Sunday, March 27, 2016

Down with Comic Strip Polls!

If you're looking for the root cause of the demise of newspaper comics, here it is. The dreaded comics poll. I ran across this one in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a few weeks ago. Today the local rag here in Cleveland announced it will be conducting one over the next few weeks, too.  Note the Pittsburgh paper here publicized their poll with the above art from Peanuts, a strip that ended 16 fucking years ago. That tells you all you need to know about the state of the daily comic strip and the attitude of the newspapers that run them.

I hate these goddam things. I first ran into one of these comics polls at my first newspaper job out of college in the early Eighties. Surveys and focus groups were fairly new then, but spreading like a cancer, as old school newsfolk, in their black horn-rim glasses and BO-stained white shirts, were being replaced by younger corporate toadies who worshipped at the idol of marketing research. When I protested that comics polls were the dumbest idea I'd ever heard, the execs stared at me like I was a heretic.

What a demeaning concept a comics poll is! Did newspapers ever run a columnist survey? Hey, readers! tell us which columnists we should dump! Of course not. Such a thing would be unthinkable.

Besides, readers are idiots, to be blunt, much like tv viewers or media consumers of any kind. They don't know what they want. Invariably when asked, back when it mattered, what the daily newspaper should be like, readers responded they wanted more "positive news" and more features about local people. So editors, under orders from the marketing execs, changed their newspapers to comply, and guess what? Readers were bored stiff! They said they want "positive" news, but what they really want is sleaze, crime and lurid sex, as they have throughout history. It's likely they just can't admit that, even to themselves.

As for comics polls, the ones who have always filled out the surveys are retired geezers, the daily newspapers' bedrock readership since the Seventies. Newspapers longed for a younger demographic.... but then let grandpa select the content. What could go wrong? Besides, nothing good ever came from asking readers to select the lowest common denominator. Here's a thought: hire comics editors who know what they're doing and have them make thoughtful, creative decisions. Usually, this task is foisted off on a features editor. Most, in my experience, haven't a clue what good comics are. SO they rely on the comics poll.

That's why the comics page, selected by geezer readers, is a combination of corpse strips and re-runs, and has been for nigh on 40 years. Only on the comics page would a newspaper re-run content! How come they're not re-running old Erma Bombeck and Mike Royco columns? Man, people used to LOVE Walter Wichell! On a typical comics page now, over half of the minuscule strips are by dead guys.

Doonesbury, for example, was wildly popular when it debuted in the Seventies. By all logic, it should have opened the door to dozens of new, edgy strips. Instead, that door slammed shut! The geezers loathed Doonesbury. In every comics poll, which were first being introduced then and spread from paper to paper like a virus, it was always one of the most popular and least popular comic strips. That gave the editors an out, especially since many of them grumbled about all the nasty letters and phone calls the strip generated. Add more strips that did the same? No thanks! We have one Doonesbury. That's enough. So that was that. A groundbreaking strip that should have been one of the most influential of all time instead was one of the least influential. College papers in the late Seventies were full of Doonesbury-like strips. Many were better than the unfunny dreck the syndicates offered. The ONLY one of these that was signed was Bloom County, and that was only because Trudeau switched syndicates and his old one wanted a replacement Doonesbury. That Bloom County evolved into something else and became wildly popular, was apparently lost on both syndicate and newspaper executives.

So when the comic strip revolution unfolded in the Eighties, it happened in the upstart weekly press. Dailies should have fought for Life in Hell and Lynda Barry and all the rest. Run those strips and run them big and younger readers would have followed. Instead they flocked to the weeklies. It was the comics that first put those rags on the map.

For their part, the dailies ran the same old strips and started shrinking them, first to small, then to the minuscule size they now appear. "Space restrictions" and the "hard realities" of modern newspapers are the excuse. But waitasec. In those beloved reader marketing tests, comics always rate near the top. So why ignore the readers here, but give them total power in whether to keep Wizard of Id? If comics are so popular, as your readers indicate, shouldn't they get primo play instead of shrunk and stuffed in the back of the paper?

Here's my suggestion, admittedly biased. You want new, younger readers? Run new, interesting strips and run them BIG. Half page comics.... full page comics. And they don't have to be daily strips. Why is that etched in stone? It worked before. When newspapers ruled the media world, they plastered comics all over their pages. It's no accident that The Yellow Kid, the first hit comic, ran on the front page! We're in a golden era of comics right now, with 20something creators and readers coming to comics in numbers I've never seen before. but good luck finding any evidence of that in a daily newspaper. At this point, Jesus, what do daily papers have to lose?

I can only chalk it up to 50 years of editorial animosity toward comic strips. The comics page has always been a pain in the ass for editors. Change one strip, even some vile excrement like Andy Capp, which somehow once appeared in 2,000 papers, and you'll be answering angry phonecalls (and now emails) for days from those outraged geezers. Better just to leave the page as is, so editors can get on with their quiet morning and two-hour lunch. And frankly, I think it pissed off word people that comics were the most popular thing in their papers, so they set about undermining them. Maybe this was subconsciously, but I've little doubt this was the case. Make them duller and duller, make them smaller and smaller. It was even more extreme in the weekly press. It's the only explanation.