2008 might well be described in a word as a roller coaster or to many a third and fourth quarter stock market ride. Clearly many cartoonist achieved career highs and milestones, but for many cartoonist who live and die in the newspaper, there was a lot of dying. In writing this review, I can’t help but think that if we were playing the drinking game and we each took a shot when an editorial cartoonist lost or left his/her job this year – most of us would be stone drunk. I can only say “most” because I’ve been to the AAEC and NCS annual gatherings and I’ve seen how much some of you can drink.
We’ve long speculated what the future holds for comic art in the era of the Internet. We’re in an era where the Internet levels the playing field by enabling the amateur to create a blog, webcomic, podcast and even retail stores to rival the professional. In economic terms, the supply of content has risen dramatically and thus decreased its value. The news media, who for years were beneficiaries of monopolies based on high costs of operation, have found those cost to be millstones pulling them quickly under. Survival can only be achieved by reducing costs – dramatically, quickly and with the fallout of shattered careers of some really wonderful people.
I hope 2009 will be kinder to our creative industry, but I fear we’re not yet through the cutting and bleeding. So settle in, pull out a bottle of your favorite beverage, and be prepared to get a bit tipsy.
The month was a quiet one and in typical fashion the first of the month found a new comic feature (in this case, three) vying for space on the funny pages. King Features launched Ollie and Quentin by Piers Baker’s about a friendship found between a seagull and lugworm. United Media rolled out a family strip entitled Family Tree by Philadelphia Daily News editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. Later in the month, Tribune Media Syndicate launched a new feature called Retro Geek by Steve Dickenson and Todd Clark which has to take the honor of the fastest strip to launch and end in just three months short months. But from what I saw of the marketing effort behind it, I’m sure the “launch” was highlight of the short run.
Paul Gilligan, creator of Pooch Cafe, announced that his feature had been optioned by Sony animation for a CG feature film. Later the project was classified as a “B” release movie.
And the big news for the month came from Lynn Johnston that due to confusion created by the hybrid model, she was ending For Better or For Worse’s new story-lines and going to “rehash” old story-lines drawn in her old drawing style. Later, the new model was clarified as “new-run” material in which the strip started over from the beginning with Lynn improving artwork, gags, and inserting new material (in old drawing style). If you’re confused by labels to describe her no-longer-a-hybid-but-not-rerun-it’s-more-like-new-run strip. Don’t worry. It’ll probably change again and until then, let’s keep it simple and call it what it is: reruns.
The first announcement of a feature that was retiring came from Mark Pett, who opted to close down his feature Lucky Cow that had been in syndication for about five years. The popular webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch also announced that it was ending its run. But fans of Corey Pandolph (Barkeater Lake) had reason to celebrate. Corey launched his second webcomic Toby Robot Satan on Gocomics.com.
Eight comic strip cartoonists staged a single Sunday “Cartoonists of Color Sit In” to raise awareness at what they perceived as an inequality on the comic pages. While their strips feature primarily African American characters, the cartoonists felt that their strips were only perceived as “black” strips and not by any other genre and thus, when the “black” (or minority) quota was met on the funny pages, the ability for them to compete in other genres were limited. Participating cartoonists included Darrin Bell, (Candorville), Cory Thomas (Watch Your Head), Stephen Bentley (Herb and Jamaal), Charlos Gary (Cafe Con Leche), Jerry Craft (Momma’s Boyz), Steve Watkins (Housebroken), Tim Jackson, editorial cartoonists and Keith Knight (The K Chronicles, thInk). The effort got them some face time on a couple news programs and newspapers, but the actual effect of the “sit-in” is debatable.
The infamous Mohammed cartoon saga refused to fade into history in 2008. In February, after the arrest of three men suspected of plotting to kill famed Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, 17 Danish papers have reprinted the 12 Mohammed cartoons in a “[vow] to defend freedom of expression” and in doing so, igniting another round of worldwide protests. Not sure who didn’t see that one coming.
One last comic strip item of interest garners attention for February. The comic panel, The Argyle Sweater, which had rose through the ranks of Comic Sherp then to Gocomics and then into a syndication deal with Universal Press, inked a calendar deal with Borders – before it was even launched into newspapers. Quite a coup by creator Scott Hilburn.
Like a bad omen, there was a “disturbance in the force” when an anonymous blogger claiming to be a professional editorial cartoonist launched a blog called “Bad Cartoonist” and began spilling the dirty, inky, cross-hatching (and photoshopping) deeds of other cartoonists. The cartooning community was divided on whether the anonymous blogger was doing the community a “dis” or service by naming names and mocking the efforts of staff cartoonists. Some even hatched conspiracies of The Bad Cartoonist trying to influence the award jury for the Pulitzer Prize due to his timing of blog launch and end. In the end “Bad Cartoonist” was a flame out. He ceased publishing just couple of weeks later his anonymity intact.
John Sherffius won the Herblock Prize this year and probably even more precious of an award, L.A. Daily News Patrick O’Connor squeaked past a pink slip. I’m sure to him, that’s the biggest prize of the year for many others in the profession were not so lucky.
In March, the awards come in fast. John Sherffius, he took home the Wilbur Award. It’s not quite as prestigious as the Pulitzer, but is meant to recognize those in that dam’ed secular media who did well in addressing religious issues. William Warren, a student at Wake Forest University, won the Charles M. Schulz Award; Steve Kelley of The Times-Picayune won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award; Mike Peters won the National Headliners Award, Michael Ramirez took the John Fischetti Award; The National Cartoonist Society announced their nominees for the Reuben award and division awards. Up for the Reuben included: Dan Piraro, Dave Coverly, and Al Jaffee.
Creators Syndicate launched a new comic called Daddy’s Home by Tony Rubino and Gary Markstein. Garry Trudeau announced that he was taking another extended sabbatical before the national presidential election. This sabbatical would only last three months.
Before the month was over, Stay Tooned! magazine launched (finally!). The magazine is a one man endeavor wherein John Read harvests, pulps, rolls, writes, edits, paginates, choreographs each edition filled with cartooning profiles and other goodness. Where one door opens, another closes. DBR Media announced it was closing its doors. DBR was a smaller syndicate with just a few cartoonists in their portfolio.
More awards were announced this month including the “Big One.” Michael Ramirez, editorial cartoonist for the Investors Business Daily, joined the exclusive club of editorial cartoonists that are two-timers. Two-time Pulitzer winners that is. He took the big prize and thus also ended the quarrel (temporarily) of whether a conservative could ever win the prize again. He also picked up the Sigma Delta Chi Award. The Pulitzer was also exciting in two other ways. Clay Bennett has set the record for being nominated the most number of times (six) and in a rare nomination, Tom Batuick, creator of Funky Winkerbean was nominated for his comic strip’s portrayal of a comic character dying with cancer. Only three other comic strip cartoonists have been nominated in the editorial cartooning category. A couple more awards to mention, Clay also took home the Thomas Nast Award this year and a Yale student, Sam Ayres, won the Locher Award for student cartoonist. The Locher Award is a near must-win if a out of college student wants to land a staff job. What a year to win it, eh? Eric Devericks was notified that his staff job with the Seattle Times was on the cutting block, only to be spared at the last moment. Rob Tornoe was hired at Politicker.com breathing in some hope that after newspapers, the profession could transition to the web – staff jobs included.
A new, kind-of, webcomic hit the web and became an overnight buzz when Dan Walsh started posting Garfield comic strips without Garfield. The new feature entitled, Garfield Minus Garfield showed how funny the writing was when it was just Jon talking to himself. Many suspected the site to be ordered shut down by Paws, Inc., Jim Davis’ company, but instead he embraced the spin-off and eventually published the collection in book form later in the year.
The Argyle Sweater had perhaps one of the best launches of the year with a reported 130 client launch. Argyle Sweater continues Universal Press’ impressive run of comic launches that include, Lio and Cul De Sac all of which launched with higher than average client lists. Corey Pandolph resumed working on Barkeater Lake, turning it into a webcomic.
Jay Kennedy’s impressive cartoon collection of nearly 10,000 items was donated to the Ohio State Cartoon Research Library. In another month, the research library would make another major announcement that they were the recipients of Mort Walker’s 200,000 collection of comic art that was part of his International Museum of Cartoon Art collection. The combined collection makes OSU the largest collection of original comic art in the world.
Ed Stein, editorial cartoonist for the Rocky Mountain News, announced that he was ending his daily local comic strip that ran in the paper for over a decade. The feature, Denver Square, was the last daily comic strip left in America after the lay-off of Nacho Guarache creator Leo Garza at the San Antonio Express-News and the death of Farley creator Phil Frank.
Only one cartoonist pulled the plug on the strip this month: Mark Heath ended a short run with his feature Spot the Frog. On the other hand webcomicker Scott Kurtz celebrated 10 years of doing his comic PVP and David Reddick who draws The Trek Life, Gene’s Journal and Rod & Berry launched a new twice weekly webcomic called Legends of Bill.
More awards were announced: Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho won an Eagle Award for favorite comic artist; Signe Wilkinson was honored with the RFK Memorial Awards and Keith Knight took home a Glyph Award.
Canadian editorial cartoonist Bruce Mackinnon won the Atlantic Journalism Award and days later learned that an Islamic group had filed a complaint that he had committed a hate crime by mocking a widower who was suing the government for arresting her husband in an anti-terrorism raid. The husband was later released after the charges against him were stayed.
While cartoonists of all stripes were gathering for the annual Reuben Award weekend, news broke that Thelma Keane, the inspiration behind Bil’s Family Circus had passed away. On the lighter side, Al Jaffee won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist that was MC’ed by Mike Peters who fulfilled tradition by breaking out his Superman costume and also mooned a photographer the next day in the hotel lobby. But, really? What did you expect?
While the editorial cartooning community had seen some rumblings and close calls, May was the first month of many where a multiple number of cartoonists were let go. If you’ve got your shot classes ready, here we go: Jake Fuller lost the Gainsville Sun Job, Dave Granlund was let go from the MetroWest Daily News and David Catrow who still did work for the Springfield News Sun opted to concentrate on illustration and movie making, having worked on the successful Horton Hears a Who film.
June was a quiet month. The Dick Tracy museum in Woodstock IL, closed its doors due to lack of funding. Ann Telnaes left print editorial cartooning for full time animation editorial cartooning – her work appearing primarily for the Washington Post (shot #4 can be a chaser if need be). Matt Janz’ Single and Looking came to a close due to a lack of subscribing papers.
In international news, Jeremy Nell, a South African cartoonist launched his own strip The Biggish Five and Australian cartoonist James Kemsley, was posthumously awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his work on Ginger Meggs. James had passed away last year at the age of 59.
The editorial cartooning axe kept swinging in July. Get ready to throw down a couple more shots: Don Wright, a fixture at the Palm Beach Post took a buyout, Dick Adair lost his job at the Honolulu Advertiser, and Dwane Powell’s position at the News & Observer was demoted to part-time status. Dwane opted to resign. The paper and the artist later agreed to keep him on through the end of the presidential election in November.
On a happier note, Charlie Daniel, editorial cartoonist for the Knoxville News Sentinel celebrated 50 years of cartooning.
A happier state was being achieved in land of comic strips. Alley Oop celebrated 75 years in newspapers; Lynn Johnston was inducted into the Doug Wright Hall of Fame; Michael Jantze launched a new audio comic feature that reads the comic strip one panel at a time to the reader and yet keeps the pace and cadence of the writing intact.
Susie MacNelly and Tribune Media Services resolved their lawsuit that was preventing Susie from moving Shoe to King Features Syndicate. The original suit had been filed in December of last year over a contract dispute. Shoe became a King Feature comic on September 1.
Chad Carpenter had a phenomenal year. He won the NCS Newspaper Panel division Award and grew his client list to over 250 newspapers. Chad was recognized Alaska’s Cartoon Laureate for 2008 – kinda “like a poet laureate, but funny and easy to understand.”
August only had one staff editorial cartooning casualty this month. Stuart Carlson. His last day on the job, August 15, was his 25th anniversary with the paper. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists responded in a letter calling the spike in layoffs and firings by newspapers as going “from full panic mode to suicide mode.”
If newspapers were in suicide mode in August, there’s no more words to describe the next couple of months. Richard Crowson was laid off from the Wichita Eagle as was Peter Dunlap-Shohl of the Anchorage Daily News. Jim Borgman shocked the community by announcing that he was taking a buyout and leaving editorial cartooning including his syndicated cartooning. In his words, after 12 years of doing the editorial cartooning and the Zits comic strip, he wasn’t retiring, but “reducing workload.”
In comic strips, Karen Montague-Reyes announced that her strip Clear Blue Water was leaving syndication but would continue on the web. For those following Berkeley Breathed’s Opus, late August and September left heavy insinuations that an end of the strip would be coming, but Amy Lago of The Washington Post Writers Group could only give me a “no official word” response every time I called to get the scoop. And lastly for comics, Garry Truduea won Best Syndicated Comic in this year’s Harvey Award, Nicholas Gurewitch won in the category of Best On-line Comic with his Perry Bible Fellowship webcomic.
In some miscellaneous items, Mike Cope published a short sci-fi book based on a cartoonist handing his strip to his son after newspapers had ceased. While being sci-fi in nature, the current newspaper and legal climate is moving us closer to the events depicted in his fictional story – including the passage of the Orphan Works act which passed the Senate in September, but thanks to the Wall Street bail out fiasco, it died in the House.
Internationally, Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) published a cartoon that created a strong reaction from the African National Congress. The cartoon depicted Jacob Zuma, the ANC president, ready to engage in a rape of Lady Justice. Zuma eventually brought libel charges against Zapiro in December.
Again, October was a bad month for the editorial cartooning community. Chip Bok took a forced buyout from the Akron Beacon Journal, Sandy Huffaker and M.e. Cohen, a syndicated and freelance editorial cartoonist respectively announced they were walking away from the field for personal reasons and Jim Lange took a forced retirement from The Oklahoman after 58 years. Mike Peters opted to drop the number of cartoons he draw for the Dayton Daily News from 4-5 to 2-3 a week. In his words the draw-down in work was an effort to reduce his workload between the editorial cartoons and his comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm, “I realized I haven’t had a weekend that I haven’t worked for twenty five years. It’s time I start taking them.”
Sadly, the editorial cartooning profession wasn’t the only one losing great talent. Word came in October that 25 year veteran of Editor and Publisher, Dave Astor, was losing his job due to slashed budgets.
In comics, a minor buzz was created when Ted Dawson (artist) and Max Weaver (writer) are offering a new comic to newspapers for free. The strip is entitled Grubbs. Many professionals argued that giving it away free reduce the value of comics to newspapers and sets a bad precedent. Supporters argue that this is the business model of many successful webcomics.
Finally, official word came that Opus would come to an end. Again. For good. Most likely. The ending would happen in November in a two part comic – one in the papers which would direct readers to the web. A contest of sorts was created to have readers guess Opus final resting place and the winner would have $10,000 donated to his/her animal shelter of choice.
November started with a number of newspapers with their knickers in a bunch. Garry Trudeau’s post presidential election mentions Barack Obama as the winner. Since many of the comic pages would be put to bed before the election was called, many papers were uneasy about running it. Most did.
And it wouldn’t be a new month without a new round of layoffs. This time Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star and Eric Devericks wasn’t so lucky this time around at the Seattle Times.
The syndicates were busy. United Media launched a new redesign of their web site Comics.com ending their subscription model and opening their archives and adding features to allow others to embed their comics in their blogs/websites. King Features, ever the more protective of their properties, launched Comics Kingdom – a revenue sharing, embed-able comic solution for newspaper websites.
And speaking of launches, Norm Feuti took his Gill comic submission and started it as a webcomic.
December found a cold spell moving across the U.S. The hearts of the bean-counting accountants couldn’t let a couple guys through the holidays without literally escorting them out the door. At least that’s what happened to Brian Duffy of the Des Moines Register. Rob Tornoe, who was hired earlier in the year a full time cartoonist for Politicker.com was laid off as well. So much for hoping web-news companies would pick up staff cartoonists as more content moved to the web.
In other editorial cartooning news, Steve Breen was uninvited to speak at an elementary school after a anti-teacher’s union cartoon ran.
And to leave in a positive note, Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon turned 90 years old this month.
The New York Times ran a piece the day after Christmas on how the comics were affected by the turmoil of the newspaper industry. Stephan Pastis creator of Pearls Before Swine stated that in today’s market, you have to go where the readers are. More and more hints are offered that it will be in mobile devices and in animation. The article lists a few of the hints: GoComics launched a iPhone version of their site as well as a number of iPhone specific apps for their comic properties. Many strips are being animated. Over the Hedge co-creator Michael Fry started a company called RingTales that does the animation for New Yorker cartoons and the animated Dilbert cartoons found on Dilbert.com. Michael Jantze, creator of The Norm, has created a studio that is doing animation for Zits. Pastis reveals that animated Pearls Before Swine are being discussed.
Right now is an exciting time to be in cartooning. The Internet is opening up a world of possibilities and I’m confident that the business models will continue to mature. All I can say is, hang on, we’re going somewhere cool, but I can’t guarantee the ride will be a smooth one.
Thanks for your continued visits and support for the blog this last year. It means a lot to me.