The Future of Content, Part III: Newspaper Comic Strips in a World Without Newspapers

I think I’m going to have to drop Comixtalk from my RSS reader. As it turns out, in both my “just continuing my post every day streak” Penny Arcade and PVP posts, I touched on issues that started minor conflagrations in the webcomics world (or in PA‘s case, the video-game world), and Comixtalk was silent on both of them (and now it’s silent on the OOTS Kickstarter too!). Somewhere in my archives I have a mostly-finished Comixtalk review I never posted lamenting its descent from its status as an “online magazine” about “comics in the digital age”. I can’t say Fleen is the most interesting read (it’s way too full of cutesy in-jokes), but if I want to keep up on “webcomics news”, Fleen is probably going to be the most complete I’m going to get.

I want to return to the topic of Scott Kurtz’ offer to whore himself out to the syndicates to help them transition to a future without newspapers. When I ran across the original blog post on PVP, I noted that it was just another case of Scott Kurtz declaring himself the “Certified Webcomics Genius(tm).” But what of the larger point of the future of syndicates?

On one level, I want to say that if the syndicates go away as the Internet (however defined) becomes the main distribution model for what we now call comic strips, good riddance, because they’re not needed. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of “webcomics collectives”; there are gazillions of success stories of people who managed to achieve success (however defined) with their webcomics, and I’d wager that most did so pretty much on their own (and in fact, this may be Bengo’s influence talking, but I have more respect for people who did it that way than people who are successful because their successful friends or some big corporation pimped them). In this perspective, where Kurtz (and Brad Guigar) could help (if they can help) is in transitioning newspaper comic strip artists from the old syndicate model into a new web-based model, but quite frankly, newspaper comic strips have been rather stagnant with shockingly few real stars coming along since even well before webcomics came along.

I have my doubts that even Garfield and Dilbert (two comics I remain fans of but have to admit have been past their peak for some time) would continue their current success, as they have been coasting on the heights of their respective first decades-plus for so long that at this point, even the most successful comics like them probably largely owe their success to people simply happening upon them as they read the newspaper each day, and wouldn’t survive a move to an environment where people would have to actually choose to read them, as much as things like RSS readers, smartphones, and tablets make it easier to do so. Considering how successful those two creators are already and how Web-savvy Scott Adams in particular is, if you need Kurtz and Guigar’s advice, they probably can’t help you (with the possible exception being critical darlings Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy). Besides which, it’s not like there isn’t already a metric buttload of advice out there for how to succeed on the Internet (including from Kurtz and Guigar themselves); as Kurtz himself would likely admit, the trick is convincing them they need it.

On the flip side, webcomics hosting sites like Keenspot have clearly played a vital role in webcomics history, and given the syndicates’ resources that may be a direction in which they can survive and thrive. Already most newspaper comics have their archives freely available online, such that to someone who doesn’t read a newspaper (an inexorably growing group), there’s not much difference between a newspaper comic strip and a webcomic, between a webcomic host and a syndicate. In fact, syndicates were such early adopters of the web it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t figured this out already.

A smart syndicate would be looking at the business models of such webcomic hosting sites and preparing for a future where they make money primarily by splitting advertising and merchandise revenue with cartoonists. The most directly comparable outfit would probably be Keenspot, which reserves its hosting only for the best, most popular comics, with the hoi polloi posting their comics to the lesser sister site Comic Genesis. In this vein, it’s worth noting Keenspot’s attempt to effectively shut down some years ago. Because a cartoonist can set up their own site, their own ads, and their own merchandise without splitting revenue with anyone else, syndicates need to “offer new and better reasons not to go it alone”, as Scott McCloud puts it (referring to comic book companies) in Reinventing Comics.

There are two important advantages a syndicate can offer a potential webcomic creator. One, syndicates can take on the burden of promoting a comic, both by bringing it under a larger brand along with all the other comics under the banner, and by (if necessary) promoting it outside that banner. Two, syndicates can handle the production, sale, and distribution of merchandise from a comic, something that the existence of outfits like Topatoco suggest a clear demand (and need) for. This latter point would allow a motivation for a popular comic to remain with the syndicate rather than branching out on their own, thus providing a draw that can be used to attract people to other comics.

By offering these two advantages, a syndicate can allow a cartoonist to focus their time on making their comic, while potentially delivering their work to a broader audience and – even with revenue splits – allowing them to make more money than they possibly could on their own, and allowing the syndicate to survive and thrive in the age of the Internet. Whatever they do, however, it should be obvious by the many years of handwringing over the future of newspapers that syndicates, like many outfits, need to adapt or die. And if they’re not interested in taking on the services of Kurtz and Guigar, let alone little old me, might I suggest Robert Khoo?

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