Tag Archives: Comics

A reasonable defense of Family Circus

Anyone who (like me) has ever made fun of lame comic strips and the newspapers that run them should read this David Sullivan post about audiences’ capacity and desire for cultural change. It’s the most persuasive case I’ve read for why newspapers stick with what I would consider outdated comics, features, and language:

A columnist or feature can occasionally be hip; but a newspaper can’t be hip. It can’t be the counterculture. It is the culture. It has been part of how new ideas are absorbed into the mainstream. …

But it can be hard to find one’s place in the culture, which grows more complicated by the day; the Internet, with its social networking and postings and chat, provides a new counterculture, or multiple ones, ones that make the mainstream look even lamer than “The Family Circus” did to me in the 1970s. The argument about the future of news is partly about whether the mainstream ends with the baby boomers, like the parents left behind in “Childhood’s End” as the children join the ubermind.

The problem is that newspapers have tended to do a poor job of figuring out how to satisfy both the Family Circus and the more modern audiences. Plus the younger mainstream audience is still hipper and savvier than the Baby Boomer Family Circus audience. But Sullivan’s point is well taken.

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Why newspapers make bad decisions

There are a hundred reasons why newspapers are in such poor shape. I’ve discussed some of them here and here: an outdated view of what’s news; an outdated view of readers; major inefficiencies in use of newsroom resources, as seen in the current roles of copy editors, reporters, and line editors. In a great post calling for a tax on newspapers that still publish stock tables, Craig Stoltz points to an often overlooked factor: newspapers seem to be institutionally clueless about how to plan for change. (Hat tip: Publishing 2.0.)

Stoltz argues that “There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables.” There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages. Stoltz’s description of newspapers’ decision-making related to stock tables perfectly captures why other unjustifieds continue to take up space:

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. …

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

This is what traditionally passes for strategic thinking at newspapers. So it’s no wonder that at a time when actually making imaginative, forward-thinking, potentially risky decisions is necessary for newspapers’ future, they are singularly unable to make or even consider those decisions.

Consider, for example, the recurring hand-wringing over comic strips. Something as basic as jettisoning outdated and unfunny strips becomes a perpetual exercise in self-flagellation based on a handful of readers who promise to revolt if the paper kills Family Circus. And if newspapers can’t intelligently and pro-actively decide that Marmaduke and stock tables have had their day, they probably can’t make intelligent higher-level decisions, either.

Some honest comics nostalgia, for once

Over at Slate, Grady Hendrix has written a nice appreciation of Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, who died last week. I’ve never read the comic book (nor have I seen the notorious George Lucas movie “adaptation”), but I’ll definitely be looking for the Essential collection after reading Hendrix’s piece:

Howard the Duck sent up the ’70s and parodied Marvel’s purple prose style (“The ghastly rumble of the explosion reverberates off the Pocono mountainsides—a sonorous death burp echoing into eternity. …”), but the book grew into something deeper. Howard raged against the glorification of violence, had a nervous breakdown, lost Beverly to Dr. Bong, was transformed into a man, and, in the end, rejected his friends and bitterly set out on his own, trying to forget a past of pointless superfights. One issue was all text; another took place entirely on a long bus trip. These were surreal flights of fancy with razor-tipped wings, America’s answer to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

What I like most about the piece is that it dispenses with the post-Kavalier and Clay veneration of golden and silver age comics and recognizes that, at heart, they aren’t much more than fun cultural artifacts:

The clunky comic books written for Marvel and DC (the two biggest comic book companies) in the 1960s and ’70s may have acquired a certain retro chic, yet they bear almost no relation to the comic books of today. Marvel was the House That Squares Built, and in the kingdom of the unhip, Gerber was the only writer who had a clue.

[large snip]

Gerber was the amphibian stage in the evolution of comic books, from when they swam in the funny-book oceans to the modern age, when graphic novels walk the earth and earn glowing reviews in the New York Times.

The early superhero books were obviously important to their historical contexts. And I like a good old-school Justice League of America 100-Page Super Spectacular as much as anyone. But the deification of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Siegel & Shuster, et. al. can be tiresome. This is a nice, if minor, corrective.

In other comics news, I’m definitely going to get this book.