Date: 17 Sept 2006
From: Gary Tyrrell
To: _______, Features Editor
Subject: Comics page
Dear Mr. ________,
I’m writing today, as I have in the past, to discuss the status of the ________’s comics page. I’ve been reading the comics in ______ (and before that, in _______) since I was about three years old; call it 35 years now. I’m a fan of the American newspaper comic strip, but the artform is in trouble.
You have 17 strips, including Doonesbury, which runs on the Op-Ed page. The very youngest of them, Grand Avenue, is eight years old; only four strips are less than 20 years old. The mean age of your comic strips is 35.4 years, and the median (half of your strips are younger, half older) is 33 years. Half the strips you carry are no longer written or drawn by their creators, but rather by committees hired by the syndicates, or by no-talent children of the original creators.
Only two (Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse) feature any degree of change or growth; coincidentally, they are the two best strips you carry. The rest carry on, year after year, with the same jokes, the same plotlines and situations, the same devotion of a week’s worth of strips to the theme of “golf” each Spring and Autumn. At least Peanuts has the good grace to be in actual reruns; the others just act like it.
Put bluntly, your comics page has needed a revamp for a considerable time; happily enough, you have the opportunity do so within the framework of a situation that will present itself in the coming months:
Lynn Johnston, creator of For Better or For Worse, will be retiring her strip in 2007 when her current contract expires. This will leave at least one spot open on the page for a new strip, and hopefully more. For instance, does anybody buy the paper specifically to read Hagar, Ziggy, or Hi & Lois? Many probably find them an inoffensive, familiar presence, but does anybody actually set out to read them? There’s only one way to find out — bring in something new.
On January 8th, 2007, United Feature Syndicate will begin to distribute Diesel Sweeties by Rich Stevens. It’s an established strip, distributed online by Stevens, with a world-wide audience. By the terms of his contract, Stevens will continue to produce the online version of Diesel Sweeties in addition to the newspaper version, which sounds like an incentive for the online readers — a loyal audience — to find out what they’re missing in the newspapers.
Diesel Sweeties is, in stark contrast to nearly everything on the comics page, modern and funny. It will probably annoy people who have been reading “placeholder” strips every day of their lives and don’t want to read anything that’s different from their expectations. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Every year, I see dire reports about how newspapers are in trouble and national readership is shrinking. Every year it becomes apparent that more older readers are dying than younger readers are picking up the paper. The comics page is where young people learn to read the newspaper, and yet those potential readers are provided with strips that are literally unchanged since their grandparents started reading. What possible incentive could anyone younger than me have to start reading your comics page?
Please contact United Feature Syndicate and request the sample strips of Diesel Sweeties. Please take Lynn Johnston’s upcoming retirement as an opportunity not just to get in on the ground floor of a new strip with a built-in audience, but to look at who your current strips are serving. Please take this chance to build your audience by serving the needs of the comics readers of today and tomorrow, not decades past.
I would be happy to discuss this matter with you further at your convenience.
Editor’s note: I’ll let you know what response, if any, I receive.