The webcomics blog about webcomics

Letters From The Mailbag

If you read our interveiw with Dave Kellett on the nature of syndication (part 1 and part 2), you’ll recall that we solicited followup questions. Mr Kellett has graciously answered, and we’ll start with his replies today.

Some of the questions were lengthy, and we got some very thorough answers, so we’re breaking this one up a bit. Answers will be posted in several installments, and not all back-to-back. After all, I think that we might all be just a little creeped out if Fleen turned into “All Dave Kellett, All The Time”. (Hey Mer, can we get a redesign on the masthead with the new motto? Thanks.)

Fleen: Could syndication possibly work with a feature other than 3- to 4-panel strips? With a web-only deal, could you do odd layouts or shift the visuals, or would that break the daily and Sunday templates? For example, Achewood has a history of altering the number/size of panels to suit the story; forget the fact that it could never make it with a big corporation based on content … what about the physical shape?

Kellett: Sure! And you could do it with art styles, as well, just like Perry Bible Fellowship does.

But ask yourself why strips are done the way they’re done. It’s not just some random limitation imposed by syndicates and newspapers. Over the last 100 years, the “comic strip” has been refined and tested and reworked and resized … and as it turns out, it’s just a really good format for a single creator to tell character-based stories for 30-40 years using a gag-a-day format. So yes, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but I think the reason the 3- and 4-panel format is still around is because it works. It works really well.

Fleen: History question: With the exception of the Garfield model (explicitly designed to be syndicate friendly), nobody set out back in the 30s, 40s, or 50s with the intention of saying, “Someday, my creation will be written and drawn by hacks or my not-necessarily talented children … or grandchildren”. When exactly did the syndicates decide to infinitely prolong a strip past its creator’s death?

Kellett: In the initial seven decades of American comic strip contracts, the copyright and trademarks (the characters and the name) belonged to the publisher, not to the artist. And right from the very start, these publishers made use of that fact to continue strips in ways not intended by the creator. It happened with one of the earliest strips, The Katzenjammer Kids. So it’s not a new thing. Once a comic strip is established, and is a proven revenue stream, it’s very hard for a business organization to part with it.

Fleen: You said, “American newspapers comics are capable of so much more. Even with its basic space limitations, the comic strip is capable of so much more.” What sort of capabilities were you thinking of?

Kellett: We all know intuitively what those potentials are. Beautiful art with the reprint space to be appreciated. Characters and storylines that are quirky and funny. Dialogue that sticks in your brain for weeks.

More of the artwork from Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend or Bringing Up Father. Less of the artwork from Unfit. More strips that speak from one artist’s unique worldview, like Calvin and Hobbes or Pogo. Less of the committee-steered niche strips that were crafted toward one-arm, 30-something mothers who love macrame, but don’t like Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks.

I’ll bring up one contemporary strip as an example: Get Fuzzy. True, it can have its share of bad days … but on it’s best days, I think Get Fuzzy is among the best strips out there. It has beautiful, distinctive, expressive art; well-defined characters, and story arcs that themselves make me laugh. It’s probably the only “great” strip to be syndicated in the last 10 years. We need twenty more Get Fuzzys and about 200 less Fred Bassetts.

Fleen once again thanks Kellett for sharing his vast knowledge of comics present and gone by. If there are other creators that you feel have a special insight into aspects of webcomics, please be sure to drop us a line up there where it says “Contact Us”.

“Less of the artwork from Unfit.”


I think Pearls before Swine is doing nicely for a syndicated comic.

I’d love to hear Fleen’s comment on this announcement.

Looks like the syndicates finally have to face the problem they created by publishing comics online.

I wonder how this will affect the readership of web-only cartoons.

Just to add my 2.4 cents worth:

My own initiation into the wonderful world of webcomics was Jimmy Johnson’s “blog” (or more correctly “never-ending webpage”). I believe what’s-his-name of Dilbert fame has a blog as well, but I can’t say I’ve read. Johnson on the other and comes across as an exceedingly nice person, and I’m sure he’d love to share some of his views on the up-and-coming talent (or lack thereof), once he’s finished renovating his house after all the hurricane damage.

And just to be at least tangentially on topic: I find “Get Fuzzy” to be one of the best new strips out there (I like “Pearls before swine” as well, though, despite the horrible, horrible art) and I was very pleased to see it appear in a paper here in Denmark. I’m not exactly thrilled with the translations occasionally, but I realise that GF is often much too topical to actually make it into a European setting unscathed.

– Sili

[…] Regular readers of this space will know that we at Fleen (okay, “I at Fleen”, happy?) have a bug up our (my) butts (butt) about the state of syndicated comics. The fact that the guy who’s presumably in charge of deciding what gets syndicated by UPS (such as Ann Coulter, Dear Abby’s idiot daughter, and James Dobson) is using such mild language instead of I want to see Little Dee in every paper in the country and any of my competitors that thinks different is a moron is pretty indicative of the state of smarts at the syndicates. But I promised you questions, so here you go: […]

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