Brenda Starr is going to die on January 2, 2011.
See, that’s the problem.
In another era, nobody would have asked who Brenda Starr is. She’s a comic strip character, the star of a daily serial that’s been running for over 70 years. “Brenda Starr, Reporter” was in hundreds of papers at one point, and spawned a couple of movies (one with Brooke Shields (!), the other with Jill St. John). But when the end of the strip was announced this week, the comic was appearing in a relative handful of papers, and you can find entire generations who don’t know who she is, because they don’t read the papers and don’t read comic strips.
Check that. They may read comics, but when they do, it’s online. And online, webcomics get equal — or higher — billing than traditional newspaper comics, which tend to be grouped on syndicate sites or newspaper sites where younger readers may never find them.
That’s a shame. The daily newspaper comic strip was and is a singular, interesting art form. It requires a very different talent and discipline from the web, where there are no restrictions. A cartoonist working in newspaper syndication gets an increasingly tiny space to be funny or tell a story, and has to deal with a rapidly aging readership intolerant of “edginess” and editors who like the comics to be a) cheap and b) non-controversial. Oh, and the number of newspapers that will buy comics is shrinking and the pay, unless you have a massive hit, often isn’t enough to live on. So it’s not at the top of the list of wise career choices.
Meanwhile, there are webcomics. Some are good, some not so good, and it’s sometimes hard to sort through the amateurish stuff to get to the good ones. And I wonder if the public’s ever-shortening attention span means that the static style of a comic strip is going to wither away in favor of animation; It’s already happening with editorial cartooning to some extent.
But even the most popular, longrunning webcomics — Achewood, Penny Arcade, XKCD, and several others — don’t have the cultural impact that Peanuts or Blondie once did, or that Calvin and Hobbes (are there people today whose only familiarity with Calvin is from those bootleg peeing stickers on the back of pickups?) did not too long ago. And there are some comic strips in the newspaper worth reading — I’m partial to Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Cul de Sac, Get Fuzzy, and a few others — even though the people who might find those strips appealing are just not picking up a physical newspaper anymore. (Highly recommended is the snarkfest that is the Comics Curmudgeon, wherein Josh Fruhlinger and commenters eviscerate the comics while revering them as well)
So, what’s the answer? Is the daily newspaper comic strip — with or without the newspaper — a dead art form, or just for old people to peruse through their bifocals while breakfasting on bran flakes? Can webcomics ever produce a Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts?
We need an intrepid reporter to investigate this. Put Brenda Starr on the story.