While I have never been a super-duper fan of the Sunday Comics short of a mid-sixties passing interest in the often surreal world of “Dondi”, I found the new documentary “Stripped” an interesting and compelling take on the collateral damage experienced by the comic strip industry in the era of declining newspaper circulation. Through interviews with both the old and new guard of comic strip writers including Cathy Guisewite, Mort Walker and (never seen but heard iconoclast) Bill Waterston of Calvin & Hobbes infamy, it’s a meditative tale on the future of comic strips in a post-syndicated world. Where once the holy grail of comic strip writers was to be picked up by one of the major comic strip syndicators for distribution across hundreds of newspapers, the current path to financial success and notoriety are not as clear cut. The overall decline of newspaper circulation and the subsequent fall of the gatekeepers of the once omnipotent syndication business, theories on the future split artists into two disparate camps. There are those who hold out (honorably so) for a newspaper renaissance, or at least a sustainable plateau, while an up-and-coming paradigm shift charts a brave new world in social media. In this new paradigm, content is still king, but the monetization of one’s artistic output squarely rests in the hands of the artists themselves and their ability to engage their audiences in very different ways. In many respects, they have become masters of their own return-on-investment (ROI) not dissimilar to what newspapers have been required to do for the last several hundred years.
Ultimately it brings up the issue of what we as a society are willing to pay for. In our new “elective” environment, we get much of the casual content we want for free by seeking it out, while other “lanes” of distribution offer us premium access to wherever our fanaticism may lead us. Our collective national voice continues to parse itself into deeper veins of sub-divided hyper-specialties. We are the architects of our own media landscape. While it may be difficult to believe that a comic strip like “Family Circus” would ever hit the national zeitgeist in this ever-fragmented world of made-to-order content, it is not impossible to envision some critical mass of meshugganahs willing to pay $10 per month for some all-access engagement inside the medulla oblongata of Bil and Jeff Keane.
While this war is being waged in the funny papers as well as with cable providers, video distribution channels, internet radio and many other media battlefields, we continue to take on more and more in our roles as program directors for our very own 24-7 special interest channels. Where do we find the time to do this? Well not skimming through the daily exploits of Beetle Bailey, Cathy, Hagar the Horrible, Bizarro and Ziggy has saved us some time.