Thursday, April 09, 2009
News of Yore 1977: Andiola Vents on the State of Comics
by Alfred Andriola (reprinted from The Press, April 1977)
"The Washington Post . . . still carries much of the standard dreck — lovelorn columns, horoscopes, beauty hints — as well as 25 comics."
That is the way comics were swilled into the sludge by a leading weekly news magazine in a recent story on the press.
Granted there are some bad comic strips. There are also bad reporters, politicians, governments, wars and mothers. But no conscionable writer would hurl all mothers on the "compost heap", which was the designation used for comic strips and other "standard dreck" in the next sentence of the same reporter's story.
If ever the annals of magazines and newspapers are written, not much will remain to stand beside the true genius that has been brought to light in many comic strips — as in the beautiful pages of "Little Nemo", the tom-foolery of "Krazy Kat", the superb satire of "Pogo", the justly-deserved popularity of "Peanuts", the artistry of "Prince Valiant", the memorable inventiveness of "Li'l Abner", the halcyon days of "Terry and the Pirates" and others which have created undeniable folklore and undisputed magic.
What's more, many comics have amused or enthralled millions of people daily for 10, 20, 30, 5O or 70 years! Readers are the ultimate arbiters of success, and if they accept a strip for so many decades there must be something there to make it appeal to young and old, generation after generation.
But all of us have read disparagements by critics who, in censuring a specific piece of writing, will contend that it is "written on a comic strip level" — or words to that effect.
Why are we rated so low in the eyes of other journalists? I have a feeling comics are held in disrepute because we, the purveyors of comics, debase them when we should be extolling them. Shakespeare said it: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Comic strips came into being as circulation builders. They were used to lure readers and sell newspapers, and sell they did. They became the single biggest attraction one newspaper offered over another.
Those were the days before television — before movies, radio, world series, assorted super bowls, automobiles, a second house, boats and psychiatrists. Then the leisure revolution set in and we came into the 1950's inundated with so many things demanding our time.
Comics became expensive accoutrements. Newspaper publishers decided comics had to start paying for the costly space they usurped. If there wasn't enough advertising to meet the cost, then cut the cost — ergo, cut the space. Comic strips were gradually reduced from 8 to 5 to 3 columns — and I have seen them printed even smaller than that. Sunday pages, in their glorious era, were full page standards or tabloids. Now they appear in halves, thirds and fourths. An original page is jigsawed so that a third of it can be lopped off and the rest must still hold by itself. Or panels can be juggled to meet a different space requirement. Or they are hacked and trimmed to fit other specifications.
I am not going to go into all the intricacies of the shrinking strip and Sunday page. Those of us in the business know them all too well and they have been fingered ad nauseum.
Meanwhile other forms of entertainment have gone the opposite route. Movies are now much longer than they used to be. One hour television series frequently need two hours, either back to back, or continuing the second half the following week. Soap operas have found that the standard half hour was not enough; a number of the most successful run an hour each day.
Novels, which used to be dramatized for TV in a 2 hour program, now run to 3 and 4. Some become mini series, as with "Rich Man, Poor Man". "Roots" took over for more than a week, running about 10 hours. Five years ago it would probably have been done in 2. They could not have covered the subject as well and would not have made the impact they did. Shorter in length, in size, concise in presentation is not always best.
Aad who is doing the most ballyhooing of this success of television? The daily newspapers. They devote unlimited space to tell their readers how successful "Roots" was, how sexy Richard Jordan is, how Farrah Fawcett-Majors blossomed into stardom, how readers should spend their leisure time by tuning in the many glorious attractions on TV, and how much money the networks are spending to vie with each other for the all-important share of the listening audience.
But the newspapers are reducing the space they devote to their comic features — which they buy at great expense and offer to their paying customers as competition to the television programs which they are acclaiming.
This is indicated not only in the way comics are displayed, but also in the lack of promotion that newspapers allot to them. Unlimited space for TV programming and its practitioners, to movie stars, sports figures, anyone who entertains the newspapers' customers in any other media, but hardly an inch for comics. Television, on the other hand, barrages listeners all week long with promotion pieces for almost every program on the air.
Even worse than no promotion, however, is anti-promotion! Recently I came on an issue of one of the nation's leading daily newspapers which devoted a full page to the promotion of comics. Now that's something which doesn't happen very often, because a full page in one of the most expensive metropolitan dailies is worth a hell of a lot of cash. But what was the promotion?
The reporter, an assistant family living editor on the paper, had conducted a comics reader "survey", and I quote her words: "I completed a mini-research project in which I attempted to find out exactly which comic strips children ages 10-14 read and consider humorous. I selected 15 (suburban) children because I considered these children representative of the population I wanted to sample ... I had 8 boys and 7 girls in my study." From this sampling, the reporter made these judgments about "serious or narrative strips":
"They're all on the bottom ... they're the pits in comic strips ... (Children) prefer to read strips which are about children, animals, sports and things they know and understand. The concepts of government, politics, social ills presented in the serious narrative non-humorous comic strip are too abstract for them to deal with. They can't be bothered with a comic strip which continues from day to day. They want the whole message right away.
"The age of the children and their sex did not create any special significance. By and large, children of both sexes and all groups want a comic strip which is not serious, which is not the 'soap opera' type."
One of the things the researcher did was to ask the children "why they read the (sample) strips, why not; why they thought they were funny, why not; how the artist drew."
I thought there was something extremely wrong with the approach to her survey. Since all comics aren't meant to be funny, why prejudice (or at least influence) the child's mind by having each child decide which are "funny" and which are not and then so categorize them? A sampling of 15 suburban children seemed hardly representative of comic readers.
I wrote to five cartoonists and five editors, enclosing copies of the survey. Here are some of their comments:
"... the narrative strips were ill-served by (her) survey that was limited to 15 children between the ages of 10 and 14. I don't recall ever before having seen a poll based on such a small sampling."
"I can't imagine ... an editor who considers a survey of 15 children, ages between 10-14, justification for a ... story on comics."
"I am only surprised that such an amateur piece of journalism could appear in a newspaper."
"It is hard to understand why the lady entirely disregarded adults, since newspaper readership surveys always have shown that comic strips, especially narrative strips, are widely read by adults."
"(It) isn't worthy of serious thought. She could have arrived at another block-buster conclusion had she surveyed them on their favorite foods, as between ice cream and champagne and lobster!"
It is true that children ages 10-14 are not the prime readers of narrative strips. Why would a ten year old girl prefer "Mary Worth" or "Juliet Jones" to "Nancy" or "Bugs Bunny"? "Kerry Drake" to "Hagar" or "Beetle Bailey"? By the time they're 14, if they still are reading only "Scamp" and "Bugs Bunny" (because, as the reporter wrote, "they like animals and find it funny to have a rabbit talk"), I think they're not stepping along fast enough and we'd better start asking some hard questions.
But comics are not only for children. They're for people of all ages, people who buy newspapers — and the researcher ignored all these truths, no matter how self-evident.
One of my correspondents called my attention to a syndicated feature entitled "Tune In Tomorrow", which subscribing newspapers publish each Monday. It consists of brief synopses of the daily TV soap operas, to bring readers up to date in case they have forgotten from Friday to Monday. Here is a sample:
"The Young and Restless: Peggy and Jack were secretly married. Laurie and Lance honeymooned in Tahiti. Leslie told Brad about her pregnancy. Karen's custody trial was postponed. Ron called Chris' house and secretly told Karen he'll return soon."
And on and on, through 14 of them, taking up a lot of space which newspapers pay for to plug TV programs. A similar feature appears in newspapers daily to tell readers what happened to "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" last night, last night.
But, my respondent informed me, a newspaper dropped his story strip without explanation and reinstated it a week later because of tremendous reader complaints, and the newspaper did not see fit to print one line to bring the reader up to date on the week that had been missed — or why the strip had been dropped and why it had been reinstated!
Now you know that if a network dropped "Love of Life" or "One Life to Live" or "Days of Our Lives" — or any other program — there would be considerable space devoted to such an earth-shattering news story. And if the audience responded with protestation and the network were compelled to reinstate the program a week later, we would get still another rash of daily bulletins, replete with fill-in on what the aggrieved listener had missed.
Aside from all that, I wonder why a newspaper would do a promotion piece which put down some of its own features, as well as those in the competing newspapers? Would a TV station run a gratuitous prime-time program (comparable, I would say, to a full page in a newspaper) revealing that 15 youngsters in a biased survey preferred "Good Times" and "Laverne and Shirley" to "Kojak", "The Guiding Light" or "Baa Baa Black Sheep"? Not any TV executive who hoped to keep his $150,000 job for the season!
I was still not satisfied. So I went to the experts. I sent the "survey" to Paul K. Perry, President of the Gallup Organization, a world-renowned marketing and attitude research company whose expertise over many decades has put it in the forefront for conducting public opinion polls. After Mr. Perry had an opportunity to read the article, I spoke with him about it, and this is his summary of his opinion:
"One obvious flaw in the study reported is the small sample. Fifteen cases in one community is an inadequate base upon which to draw conclusions about the population of children 10-14 living in suburban communities. It would be a disservice to all concerned to make judgments and decisions on the basis of this study."
"The writer says that 'by using the computer, the choices of these 15 children can be predicted for a larger universe of children.' Her sentence may be garbled by typographical errors; I assume she means to say that 'the choices of a universe of children can be projected from the choices of these 15 children.' In any case such a prediction or projection would be subject to so large an error that it would have no usefulness.
"I am not questioning the methodology otherwise. It may be that it was designed and carried out in a theoretically sound manner. Whether it was or was not, is immaterial, however, in view of the inadequate sample."
The defense rests. Comics have enough detractors. We should not create more. But let's take note of the serious damage that is being done to comic strips. We are not only killing the goose that laid the golden eggs — we are destroying the breed and making it an endangered species.
Newspapers should display comics proudly and promote them properly on their pages — and give them a chance to do the job which, for over 75 years, they have proven they can do. There are diamonds in that "dreck"! Just let them sparkle!
[Allan's Note: Andriola's argument may seem a trifle antiquated because of the examples he uses, but the basic point is as sound today as it was then: newspapers pay dearly for their comics, yet they never market them and print them chopped up and ridiculously small. It's simple economics -- if you pay for something, make it work for you in stimulating revenue. Newspapers still in these hard times treat comics as a necessary evil rather than the powerful tool they can be.
Andriola also makes an excellent point, one I've been harping on for years, that newspapers should print daily or weekly "The Story Thus Far" summaries for their story strips. It can be very hard for a reader to get interested in a story strip when they will almost invariably try to start reading in the middle of a story. Syndicates should provide these summaries for all their story strips. As far as I know the idea has never been tested.]
Labels: News of Yore
That rule of thumb was often brought up back when I was doing strips in the early 1980s; I imagine it's Holy Writ by now. Remember Stan Lee's first "Spider-Man" dailies? he took that formula to the extreme, with the first panel of almost every strip a description of the previous day's events. It was stultifying.
Seems to me the hope for a return of daily story strips lies here on the Internet...no three columns and no dropped Sunday panels!
Exactly why a text piece outside the strip would be such a boon. The strip wouldn't have to remind readers constantly of what has gone before, and could tell longer and more detailed stories. Regular readers don't get bored reading recap strips, new and occasional readers can pick up the story at any time.
It seems like such an obvious solution that I am constantly amazed that no one's ever tried it.
When Sharman DiVono and I started our term on the Star Trek strip, we told readers "Next week: New story!" and gave the new story a title panel like the English do. We figured this would encourage new readers to begin following the strip. The syndicate told us not to do that again, because advertising the beginning of a story makes it easier for readers to decide to stop reading the strip! They preferred the end of one story to blend into the next, so the readers were never sure where they were. This notion sounded counter-intuitive to me, but what did I know?
Well, who in their right mind would want to emulate the Brits, whose story strips are still popular. I mean really!
You'd think the LA Times, a comparatively minor syndicate, would have been willing to think outside the box (or at least with some intelligence at all).
You realize, of course, that the syndicate was trying to guard against cancellation with that policy -- they didn't give a hoot how readers might like it. It's a long-standing tradition for newspaper feature editors to drop story strips at the conclusion of a story. If the story never ends, apparently these microcephalics can't figure out when to cancel the strip. Sigh.