comics editor is going to face a permanent dilemma, which is that the edgier the strips he selects, and the more deadwood he cuts, the greater will be the howls from the peanut gallery.

To be blatantly explicit, the "Peanuts" gallery. Why has that strip not moved to Kids' Post, and why has "Frazz" not been returned to the "real" comics pages from that hinterland? Do the fans of zombie strips rule at WaPo, or is it simply that no one in the position to do anything about this even cares?

Posted by: seismic-2 | January 14, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

>> andym:

For the record: I couldn't agree more about Warren Bernard -- a good guy and a great comics mind. Within minutes of meeting him for the first time, btw -- at SPX -- he was introducing me to the great Joost Swarte. And if you're in the DC area, "andym," I hope you were able to make Warren's recent Herblock lecture at the Library of Congress.

-- M.C.

Posted by: cavnam | January 14, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

If I were running a newspaper, I would TELL MY COMICS EDITOR TO MAKE HERSELF AVAILABLE FOR Q&As ON MY NEWSPAPER'S COMICS BLOG!

Not that I have anybody in mind...

Posted by: drewdane | January 14, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

m.c.:

If you've met Warren, you HAVE to visit his house. He's got the biggest collection of comic art, political art and sports art in the entire country, both in books and original artwork, and likes nothing better than to show it off to any comics fan. And yes, I'm from the area and when I had a used book shop in Bethesda, Warren was a very good customer as well as a good friend.

Posted by: andym108 | January 15, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

>> andym108:

I've been planning to interview Warren for this blog -- perhaps come the next SPX (now scheduled for mid-Sept., I hear) -- but you've just convinced me: I'd want to do the interview at his *house* if he'd be willing. Thanks very much -- and sounds as though YOUR book shop had some cartoon selections to be proud of, too.

-- M.C.

Posted by: cavnam | January 15, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

fr andym108:

>..."Mother Goose and Grimm" are funny. But as long as you keep pandering to people like that, the less free space you're going to have to introduce genuinely funny newer strips, like "Watch Your Head" and "Pearls Before Swine," ...<

I LOVE Mother Goose and Grimm, as well as Pearls. BOTH are hilarious!

Posted by: Alex511 | January 15, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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