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The State Of The Strips : Lots Drawn, Few Chosen For Syndication

(Second in a series on the comic strip, one of the nation's most successful popular art forms.) Next: The state of the artwork in the comic strip.

June 26, 1986|CHARLES SOLOMON

Garry Trudeau . . . Charles Schulz . . . Jim Davis . . . Berke Breathed.

They've been lambasted and honored as social commentators, praised as practitioners of an American art form and dismissed as mindless entertainers.

While thousands attempt to break into the field every year, hoping to launch a new icon of popular culture, only a scant few succeed. Those who do may command an estimated audience of more than 80 million and a seven-figure income. Although they don't enjoy the glamour of movie stars or rock singers, newspaper comic-strip artists are among the most popular entertainers in America today.

"We receive between 2,000 and 3,000 submissions a year," says Bill Yates, comics editor at King Features Syndicate. "We accept one, maybe two, a year. Some people are attracted to the field by the glamour and possible remuneration. But a lot think they're humorists who have missed their calling; they want to earn a living by being funny or by drawing. They think they have talent, and some of them do."

Created to attract readers during the circulation wars waged by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at the turn of the century, newspaper comics were an immediate hit with the American public. Now, 90 years later, they retain their popularity: Only a newspaper's front page has a larger readership than the comics.

Krazy Kat, Popeye, Snoopy and Orphan Annie rank among the best-known graphic images in the country. Goon, jeep, heebie - jeebies, horsefeathers and Dagwood sandwich are among the terms comic strips have introduced to the English language.

"You used to have to work your way up before you got to draw a strip," explains Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts." "In the beginning, you worked at the newspaper as an office boy, and you got to make a drawing every now and then. In my era, we worked our way up selling gag cartoons to various magazines until we developed a good style and some maturity, then we were taken up by a syndicate. Today, we have several rank amateurs in the business, who jumped from college or high school into syndication: They're like the TV actors who have never really learned their craft."

Almost all strips in the daily papers are distributed by a handful of major syndicates: King Features, News America, Tribune Media, United Media, Universal Press. A syndicate sells a comic to the newspapers and pays the artist a percentage of the fee. A moderately successful strip may appear in 100 papers and gross $2,000 for the syndicate each week.

The most successful comic strips--"Peanuts," "Blondie," "Beetle Bailey," "Garfield," "Hagar the Horrible"--appear in more than 1,000 newspapers apiece and earn substantially more. Like top athletes and entertainers, the most popular comic-strip artists have always commanded high salaries.

"The Gumps" was so popular that in 1935--the depth of the Depression--the Chicago Tribune offered artist Sidney Smith $1 million for a three-year contract, with a Rolls-Royce as a bonus.

Today, lucrative merchandising deals have made comic strips an even bigger business. The ubiquitous success of "Peanuts" and "Garfield" has led an increasing number of aspiring cartoonists to seek syndication contracts. Their chances of success are slim. As Yates notes, syndicates accept fewer than 1% of the strips submitted to them.

Occasionally, a cartoonist like Jim Unger ("Herman") receives a contract on the basis of his first submission. Most artists have their work rejected repeatedly before a syndicate expresses any interest in developing a strip.

"I spent five years sending out submissions to the syndicates, and I accumulated a lot of rejection slips," says Bill Watterson, whose whimsical "Calvin and Hobbes" began in November and already appears in 160 papers. "Each time I got one, I read the comments to see what I could do to make my work more acceptable."

Watterson describes Calvin and Hobbes as "bit players who stole the show." The imaginative little boy and his stuffed tiger began as minor characters in an earlier submission. When a syndicate editor suggested doing a strip around them, Watterson spent almost two years, working nights and weekends, developing the idea, only to have the syndicate reject it. Universal Press subsequently bought it.

"We would rather fail with a strip that's original than succeed with one that's a rip-off, although we obviously can't do that too often," says Lee Salem, vice president, editorial department at Universal. "Certain things are basic to all successful strips: engaging characters, writing and art that work well together. 'Calvin and Hobbes' is an example of a strip that's fresh, well written and nicely drawn."

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