As alt weeklies go, so go alt comics
It took years for cartoonist Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow, to syndicate his comic strip This Modern World in alternative weekly newspapers. But in just one afternoon, his career was knee-capped. Last January, the company Village Voice Media, publisher of 14 alternative weeklies, suspended all syndicated cartoons.
This Modern World, a sardonic strip that hammers the political establishment and critiques the media, debuted in the SF Weekly in 1990 (and has frequently graced the pages of Extra!). The comic may be best known for its recurring character Sparky, a sarcastic, sunglasses-wearing penguin. Perkins’ comic was in 12 of the Village Voice papers, all in major U.S. cities.
“It takes a long time to build up a client list, and when you lose a big chunk of it in one day, it’s going to take a long time to recover from that, if you ever do,” Perkins said.
Other alt weekly chains are also struggling. Across the industry, alternative cartoonists are suffering, their strips published less and less.
“This art form that I fell in love with 20 years ago is on its hospital bed,” Perkins said.
Newspapers across the country are in crisis, and alt weeklies are no exception. With the rise of online content, a faltering economy that has gutted ad revenue, and decades of rampant media consolidation that have left companies debt-laden, print publications are shedding content (and quality) to try to save their sinking ships.
For the struggling Village Voice Media, this meant cartoons got the axe. In 2005, New Times Media gobbled up the Village Voice franchise to create a newspaper cabal that controlled a quarter of the weekly circulation of alt weeklies in the U.S. Four years later, the bloated company announced a suspension of the paper’s famed cartoons. An editor for the company’s City Pages, Kevin Hoffman, told the Minnesota Independent (1/26/09) that cutting the cartoons was done to “trim where we can while inflicting the least damage—realizing that we’re already cutting bone.”
Other alternative weekly chains and print publications that have traditionally been havens for alt cartoonists are also sputtering. The company Creative Loafing, which acquired the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper in 2007, was taken over in bankruptcy court by its chief creditor, Atalaya Capital Management, in August (Daily Loaf, 8/25/09). The Tribune Company, which owns several alt weeklies in the New England area, including the New Haven Advocate, is also going through a high-profile bankruptcy, leaving the future uncertain for the papers and the cartoonists.
Although Perkins had been savvy in his career, his business prowess has been no match for the changing media landscape. “I had always made a point of keeping my eggs in different baskets; I just didn’t expect the baskets to join up on their own accord,” he said. “My entire career was predicated on diversifying and not being in a situation where any one person or chain could deal me such a devastating blow.”
Perkins pointed out that it wasn’t just individual cartoonists like himself that suffered.
“When you take over that much of the industry and become the major newspaper chain, you become the caretaker of this art form,” Perkins said. “By dropping cartoons across their entire chain, they betray that stewardship.”
Long before Lloyd Dangle’s comic strip Troubletown was published in alternative weekly newspapers across the country, he was scouring them for inspiration.
“When I was first starting out, I went to the alt weeklies to see what people like Lynda Barry and Matt Groening were doing,” Dangle said. “They were so inspiring to me; they changed my life.”
Like many other cartoonists whose art was too edgy, intelligent or political for mainstream papers, Dangle found his home among the more subversive weekly rags.
“These papers were a great breeding ground for comics that were too good for regular papers,” Dangle said. “It was a great run.”
The love affair wouldn’t last. Although Dangle’s strip is still carried in many alt weeklies, he’s losing papers when he should be gaining them.
Comics garner very little income, with newspapers generally paying between $10 and $25 per strip each week. In order to survive, Dangle says cartoonists need to constantly pitch their strip and “score another paper.” But these days, no one is biting. “Alt cartoons have never been the road to riches, but now it’s really hard,” he said.
And having an online presence hasn’t made it any easier. While Dangle uses his website to sell books and schwag—from jigsaw puzzles to snow globes—the comic strip he labors over is available for free.
“Some people think it’s great to have free content online, but I don’t want to have to go work in a shoe store to have to do it,” he said. “I’m having much more interaction with readers online, which is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”
Jen Sorensen, the cartoonist behind the strip Slowpoke, lost one-third of her clients with the Village Voice’s comic moratorium. Like other cartoonists, she’s transitioning online, but finding that both readers and publishers don’t want to pay for content.
“We’re a little like op-ed columnists; people wouldn’t expect someone like Paul Krugman to sell T-shirts to survive and pay for his column,” she said. “The idea that content should be free is definitely threatening our entire genre.”
Sorensen pointed to the Huffington Post model, which rarely pays writers and artists for their work, but assumes that contributors have a steady source of income elsewhere. She said this particularly hurts female and minority cartoonists, who have been traditionally excluded from other media and can’t afford to let their content go for free.
“What [the Huffington Post is] doing is reinforcing those that are already established, who already have a foothold and a source of income. And I think that’s going to be more white men,” Sorensen said. “If you can pay the programmers, then the people who are writing and drawing for you should be paid.”
While some alt cartoonists are hesitantly dipping a toe into the online waters, others say the genre needs to evolve or die. Tired of a flippant industry that paid too little and dropped her strip on a whim, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who penned the strip Dykes to Watch Out For for nearly two decades, stopped producing her cartoon in 2008.
Instead, Bechdel has been focusing on graphic novels. “I got rescued from this sinking ship by this helicopter of the graphic novel craze.”
Does she miss her weekly strip? Of course. “I had been doing it for 20 years; it was like a rhythm in my body,” Bechdel said. “But I don’t want to wax too nostalgic. Things change and you have to adapt. If people have to bend over backwards to patronize you or help you, there’s a problem.”
Dangle predicts that the next couple of years will force innovation from cartoonists and satirists.
“I’m not sure what that vehicle will be, but I’m going to keep trying to find it,” he said. “Cartoonists are resilient. You may see my cartoon pop up on your iPhone soon.”
Sorensen doesn’t think the entire newspaper industry will collapse, but that the “smaller, more local alt weeklies that are well-run with an eye toward their own community” will endure. “It’s just a matter of surviving through this transition,” she said.
But if alt comics die, so would a unique venue for hard-hitting social and political commentary.
“If you look at what the alt cartoonists were saying during the build-up of the Iraq war, we were a lot closer to what was going on than what most major pundits were saying,” Sorensen said. “We have the freedom to be edgy, and a little more complex than the mainstream cartoons.”
In early September, Village Voice Media’s flagship newsweekly, the Village Voice, decided it would reinstate Perkins’ cartoon, but it’s unclear whether the cartoon will reemerge in the company’s other papers.
Tony Ortega, editor of the Village Voice, said he worked with the company to begin republishing the strip.” Conditions have improved, and so we’ve brought back This Modern World to the Village Voice, just as we planned all along,” he said. “For now, that’s all we have space for. But if things continue to get better, there are other strips I’d also like to bring back.”
Perkins finds it hopeful that his cartoon is surfacing at the Village Voice, writing on his blog (This Modern World, 9/1/09): “This is a first step, but it’s a huge one in the right direction—for me personally, of course, but with any luck, for other cartoonists as well. Especially if the Voice gets enough positive feedback on this.”
For readers who are still missing their favorite comic strip in their local paper, or fear that it may be next on the chopping block, Perkins hopes they’ll write to their papers in protest or support.
“What people can do is keep the pressure on,” Perkins said. “If I’m not back in those papers two years from now, I hope they’re still getting e-mails about it.”
Megan Tady is a campaign coordinator and writer for the non-partisan media reform organization Free Press. She was a national political reporter for In These Times and a staff writer and editor for the NewStandard.
Corrected version, September 7, 2009. An earlier version erroneously said that Creative Loafing was currently in bankruptcy proceedings.