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Comic strips' plight isn't funny

Cartoonists fear that newspapers aren't changing with the times to reach a print-averse younger generation.

April 27, 2006|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

IN an upcoming "Opus" Sunday comic strip, Berkeley Breathed's affable waterfowl Opus comes across an iPod-toting twentysomething who has no clue what a newspaper is. In the strip's eight little boxes, Breathed succinctly sums up the plight of not only newspapers but also the comic strips contained therein: They "are trying to reach kids who literally have never picked up a newspaper before," says Breathed, who burst on the national comics scene in 1980 with the cult-classic "Bloom County."

"What can we offer them as 25-year-old new workers that might interest them enough to pick up sheets of paper and examine them for several minutes a day?"

That, Breathed says, is the million-dollar -- or million-reader -- question facing comic strip creators. It's also one of the questions that will come up this Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where Breathed, along with Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy"), Jerry Scott ("Baby Blues" and "Zits") and Lalo Alcaraz ("La Cucaracha") will appear on a panel titled "The Los Angeles Times 125th Anniversary Presents: The Sunday Funnies" that's moderated by comedian Elayne Boosler, who serves on The Times' cartoon advisory panel.

"People in my generation grew up reading comics, and a lot of us in my age group still do," says Scott, 50. "The current generation didn't grow up with it -- many of them are too busy in the morning to pick up the newspaper and read it -- and consequently newspaper circulation is falling. As a result, we're fighting for our survival, to find a new audience and to retain our old audience."

While strips such as "Boondocks" and "Over the Hedge" are making forays onto the small and large screen, respectively, the comics page is struggling to find its place in a post-"Calvin & Hobbes" world as its readership grows older and as its piece of newspaper real estate shrinks.

"I don't think you'll ever see another 'Calvin & Hobbes,' 'Bloom County' or 'Doonesbury' again," says Breathed, 48, who received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987. "The popularity of those strips was built on a young audience -- great comic strips are not built on the backs of aging readers."

Part of the problem, Breathed and other cartoonists say, is that newspapers, when choosing their comic strip lineup, put too much emphasis on the opinions of aging readers. As a result, stalwart strips such as "Peanuts," which continues to run as a reprint since the death of Charles M. Schulz in 2000, and "Blondie," which was created in 1930 by Chic Young, tend to remain entrenched on comics pages.

As middle-of-the-road as "Blondie" is, it's surprising to learn that it has come to represent a divisive topic in the comic strip community. Young passed away in 1973, and since then "Blondie" has been carried on by his son, Dean, and is known as an example of a "legacy" strip.

"As an art form, comics are threatened by legacy strips," Breathed says. "The fact that papers are running [legacy strips] throughout the country is a sign that they're desperate to cling to the readers they think they need, and they're afraid to take risks and find the new talent."

Wiley Miller, who writes and draws "Non Sequitur," refers to legacy strips as "dead cartoonist" strips. "The only reason this is done is money, not creativity," says Miller, 55. "This was not a big deal years back when you had a vibrant and competitive newspaper industry, but now newspaper real estate is precious -- most towns are one-newspaper towns -- and continuing a strip past the death of a creator is keeping new blood from getting a chance to get in."

On the other side of the debate are cartoonists such as Guisewite, 55, who remembers reading the comics on Sundays as a family ritual.

"To me a strip should run forever because it's a classic," says Guisewite, whose "Cathy" is marking its 30th anniversary this year. "They have meaning to me, and no new newspaper strip is going to earn that place in my heart.

"I love the old strips, I love the old characters, and I know as I say that, that's what's preventing new strips from coming in because there's only so much space and newspapers have to drop a beloved strip to make room for a new one. [My solution] to that would be to devote more space to comic strips."

But the trend in newspapers has been to cut the amount of space allocated to comic strips.

According to comic strip historian Brian Walker, son of cartoon legend Mort Walker, the Sunday comics section used to average 16 pages (strips such as "Prince Valiant," "Tarzan" and "Krazy Kat" filled an entire broadsheet), but during World War II, a newsprint shortage caused papers to cut the Sunday comics section in half, and they haven't looked back since.

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