By: Dave Astor
When Berkeley Breathed’s half-page “Opus” comic launched this fall, it re-ignited a recurring debate: Should older strips passed down to successor cartoonists occupy newspaper slots that could go to “Opus” and other comics done by their original creators?
This wasn’t a big issue decades ago, because many competing dailies meant many slots for strips old and new. But today, with fewer papers and more cost-cutting, the shrinking comics section has become a battleground.
Breathed and his Washington Post Writers Group (WPWG) syndicate have been saying that strips passed down to other creators should go. Cartoonists contacted for this story strongly agreed or disagreed with that, and also made their feelings known about “Peanuts” reruns.
Money is a huge reason why so many comics endure after their original creators have left the scene, said “Non Sequitur” creator Wiley Miller of Universal Press Syndicate. “The syndicates who continue this practice do so simply because they don’t want to give up a cash cow. They put commerce ahead of art and integrity — which is standard American business practice, I suppose.”
Darrin Bell, a young cartoonist who creates “Candorville” for WPWG and co-creates “Rudy Park” for United Media, called this a “shortsighted” business practice. He said syndicates that distribute passed-down comics “severely limit the number of slots available to their own new features,” and thus lessen “the possibility of a successful new franchise.” Meanwhile, many fans of the older comics will eventually pass away.
“There are some great cartoonists out there whose work will never be seen because of greed,” said Stacy Curtis, editorial cartoonist for The Times of Munster, Ind. And he noted that newspapers share the blame. “Editors don’t want to answer the phone the first time a reader realizes they can’t see Dagwood run into the mailman again,” said Curtis, referring to the 1930-founded “Blondie” strip.
“The most relevant comics manage to establish a personal connection between the creator and the reader,” said Bell. “The creator’s particular outlook on life is what draws the reader in, and you just can’t duplicate that outlook without the original creator’s involvement.”
Miller added: “Cartooning is writing. No matter how well the drawing style is imitated, the soul of the feature — its perspectives and sensibilities — goes with the creator of the feature. … For those who miss the old strip, there are book collections.”
People supporting passed-down comics say they’re still popular with readers and that successor cartoonists often do good work. But Miller said: “The ‘popularity’ of these comics is based solely on the incredibly inaccurate comics polls newspaper conduct, and reflect the tastes of their oldest readership. That is not the demographic a newspaper should be concerned with here… . The fundamental function of comics is to attract young readership and hold on to them into adulthood to get them into the habit of reading and buying newspapers.”
Miller — who’s disappointed that many papers dropped newer strips rather than “dead wood” to make room for “Opus” — said successor cartoonists can do “competent, professional work.” But so can Elvis Presley impersonators, he added. “And no matter how good they are, you don’t see any Elvis impersonators being signed to a record deal. If a cartoonist is good enough to carry on someone else’s strip, he or she should be good enough to create their own.”
Curtis — who has submitted comics to syndicates — said some cartoonists who have “tried year after year after year to get syndicated… take the easy way out and agree to draw a dead-cartoonist strip.” Other talented creators turn to non-newspaper outlets for their work.
The pass-down debate even made it into the “Pearls Before Swine” strip by Stephan Pastis of United. On Dec. 23, Pig asks: “How did the funnies become unfunny?” Part of Rat’s reply: “You have some strips where creators died or retired and handed the strips off to relatives or hired artists.” On Dec. 24, Rat says Gary Larson (“The Far Side”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”) retired “because they didn’t want their features to ever grow stale and they had the integrity and generosity to give new features a chance.”
Syndicates with the fewest passed-down comics include WPWG (none), followed closely by Universal. Distributors with the most include King Features Syndicate (more than 40% of its comics roster) and Tribune Media Services (just over a third). King and TMS are among the oldest syndicates.
Those supporting the successor strip include Susie MacNelly, widow of “Shoe” creator Jeff MacNelly (1947-2000). “If it’s funny, and millions of fans love it and want it, it should be in there,” said Susie, who now does the 1977-launched “Shoe” with Chris Cassatt, Gary Brookins, Bill Linden, and Jeff’s son Matt MacNelly.
Much of this team began helping with the TMS comic in 1992 so Jeff could do more painting and sculpting. “He trained us for this job and knew we were up to the task,” said Susie, adding that both family members and non-family people are capable of continuing a comic.
Susie recalled that she and Jeff had a close marriage, and a similar sense of humor and way of looking at things. “Jeff is not here physically, but his spirit definitely fuels ‘Shoe’,”she said. Still, the comic is somewhat different now than when its creator was alive. “It’s a little more gag-driven,” Susie said. “Jeff was such a fabulous writer. We go more for the silliness.”
“Gasoline Alley” cartoonist Jim Scancarelli has also made changes in the 1918-founded TMS strip. For instance, “Clovia took over the Gasoline Alley garage, which used to be a male bastion,” said Scancarelli. Yet, in many ways, the strip maintains the sensibility of creator Frank King and first successor Dick Moores.
Why continue “Gasoline Alley” and other well-known older comics? “They had such a good following that readers didn’t want them to end,” said Scancarelli, who began assisting Moores in 1979 and succeeded him seven years later. “Just because a strip is old doesn’t mean it’s bad. The characters are like family and friends. You don’t discard your family and friends just because they’re old.” He added that “there’s a place” for both original and passed-down strips in comics sections.
Agreeing with that is Brian Walker, who does the King-distributed “Hi and Lois” with Greg Walker and Chance Browne. “I’m all in support of new and fresh talent,” said Brian, author of The Comics: Since 1945. “I also think the strips that continue are usually the best [of the older] strips, or they wouldn’t continue. Other comics should pass on to the funnies twilight. It’s up to newspaper editors and readers to decide which are the most entertaining.” Successor cartoonists might not possess quite the genius of a comic’s founder, he added, but often are very talented.
Brian did note that some comics, such as “Peanuts” and “Krazy Kat,” are “so closely associated with the creator” that he doesn’t feel they could be passed on.
The issue of comics not done by the original creators can also apply to not-so-old features, Brian observed. He said many comics that readers think are still done solely by their founders are in fact partially or mostly handled by gag-writers, inkers, and others.
The 1954-launched “Hi and Lois” was created by Brian’s and Greg’s father, Mort Walker, who still does “Beetle Bailey”; and Chance’s father, the late Dik Browne.
“It’s a family operation,” said Brian. “You have dedicated writers and artists who aren’t just journeymen types. When I was young, ‘Hi and Lois’ was almost a diary of our family’s life.” By the mid-1980s, he added, it made sense for the strip to go to a new generation of cartoonists who were young parents like Hi and Lois.
It’s a “balancing act” to “respect the tradition of the strip” while keeping it up-to-date, said Brian. Readers accept Lois using a cell phone and the kids using computers but many complain if the comic gets even a bit racy or political. But Brian, who said cartoonists who create their own comics have more leeway in setting content parameters, doesn’t mind continuing a strip that focuses on a “functional family in a dysfunctional world.”
Some cartoonists have mixed feelings about the issue of original vs. passed-down comics.
“Once a cartoon strip appears for a while in papers the readership is very loyal,” said “Stone Soup” creator Jan Eliot of Universal. “And the income from the strip, if the strip is well-established, is significant, so why not keep it going?” She said “ultimately, it should be up to the original creator” to decide whether to pass on a comic to a daughter, son, or longtime assistant.
Yet Eliot can see reasons why there shouldn’t be successor comics. “Columns are rarely carried on by anyone,” she said. “Comics, if they’re going to be fresh, should probably be the same.” And she hopes newspapers will always continue to look for new comics.
“I guess I can argue either side,” said Chris Browne, who’s in the unusual situation of doing both a comic created by his father Dik (“Hagar the Horrible”/King) and a strip he created himself (“Raising Duncan”/United). But he added that readers are the ultimate arbiters when they buy newspapers and vote in comics polls, and that many of them want to see their favorite strips continue.
Stacy Curtis observed: “I would love to see editors replace ‘Hagar’ with Chris Browne’s non-dead-cartoonist strip, ‘Raising Duncan.’ It’s a beautiful strip and you can see Chris having more fun with it than with his father’s ‘Hagar.'”
Cartoonists also have mixed feelings about “Peanuts” reruns by Charles Schulz (1922-2000). United said the client list for these reruns has held steady at about 2,400 (compared to 2,600 when Schulz was alive) and that “Peanuts” still finishes in the top 10 in many newspaper polls.
“If a feature is going to continue past the life of the cartoonist who created it, it should be done this way, to reprint the work of that cartoonist,” said Wiley Miller. “I would just like to see it printed on another page” – perhaps one containing a number of classic old strips.
“I read ‘Peanuts’ every day, and find it as entertaining as anything else I read,” said Brian Walker.
“People want to see ‘Peanuts,'” added Susie MacNelly. “Charles Schulz is an icon, and so is his strip.”
But Curtis and others noted that “Peanuts” can be read in book collections.
Schulz was “a great man” and his comic was “the greatest of all time,” said Darrin Bell. But “these are reruns anyone with a library card can read at any time. They should not appear in newspapers. There’s simply no reason newspapers should pay for material that’s 10, 20, even 30 years old. They don’t run old political cartoons, old George Will columns, or old horoscopes. Why should they run recycled comics? People often say there’ll never be another ‘Peanuts.’ As long as ‘Peanuts’ reruns continue in papers across the world, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Bell said comics pages should be reserved for cartoonists who look with “fresh eyes on our continually changing world.”
Eliot added that, because comics-section space is so limited, “I don’t think the reruns of any strip should appear. The one exception is the occasional week of reruns that allow a current creator to take a vacation. In most cases these reruns are only a year or two old.” She said “Peanuts” can be read in books, or put on a features or classified page.
In a fantasy world, concluded Eliot, there would be space for all kinds of comics. “If papers could run three or four pages of funnies,” she said, “there would be room for old bland stuff and new risky stuff. Wouldn’t that be a great scenario?”