Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Bu$ine$$ of Illu$tration: Feature Syndicates

Because of the intricacies of the contract process involved with securing a syndicated cartoon strip, author Fred C. Rodewald does not go into much detail about opportunities for illustration jobs in that field. His October 1954 article in American Artist mentions only that, "salaried employment for cartoonist, illustrators, letterers and mechanical men" does exist in the syndicate business. Luckily for us, there has been plenty of documentation about this field, and we have the benefit of friends with expert, firt-hand experience.

When Noel Sickles gave up his strip, Scorchy Smith, it was because of a combination of "restlessness, deadlines, boredom and money," according to biographer Bruce Canwell. In an online excerpt of an interview from The Comics Journal #242, Sickles himself mentions that his salary at the beginning of his three-year stint on the strip was $47.50 per week. In spite of his managing to negotiate it to a respectable $125 a week, Sickles quit the strip in 1936 to pursue a career in magazine illustration.

For Sickles' life-long friend and admirer, Milton Caniff, sticking with the syndicates proved to be the road to spectacular success. The caption under this 1946 photo of the artist at work in his studio reads in part, "the young cartoonist earns $80,000 a year, and will do even better when he drops Terry [and the Pirates]."

Ten years later, the title of another article, this one actually written by Milton Caniff for Cosmopolitan magazine says it all.

Caniff wrote, "Today, 100,000,000 Americans follow at least one comic strip each day." Successful syndicated cartoonists like Caniff, Al Capp, Walt Kelly and many others were akin to Hollywood celebrities, earning top dollar for speaking engagements, appearing on newspaper society pages and were much sought-after by advertisers for product endorsements.

No wonder so many cartoonists dreamed of landing a syndicated cartoon strip!

I asked Tom Sawyer, who for a time chased the dream of a syndicated strip himself, if he could give me some idea of the threshold for success in this particular field of illustration. Tom replied, "Yes, back in the sixties, I sensed that even the second-rung syndicated guys (Howard Post, Bud Jones & Frank Ridgeway leap to mind) lived pretty comfortably -- not of course on the level of Mort Walkers, Caniff or Capp.

"Stan Drake had a lot of disposable income (which he mostly spent on sports cars), and of course Leonard Starr. John Prentice likewise lived very nicely. Though I can't nail it to the penny, my impression back then was that even the non-stars did $150-200 K per year, which, back then was fairly serious money."

How does all this compare to today? Perhaps someone who draws a modern day strip will give us some idea of the range of income a syndicated strip artist makes. But based on the mini-empires built by some current day creators like Jim (Garfield) Davis, there's no doubt that the potential for success is huge.

That potential attracts many hopefuls and, for their benefit, we are fortunate today to have the following expert advice (not to mention valuable reality check!) from Brendan Burford, Comics Editor of King Features. Brendan writes:

"King Features receives and reviews up to 5,000 comics submissions a year. We launch 2 or 3 new strips a year. The odds of getting syndicated right out of the gates are not good. We can usually dismiss a large percentage of comics submissions we see fairly quickly because so many submitters haven't done their homework on what a professional submission should look like or they simply have no talent for making comics. Often times our new launches are by a cartoonist who was already on our radar -- through years of submitting, or through notoriety in another branch of comics publishing. Sometimes, we have to pass on cartoonists are are very good or even firmly established because their strip is too similar to something already out there or their strip just isn't the right fit for a mainstream comic strip market."

"All of that said, we have a very open mind about what we choose to option for syndication. The next big strip could come out of nowhere and surprise us all. It's a great feeling when, as syndicate editor, you have that "a-ha!" moment upon seeing a strip that you believe will work. I've felt it several times now, and the results have been wonderful. Take a look at our three most recent launches: DeFLOCKED, OLLIE & QUENTIN, and ARCTIC CIRCLE. All three are very different from one another, yet I think each are great examples of what new strips are capable of bringing to the syndication market."

King Features submission guidelines can be found here.

Tomorrow: Comic Books

* My thanks to Brendan Burford and Tom Sawyer for generously providing their informed expertise for today's post, and to Michael Lark for sharing the Noel Sickles scans at top from his private collection.


  1. I loved this post. Thanks for the work you put into your blog!

  2. Leif, a truly great post. One of the things I discuss in my lectures on comic book history is the fact that teenagers, Jerry Seigle and his artist pal Joe Shuster thought they had the perfect strip hero in a new character they called SUPERMAN back in 1932. For the next six years they sent to every major (and minor) syndicate out there. All to no avail.
    When DC came along and offered to buy the property for comics, they accepted, but at the time thought they were really settling for second best as comics were still an untested format not widely accepted by the masses.

  3. Wow- I guess every illustrator's studio had a resident babe/model sitting around back then? Love it!

    Nice blog, very interesting stuff.

  4. These latest strips, like everything on the comics page, are a long, dark fall from the days of Caniff and company, and a far, wailing cry of despair from the heights of "Calvin and Hobbes." Generations of artists once got their first drawing lessons from the comics page. Now it is an aesthetic atrocity. King Features and all of the syndicates should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. King Features ask to submit 24 examples a month. They say they get 5,000 submissions a month.

    Do 5,000 people submit comic strips or is that 5,000 examples are submitted?

  6. Steven K;

    Thanks for your passionate comment!

    While I don't disagree that the heyday of comic strips is behind us, I'm not sure you can place the blame in the laps of the syndicates. They are, after all, a business (which suits the point of this week's posts well) driven by market forces and public tastes. If The public wants more Dilbert and Cathy, they will give the public what it wants.

    If the public wanted Steve Canyon, you can be sure the syndicates would be only too pleased to give them that, too.

    As for sheer good cartooning, though Calvin & Hobbes is a high water mark we may never see again, there are a lot of well drawn strips out there - Mutts being one that comes to mind, Zits is another.

    One final point about market forces: in the 1950's Cosmo article, Caniff talks about one hundred million Americans reading at leats one strip a day - that at a time when the entire population of the U.S. was probably not much more than a hundred million... I have no empirical data but - my gut tells me that today, with a population around 300,000,000 - nowhere near a hundred million Americans read the paper today, let alone read comic strips.

    This creates a lot of stress for entertainment businesses and creators working in those businesses as they try to reach an ever-diminishing audience. A truly sad anecdote I read somewhere a while ago, that painfully illustrates my point: Charles Schultz walked into a Barnes & Nobles one day in the last years of his life to find, much to his dismay, not a single Peanuts collection on the shelves. When he enquired with a young sales associate about it, the response he got was a blank stare and the reply, "Peanuts? What's that?"

  7. "... DeFLOCKED, OLLIE & QUENTIN, and ARCTIC CIRCLE. All three are very different from one another..."

    I disagree. To me, they all look very similar, and could have been made by the same artist or writer.

    As for the public wanting Steve Canyon, where would they make the request? I've never seen a letter to the editor of a local paper asking where were the great strips from yesteryear, particularly the adventure variety. For the most part, it's a "take what you get" scenario, sort of like TV. It's the syndicates who decide what the public wants. Then again, who reads newspapers these days anyway?

  8. I'm not so sure we disagree, dbclemmons. Read my comment again and think about it.

  9. I can't agree with everything you've said, Leif. Having heard of the experiences of Bill Waterson and Al Williamson, among several other strip artists, I have to conclude that the comics page they have is the comics page the syndicates and the newspapers WANT.

    Bill Waterson is the Michaelangelo of the comic strip - perhaps its greatest practitioner since Winsor McKay - and he is not drawing comic strips. Why? Because the newspapers and syndicates made it impossible for him to draw "Calvin and Hobbes" at a level of quality he could accept. The public was never consulted.

    Al Williamson's "Star Wars" strip (written by Archie Goodwin) was very popular when they shrank the size of comic strips, making it impossible to draw it effectively. When Williamson complained, the syndicate curtly told him, "Draw simpler."

    Did the public ask for that?

    The inevitable conclusion is that the comics page they have is the one they want - bad.

    It is a moot point, of course, because newspapers will probably die of these and other self-inflicted wounds within the decade.

  10. Once again, Steven, I applaud you for championing quality and wishing for more of the same - but I still think the public is getting what it wants. Remember we're talking about the broader public, not that narrow slice of the pie made up of fannish enthusiasts and fellow graphic arts professionals.

    The broader public didn't protest when the strips were shrunk and they didn't demand that the syndicates accomodate Bill Waterson "at a level of quality he could accept" ( I'm not sure what that means, but...) -- and that sent a clear message to the papers and the syndicates: "Nobody cares."

    If there was a huge outcry from the public for large, intricately drawn adventure strips, and it looked like it would boost circulation (and sales), don't you think any paper and syndicate would jump all over that?

  11. "f there was a huge outcry from the public for large, intricately drawn adventure strips, and it looked like it would boost circulation (and sales), don't you think any paper and syndicate would jump all over that?"

    Absolutely not.

    Newspapers are run by writers and editors who think they are in the news business, Leif - they dream of Pulitzer prizes for national news. They don't WANT to play second fiddle to the comics page. They would rather go out of business (which they are).

    Adventure strips are large, costly, and risky endeavors. It takes a very special talent - of which Gary Gianni (Prince Valiant) may be the last - to produce them reliably, week in and week out.

    It does not matter what the public wants, Leif. To paraphrase Orson Welles: the movies that get made are not the ones that people want to see, or talent want to make, but that producers want to produce. Even more so for comic strips - the public has nothing to do with it. The papers tell themselves "the public doesn't care," which justifies their own indifference. How could anyone care about this drek? In fact, the last thing editors EVER want is another "Calvin and Hobbes," or "Peanuts" - a strip the public cares about more than the front page or the Op Ed column.

    Good work gets done - and published - Leif, when those in charge want the best, and believe in it. Mediocrity is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Look at the comic section of any American newspaper, Leif - do you honestly believe that is the best they could do? Those were the best cartoonists they could find?

    There are better cartoonists on staff at Hallmark and American Greetings!

    This is how they want it.

    Re: Bill Waterson. Waterson's battles with the syndicate are well documented. Suffice to say that the syndicate ultimately created an intolerable working environment and Waterson, to his everlasting credit, walked.

  12. "To me, they all look very similar, and could have been made by the same artist or writer."

    I should declare an interest here (as one of the creators) but to me, this is unfair. I read all 3 strips regularly and whilst I agree the illustration styles may have something in common I see no similarities in the writings at all. Am I too close? If so, I'd welcome some examples.

    I would reveal my income from syndication but someone may do themselves an injury laughing.

  13. Steven K;

    Your passion and commitment to this topic as well as your understanding of its nuances are laudible, and I appreciate you giving us the benefit of your insight.

    As a casual observer who's done only a smattering of research on the topic, I'm not in a position to present facts that would rebuff your argument, but again, as a casual observer, the notion of any money-making business willfully ignoring that which might make a profit sounds... counter-intuitive and plain foolish.

    I suppose one could say that a parallel scenario can be found in network television, where quality fiction series programming was bulldozed by a tidal wave of cheap, vacuous reality shows.

    Of course we've seen how that lead to the rise of quality fiction series in the smaller cable channels like HBO, Showtime and so on. And as the public embraced those specialty channels, the networks have had to take notice and make adjustments - reinvest in good writing and the cost of series production.

    Maybe you can hope for a similar scenario in newspaper comic strips if, as you say, good work is getting done, and published - (and I would add - starts making money, and gets widely praised by industry and the public).

    * anecdotally, on a local level where I personally know higher-ups at our city newspaper, I can assure you that the editors are fans of comics like Calvin & Hobbes and Peanuts, and don't at all worry about playing second fiddle to the comic strips.

  14. From Piers Baker: "I should declare an interest here (as one of the creators) but to me, this is unfair..."

    My appologies, Piers. If your work gives you pleasure and success then congratulations.

    Untimately, it is a business (or "Bu$ine$$") afterall.