Tuesday, September 01, 2009


A Game For You -- "How Stale Are My Comics?"

Yesterday I received a giant package of Sunday comics sections from papers all around the country, mostly dated in 2000, from Mark Johnson. Thank you Mark!!

As I was leafing through the giant stack I couldn't get over the bland sameness of it all, and the old hoary strips that were in section after section after section. The experience was threatening to make me nauseous so I came up with a little game to fight off the ennui. It's called "How Stale Are My Comics?" It's a very simple game, and the object is to determine the average age of the comic strips in the section (or on your daily comics page, or whatever). Here are the very simple rules -- you add up the ages of each comic strip title in the section and divide that number by the number of strips you counted. Here's a quick example: let's say we have a comic section that has just three strips:


Dilbert started in 1989, Peanuts in 1950, Zits in 1997. So in 2009 those strips are respectively 20, 59 and 12 years old. You add those together to get 91 years, and divide by 3, the number of strips. The average age of the comic section is 30.3 years old. Okay, get it?

I was curious to see what sort of average age I'd find in these sections from 2000. Well, here are some of the results:

Boston Globe (20 features) = 14 years
Chicago Tribune (28 features) = 22.1 years
Long Island Newsday (22 features) = 24 years
Lawrence Eagle-Tribune (21 features) = 25.6 years
Waterbury Republican (23 features) = 26 years
Marietta Journal (19 features) = 27 years
Lowell Sun (17 features) = 27.5 years
Bucks County Courier-Times (18 features) = 27.5 years
Washington Post (40 features) = 27.9 years
Midland News (21 features) = 29.5 years
Indiana Gazette (22 features) = 32.3 years
Monroe News (22 features) = 33 years
Westchester Journal-News (27 features) = 33.5 years
Scranton Times (28 features) = 35 years
Hickory Record (18 features) = 35.7 years
Chattanooga Times (36 features) = 37.3 years
Florida Times-Union (28 features) = 37.3 years

A few comments. First of all, way to go Boston Globe! And everyone says you're a dinosaur. Sheesh, they couldn't be more wrong. Second, a few papers really gave their ages a major shot in the arm with the inclusion of Snuffy Smith (81 years old in 2000) and Ripley's Believe It or Not (82). Third, I'm sad to say that there wasn't a single paper that contained a feature that was zero years old (in other words, started in 2000). And finally, a note to you newspaper publishers that it sure would be keen if you'd put the name of your %#$@*! paper on the masthead.

I wanted to compare these averages, which seem to center around the high 20s, with a current paper. All I had to work with is my own local paper, the Leesburg Commercial. Things sure aren't looking good here in Leesburg. I have 32 features and an average age of 39.8 years. Hmm. Leesburg and Jack Benny have something in common.

So your assignment for today is to pull out the last Sunday section or daily comics page of your paper (you do subscribe to your local paper, right?) and answer the question ... How Stale Are My Comics? Report your results right here and let's see who has the best and the worst.

If you have trouble with this because you don't know when a strip started just drop me a line here and I'll supply you with the necessary raw data.

But I don't subscribe to a newspaper, and therein lies the problem. The only halfway decent daily was (I stress was) the L.A. Times, but a subscription was very expensive and I only read some 10 or 15 pages and threw the rest out.

Still, I suspect the Times' comic age is lower than many papers. Whenever I pick up a copy I find a couple of strips I've never heard of. Unfortunately all seem cut from the same cloth: two or three oddly-underdrawn characters talk for two panels to set up a mild punch line in the third. Maybe if I read a paper regularly I'd warm up to one of these strips, but most seem to have achieved in a year or two the tedium it took Snuffy Smith nearly a century to achieve.
I checked my paper (the Denver Post) and found an average age of 23.57 for the Sunday comics page.

I think the number of comics carried is also worth noting - having a large number allows space for new comics without ditching the older stuff. The Denver Post carries 10 comics created within the past decade out of 44 total - a paper with fewer comics could have a lower average age but still carry fewer young features.
The implication here is that newer, i.e. younger, is better and that older is bad. Are comic creators supposed to be put out to pasture when they reach a certain age? Smurfswacker is correct, there's a blandness in a lot of the newer comics I've seen as well. What should be far more important to note is not the age of the strip but the timelessness of the characters. Newspaper comics were created, often in league with publishers, as entertainments for readers, not showcases for creators. The best of those comics have endured because of the timelessness of the characters that have been created. New creators who have not broken into the same ranks have the mass appeal of their creations to blame, not "crowded" comic pages.
The comic sections I sent you were mainly samples from American Color (Buffalo NY), who printed sections for many papers, including the generic ready-print ones for very small papers. I also sent material from 1998-9 and 2001, hope you recieved them as well.

The reason most papers run older strips is that they're safe with them. Few editors want to set out with a new strip at the cost of dropping one that's been in place that will potentially disappoint some percentage of readers, or,take away any space that is or could be used for advertising, if the section is big enough.
Another reason for the lack of energy in the modern comic section is that there are few markets left with competing sunday papers. The single supplier of a color comic section, then, has no reason to experiment or take a risk; what he has will always be the top strips. He has no rival for them. If a new strip suddenly gets very popular, like "Calvin & Hobbes" did in the 90's, the editor can get it, no prob. As the creator of that strip insisted clients HAD to run it on the cover to get it, it created possibly the highest amount of sameness ever seen in the comic section world.
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