Four of a Kind: A Cartooning Roundtable
Though the dimensions of a comic-strip artist’s work has diminished over the years, paradoxically his work has never been more challenging. Fewer newspapers to buy strips, dwindling newspaper readerships and the need for a new strip to establish a track record quickly combine to make straying off the beaten path risky and, more often than not, a blueprint for cancellation. Yet Dave Coverly (Speed Bump), Jef Mallett (Frazz), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) and Hilary Price (Rhymes With Orange) create personal, insightful and nevertheless popular comic strips, defying common wisdom that the strip’s current state has all but choked off innovation. They are four cartoonists in the early part of their careers, creating four very distinct strips, and despite the differences in their work, common ground exists in their perceptions of the industry and the possibilities of the future. Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes sat down with these cartoonists at the 2004 National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award weekend in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss the creative and business sides of their work and how the two balance each other.
Tom Heintjes: You’re all syndicated cartoonists in the early stages of your careers. What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Dave Coverly: Just staying syndicated. Getting in the paper and then staying there. Someone told me the attrition rate is something like 75 or 80 percent of strips don’t last beyond the first three years.
Jef Mallett: Every time I feel successful, I have a new challenge. When I was first attempting to get syndicated, I thought, “If I can just get the syndicate people to look at my submission, I’ll be OK.” And then I thought, “If I can get them to give me a development contract, then I’ll be OK.” Then it got harder. I got to the syndication launch, and it got harder. Then I thought, “Well, after the first year I’ll be OK.” It got harder after the first year. Each step raises new challenges.
Coverly: It’s like continually raising your own bar.
Mallett: Yeah, because if you don’t, someone else is gonna.
Coverly: I always feel like a fraud. I’m doing this thing I would have done anyway. If I’d been a carpenter, I’d still go home at night and draw cartoons, but someone is actually handing me…small amounts of money [laughter].
Hilary Price: Rolls of pennies. That’s how they pay me! For me, I think the biggest challenge has been learning the limits of what the syndicate can do and where I need to pick up the slack from there. Initially, the fantasy was that the syndicate would do everything. They would sell the strip, come clean my house, everything.
Coverly: You mean your syndicate doesn’t clean your house?
Price: I’ve wanted to see Jay [Kennedy, King Features comics editor] in a French maid outfit for years.
Coverly: He looks pretty good in it.
Price: [Laughter] But the hard part has been learning about the marketing side and taking initiative on my own to make things happen, which the syndicate might then support. So I guess I’ve gradually learned that I play a part in the overall effort of selling the strip.
Heintjes: So would you all agree that you have concerns apart from just being creative every day?
Mallett: That’s the one I try to focus on, because I figure if I take care of that one, the other concerns will take care of themselves. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about everything in the book.
Coverly: It’s a lot harder than I expected it to be. I thought I would be the syndicate’s golden boy, but they’ve got a stable with lots of people, and they’ve got to give support to all of them. When I started, I took road trips to big papers throughout the Midwest with a sales rep from the syndicate. They felt it was important to put my face in front of the editors when they were considering my strip.
Stephan Pastis: That’s why it didn’t sell very well [laughter].
Mallett: It’s also kind of a guessing game. You don’t want the syndicates to feel like you’re stepping on their toes with your efforts. Price: I actually think they’re supportive. They don’t think you’re going to steal their job.
Mallett: It’s confusing. I’m still new at this. I’ll probably feel that way for the next 40 years.
Coverly: It’s all changing, too. I suspect if you talk to some of the older guys in the syndication field, they would also feel it’s changing. You’ve got the Internet, and people don’t know what effects that will have on newspapers.
Heintjes: Has the Internet changed the way you work?
Pastis: Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have been syndicated. United picked up the strip for syndication, but then they had doubts about whether they could put it into newspapers. So they put my strip online and basically just watched the hits, which is commonplace now, but it didn’t really happen much then. And when Dilbert‘s Scott Adams endorsed it, the hits went way up, and I held that audience for months. So they decided that I could hold readers and they could get me into papers. So without the Internet, none of that would have happened.
Price: How important is the Internet for you now?
Pastis: Really important. You can really get a feel for what’s working and what’s not working. People who e-mail you—whether they’re complimenting you or insulting you—generally have an agenda. But someone just talking about you on a random Web site is a pretty honest assessment. Because of that, I know how people are reacting to my work. I don’t know how guys did it before the Internet. Imagine doing a strip, and eight weeks later someone sees it and writes a letter, which goes through your syndicate, and three weeks later you get the letter.
Heintjes: Is it possible to pay too much attention to reader reaction on the Internet?
Coverly: Oh, yeah.
Mallett: I try not to pay any attention. Patty [Mallett’s wife and letterer] will Google me.
Coverly: That’s too much information.
Mallett: [Laughter] One other thing that nice about the Internet is not being totally at the mercy of newspapers. If one newspaper doesn’t carry you, people can still find you. Before, if newspapers didn’t carry you, people would have no way of knowing about the strip. Now they can find it out there.
Price: Yeah, but it’s kind of a Pyrrhic victory. If it gets dropped in a paper and people get it online for free…on a fulfillment level it’s a good thing, but economically it’s not great.
Mallett: As long as all the strips are available online, it’s kind of a wash. It will be really sad if newspapers say, “Well, the hell with it—readers can get all comic strips online, so we’re just going to use that page for something else.”
Coverly: I think the whole industry is in a big transition right now, and no one has absolutely any idea where it’s going to go or how anyone is going to make any money. It just seems like if people are reading it, they should be paying for it somehow.
Pastis: There are pluses and minuses. In the old days, if there’s a big paper I’m not in, no one is writing to that paper. I am a nonfactor. Nowadays, if someone from that town writes me, I’ll ask them to write to their paper. Suddenly, a newspaper editor who has never heard of me is getting letters from people in his city. So without the Internet, that doesn’t work. But as Hilary said, there are negatives, too. If you get dropped from a paper, everyone would write, because you’re not going to see that strip anymore. But now the rage is tamed. The reader will say, “Ahh, I’ll just read it online,” and that’s not good. But the syndicates are starting fee-based subscription services, so we’ll see how that works.
Heintjes: When you talk to cartooning veterans, are there ways in which you feel you have it better than they did? Or do you envy them for the “glory years” they worked in?
Coverly: That’s a good question. I don’t talk to them. Those guys are assholes [laughter].