The internet has unleashed a burst of cartooning creativity
IN 1989 Bill Watterson, the writer of “Calvin and Hobbes”, a brilliant comic strip about a six-year-old child and his stuffed tiger, denounced his industry. In a searing lecture, he attacked bland, predictable comics, churned out by profit-driven syndicates. Cartooning, said Mr Watterson, “will never be more than a cheap, brainless commodity until it is published differently.”
In 2012 he is finally getting his way. As the newspaper industry continues its decline, the funnies pages have decoupled from print. Instead of working for huge syndicates, or for censored newspapers with touchy editors, cartoonists are now free to create whatever they want. Whether it is cutting satire about Chinese politics, or a simple joke about being a dog, everything can win an audience on the internet.
This burst of new life comes as cartoons seemed to be in terminal decline.Punch, once a fierce political satire magazine whose cartoons feature in almost every British history textbook, finally closed its doors in 2002. The edgierVizmagazine, which sold a million copies an issue in the early 1990s, now sells 65,000. In the United States, of the sprawling EC Comics stable, onlyMadmagazine remains, its circulation down from 2.1m in 1974 to 180,000. Meanwhile, the American newspaper industry, home of the cartoon strip, now makes less in advertising revenue than at any time since the 1950s.
Cartoons go way back before newspapers. They have their origins in the caricatures and illustrations of early modern Europe. In Renaissance Germany and Italy, woodcuts and mezzotint prints were used to add pictures to books. By the 18th century simple cartoons, or caricatures, circulated in London coffee shops, lampooning royalty, society and politicians. Popular engravers such as William Hogarth and James Gillray came up with tricks we now take for granted: speech bubbles to show dialogue and sequential panels to show time passing.
But it was the combination of the rotary printing press, mass literacy and capitalism which really created the space for comic art to flourish. In Britain Punch coined the term “cartoon” in 1843 to describe its satirical sketches, which soon spread to other newspapers. In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: “yellow journalism”.
Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars. But in an era before television and film, it was the cartoons—filled with images of the city and stories of working-class living—which sold the newspapers. With most papers reporting much the same news, cartoons were an easy way for proprietors to differentiate their product. After the success of the Yellow Kid, both Pulitzer and Hearst introduced extensive comic supplements in their Sunday papers. Like the papers that printed them, comics rose and died quickly: the Yellow Kid lasted barely three years. But as the newspaper industry overall grew, so too did the funnies pages. By the mid-1920s one cartoonist, Bud Fisher, was paid $250,000 a year for “Mutt and Jeff”. By 1933, of 2,300 daily American papers, only two, the New York Times and the Boston Transcript, published no cartoons.
That was the golden age. During the second world war, paper rationing forced comic strips to shrink on both sides of the Atlantic. Afterwards, the rise of television news culled the number of dailies and all but wiped out evening papers. With less competition, newspapers relied less on cartoons to sell copies. Comic books filled some of the gap, but unlike the newspapers, these were mostly for children. By the 1980s most newspaper cartoon strips were controlled by a small group of syndicates whose executives saw them primarily as devices to sell licensed merchandise. Childish cartoons with weak, universal jokes thrived—think “Garfield”—while more interesting artists struggled to find an outlet for their work. When authors retired, successful strips were handed down to new artists like real estate to avoid jeopardising merchandise revenues. “Mutt and Jeff”—tired by the 1950s—continued until 1982.
The decline of newspapers and the rise of the internet have broken that system. Newspapers no longer have the money to pay big bucks to cartoonists, and the web means anybody can get published. Cartoonists who want to make their name no longer send sketches to syndicates or approach newspapers: they simply set up websites and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. Randall Munroe, the creator of “XKCD”, left a job at NASA to write his stick men strip, full of science and technology jokes (see above and below). Kate Beaton, a Canadian artist who draws “Hark, A Vagrant”, sketched her cartoons between shifts while working in a museum. Matthew Inman created his comic “The Oatmeal” by accident while trying to promote a dating website he built to escape his job as a computer coder.
The typical format for a web comic was established a decade or more ago, says Zach Weiner, the writer of “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”, or “SMBC” (below). It has not changed much since. Most cartoonists update on a regular basis—daily, or every other day—and run in sequence. “I think that’s purely because that’s what the old newspapers used to do,” says Mr Weiner. But whereas many newspaper comics tried to appeal to as many people as possible, often with lame, fairly universal jokes, online cartoonists are free to be experimental, in both content and form.
Ryan North uses the same drawing every day for his “Dinosaur Comics”—the joke is in the dialogue, which he writes fresh every weekday, and the absurdity of dinosaurs discussing Shakespeare and dating. “SMBC” flicks between one-panel gags and extremely long, elaborate stories. Fred Gallagher, the writer of “Megatokyo”, has created an entire soap-opera-like world, drawn in beautiful Japanese manga-style, accessible only to those who follow the sage regularly. Mr Munroe’s “XKCD” is usually a simple strip comic, but recently featured one explorable comic, entitled “Click and Drag”, which, if printed at high resolution, would be 46 feet wide.
Perhaps thanks to the technical skills needed to succeed, web cartoonists tend to be young—few are over 30—well-educated and extremely geeky. “XKCD” is full of jokes about statistics, the scientific method, computer code and how terrible competitive sport is: hardly surprising given Munroe’s previous work at NASA. “SMBC” makes similar jokes, but it tends to mix cruder gags in too. “Ctrl Alt Del”, “Megatokyo” and “Penny Arcade” built up around the nascent video-games industry, and feature the stock characters of game culture: ninjas, snipers and busty women.
But on the internet, anything can thrive, it seems. Ms Beaton writes surreal strips for “Hark, A Vagrant!” typically based on history and forgotten bits of popular culture. (One features Isambard Kingdom Brunel being visited by steampunk imitators from the future. They do not understand him.) Alison Acton’s “Bear Nuts” is mostly about cute, extremely well-drawn furry animals hurting each other. Dan Walsh, an IT manager from Dublin, pays homage to a print cartoon: Garfield Minus Garfield, his site, simply takes the cat out of Jim Davis’s strip, exposing the existential angst of its owner, Jon Arbuckle (and improving the cartoon in the process).
Many of these comics are expanding outwards into little media empires of their own. “XKCD”, probably the most innovative, now features a separate blog called “What If?”, on which Mr Munroe answers questions sent in by readers. One recent post asked “if every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?” (The answer is no, unless you can borrow 6 billion one-megawatt lasers from the Pentagon.) “SMBC” and “Ctrl Alt Del” have both experimented with sketch shows and animated comics. “Penny Arcade” has become a sprawling video-games industry phenomenon, hosting games conventions and fund-raising campaigns.
One thing they have in common is how they make their money. The typical audience for one of the leading web comics is between 1m and 10m unique browser visits per month, comparable to a medium-sized newspaper website (the website of the Daily Mail, the best-read newspaper on the web, gets 100m per month). But unlike on newspaper websites, where advertising is the main source of revenue, the audience on web comics are not just readers—they are also customers. Most artists sell T-shirts, books, mouse mats, posters and other paraphernalia. The most successful at monetising content is said to be Mr Inman: his site, “The Oatmeal” made $500,000 in 2011 from its audience of around 7m unique visitors per month.
Amplified by social media—Mr Inman has some 700,000 Facebook followers—this audience can be powerful. One extremely long and exceptionally geeky comic last summer on “The Oatmeal”, extolling the virtues of the inventor Nikola Tesla and attacking his better-known rival, Thomas Edison, somehow snowballed into a campaign to save one of Tesla’s labs on the outskirts of New York. By leveraging his immense traffic to attract donations and to sell T-shirts and other gear, Mr Inman raised $1m in nine days—enough, with matching funding from New York State, to buy the building.
Web cartoons have an important political role where speech is constrained. In China cartoons distributed across weibo, a collection of Twitter-like social networks, have become a powerful way of criticising the communist regime. Pi San, a cartoonist and animator from Beijing, creates carefully coded cartoons as a way of subverting China’s strict web-censorship regime. His most popular character, Kuang Kuang, is a lazy schoolboy at a prison-like institution where dissent is routinely persecuted. The drawings, full of jagged lines and dark colours, are as edgy as the politics. One recent animation, poking fun at China’s censorship of references to Ai Weiwei, a controversial artist, was viewed by a million people within just a few hours of its being posted online.
That works in the Arab world too. A long and illustrious tradition of political cartooning has long existed, with Arab cartoonists highlighting high inflation and unemployment, or attacking common enemies, such as Israel and America. But many cartoonists have struggled with censorship—explicit and implicit—and attacks on governments used to be rare. That is now changing. The Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, one of the best-known cartoonists in the Arab world, founded Syria’s first weekly satirical newspaper Ad Domari in 2001, but published only 104 issues before being shut down by the regime in 2003. Last August he was beaten up by government supporters for his work, and he is now exiled in Egypt. But his cartoons, together with those of younger Arab artists, are now distributed by Syrian activists across Arab news websites and social networks.
This new world, in which humour spreads instantly and globally, threatens webcomic artists at the same time as it liberates them. Cartoons can spread around the web without crediting their creators; copyright thieves can sell unlicensed merchandise. Cartoonists need to be entrepreneurs, as well as artists. Online cartoons can be lucrative, but unlike working for a syndicate, they hardly provide stable work. “No one has retired from them yet,” points out Ms Beaton. And the competition is getting fiercer. Now that everyone can be a cartoonist, almost everyone is. Online communities such as 4Chan, SomethingAwful and Reddit thrive on jokes, often just pictures with a caption attached, uploaded by users. New cartoonists, however good, can struggle to get attention, yet alone make a living.
But then, as Bill Watterson pointed out, money and stability, combined with insufficient competition, strangled cartooning. Bored of fighting with his syndicate, and unwilling to let “Calvin and Hobbes” become stale, he gave up his strip in 1995 and retreated into the woods of Ohio to paint landscapes. The world in which he thrived is disappearing. The revolution he wanted is now unfolding.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the Daily Mail's website is visited by 48m unique users a month. The correct figure is 100m. Sorry.