Column: All things must end, even in comics

Sep. 15, 2013 @ 01:32 AM

One of the first lessons anyone moving into a newspaper management position learns is that you really don’t want to mess with the comics page.

Of all the things you can do to change a newspaper for better or worse, few engage readers’ emotions the way that dropping a favorite comic strip does.

That said, we’re going to be messing with the comics page.

We really didn’t want to, but for business reasons change was going to happen anyway.

Until the past 10 or 15 years pretty much every newspaper in the country decided on its own which comic strips to use and negotiated its own deals without any kind of research among peers, even within the same company, about what other people were buying or the prices they were paying. That has changed here and there, and now here, as the industry has had to tighten expenses.

But every paper had some comics that few or no other papers in the same company ran. Change on the comics page, then, became inevitable pretty much everyplace that revisited its comics contracts.

How that all shakes out here, we aren’t yet entirely sure, except that the first change already has been made: “Belvedere” has been dropped, as of last week.

That decision went over like a lead balloon with a few readers, in part because the artist, George Webster Crenshaw, had a connection to Hudson.

But here’s the thing: Crenshaw, who died in September 2007 in Kent, Wash., stopped drawing “Belvedere” in 1995. He started the comic in 1962, so all of the strips that had been running in the News-Topic were 18 to 51 years old.

It is difficult, when you know that you are going to have to change comics anyway, to stick with ones that consist entirely of reruns.

The world of comic strips is full of this kind of situation, unfortunately.

The most famous of the all-rerun comics is “Peanuts,” which Charles M. Schultz drew for 50 years. Schultz died over 13 years ago, but his comic strip continues in reruns, and its enduring popularity is such that many editors are loathe to even consider touching it.

More recently, artist Lynn Johnston decided in 2010 to stop her strip, “For Better or For Worse.” But many papers continue to publish it in reruns.

Some strips, such as “Blondie,” “Snuffy Smith” and “Shoe,” outlive their creator but move on with new strips created by new artists.

It’s easy to understand the reluctance to give up a comic strip. It’s a daily injection of humor, and for some of us the typical day lacks much of that. Plus, a strip that becomes a favorite usually gets there by being better than others on the page at making a connection that feels personal.

But nothing lasts forever, and I would argue that a comic strip – a work of human creation, by definition expressing an aspect of the person who created it – ought to end when its creator stops drawing it.

There are other artists and new comics, more each year. It is difficult for new ones to be “discovered,” though, if all the old ones become zombies occupying the newspaper pages long after life left them.

We at the News-Topic are not completely in charge of our options on the comics page. There will be a range of choices determined by what the company’s other papers use and what deals can be cut with syndicates. We’ll work within that range of choices and do the best we can.

(If you have to have a “Belvedere” fix, all of his strips made their way into books – the “Belvedere” entry in Wikipedia lists 12 of them. You also could try a link at the website that says you can sign up to receive free daily emails of the cartoons, though it wasn’t working when I tried it one day last week.)