A Preemptive Wake for Alt Weekly Comics, While Matt Groening Threatens to Quit
On November 7, the Chicago Humanities Festival held a panel on the decline and death of alternative comic strips. That is to say, the weekly comic strips that appear in alternative weekly papers like the Chicago Reader, the Village Voice and so forth. Or, more to the point, don’t appear any more.
The line-up was pretty much what you’d call heavy-hitters. Jules Feiffer (Village Voice cartoonist for _years_, who also drew for Playboy and even wrote some of the final installments of The Spirit when he apprenticed with Will Eisner), Matt Groening (the “Life in Hell” strip and something called “The Simpsons”), Lynda Barry (Ernie Pook’s Comeek) and Chris Ware (“Acme Comics Library”). The moderator was Michael Miner, an editor and media columnist for the Chicago Reader (the main alt weekly in Chicago), who’s fairly well known in Chicago journalism circles.
A lot of the panel consisted of the artists talking about themselves. Lynda Barry is full of energy and utterly hilarious. My favorite line of hers, while discussing phantom limb pain was “I’m sure there’s phantom limb pleasure, but nobody calls the doctor about it.” Chris Ware, while better able to deal with a crowd then the last time I saw him at the Humanities Festival, circa 2001, still is painfully shy to the point where you wonder if it’s just his public act. (Though I doubt it is.) Feiffer and Groening just seemed well-adjusted and content: something you don’t always think of when considering cartoonists. And let me tell you, everybody was busting Groening’s chops… right up until the point when Ware pointed out that Groening was the only one on the panel still doing a weekly strip.
Now given the nature of the panel, this wasn’t all rose colored glasses. It was mostly a downer. Feiffer said that he’d moved on from comic strips years ago and went to children’s books. He still teaches a writing class and draws people dancing for his own enjoyment. Ware, professing great distaste for the weekly Dreaded Deadline Doom has moved on to serializing his work in the New York Times Magazine and also aims more for the book market. Lynda Barry stopped doing Ernie Pook when it dropped down to 4 papers carrying it. It sounds as though she’s going the graphic novel route, but she was a bit ambiguous about it. It was in the midst of this, that Matt Groening admitted that Lynda Barry constantly tells him he should quit doing a weekly strip. He admitted he loses money on each strip, which is probably the economist’s view of opportunity cost as he certainly could be doing a more profitable venture. Then he said he would think about quitting. In the context, it was quite possible that he was merely teasing the audience, but he said it as though it was something he really ought to consider, he said it like this was not the first time the thought had seriously crossed his mind and he said it in the midst of 3 other very well known alt weekly cartoonists who have punted the format. So if you heard this rumor, it’s not a rumor. He said it. The only question is: will he act on it?
The level of pessimism at this panel was a bit depressing. Nobody was really suggesting alternate venues. I think it was Barry that compared comics to having a baby and wanting the baby to make money and pay the rent. Ware went a step further, saying “it’s a problem to make a living” and “do it for yourself, don’t expect to make a living.”
So there you have 3 out of 4 of alt weekly comics’ biggest stars of their respective periods saying you can’t make a living at it and two of them questioning whether you should try. Groening, through most of this looked a bit sheepish, though he’s the only one soldiering on at this point. Being the most positive of the group, Groening did share his secret for dealing with papers on the pay scale issue: he always insisted on being paid as an illustrator, not as a comic. The pay was much better.
Ware, in a fit of pique, went on to talk about how you shouldn’t try and promote your own material and gave a “fear of rejection” rationale that nobody wouldn’t like you if you did. He then decried art schools giving self-promotion courses.
Maybe some of this is sour grapes over a failing market, but the idea that artists should know nothing of basic marketing and publicity, instead relying completely on chance and the kindness of strangers to promote and popularize their work seems a bit Dickensian, if not self-defeating.
And there you have the sad landscape: papers dropping comics as the advertising declines (the Village Voice group was particularly blamed for dropping comics in all the papers they own) and no new markets opening up.
Miner tried twice to ask them about the Internet as a distribution medium, but the panel didn’t seem to want to go there. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Groening go there if he has more papers drop him and his fame for starting the Simpsons would surely given him a means for an easy online launch. Ware is in his own world of graphic novels and New Yorker covers. Barry… well, to be honest, I’m not sure where Barry stands, other than she certainly isn’t optimistic about the strip format. Feiffer’s probably in what you would call semi-retirement – which for him might mean scaling his workload back by 20%. He’s still teaching and creating, but he doesn’t seem to be spending a lot of time seeking new outlets.
Now maybe advertising picks up, the alt weeklies get better cash flow and come back to comics. The Chicago Reader did start carrying comics again after a brief absence. If that doesn’t happen, expect to be seeing more panels like this one.