Garry Trudeau Is Probably Right

My inbox and twitter were aflutter with activity this morning over a comment made by legendary syndicated comic strip creator Garry Trudeau in a recent interview he gave to Slate. During the interview, Garry was asked about the future of his industry:

Slate: Where is the comic strip headed in the post-daily-print-newspaper age? Is the medium healthy?

Trudeau: No, we’re all in free-fall together. And Web comics don’t seem to be an alternative, unless you’re uninterested in making a living. There are so many entertainment alternatives to comics now, I’m not sure they’ll be much missed. In their heyday, comics were a dominant force in popular culture, but that’s over.

There’s not much future in being a strip artist now. That’s quite a turnaround in fortunes, because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered. If I were starting out now, I’d probably continue on the graphic design trajectory I was on before I got sidetracked with comics. Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant. I advise young cartoonists now to get into graphic novels—or head for Pixar.

Now, before anyone else gets in a tizzy over what Mr. Trudeau has said here, let’s make sure we understand the context of his comments. Because when Mr. Trudeau says “Web Comics don’t seem to be an alternative, unless you’re uninterested in making a living.” (emphasis mine) we need not get angered by his comments until we’ve decided which you’re he’s talking about.

Personally, I take his comments to mean that Webcomics are not an alternative for he and his colleagues. And he’s correct. It’s not a viable alternative for them at this point. We need to all take a step back and realize something about syndicated cartoonists: they’re entrenched. Garry Trudeau has been a syndicated cartoonist for 40 years and unless the syndicate he’s partnered with has developed a viable web business model for them both to participate in and monetize (which, they have not) then for Garry to step into the world of Webcomics, he would have to start from scratch. Which no human being this far into his career and life is wont to do. And understandably. It’s unreasonable to expect of anyone in that position.

I also think that Garry’s advice to young cartoonists to “get into graphic novels-or head for Pixar” is sound. We offer the same advice at Webcomics.com to young artists eager to start a “career in Webcomics.” As Brad has said many times to many young artists, “Cartooning is not a career, it’s an act of love.” Very few people are ever fortunate enough to land a real career in cartooning. The web has certainly expanded the options for talented cartoonists and provided options for independent livelihoods. But the only thing the web guarantees at this point is a chance to earn some beer and pizza money in compensation for time spent exploring your creative yearnings. Which, is more than mailing submission packages to publishers ever dreamt of offering.

Honestly, if anything in this interview upset me it was the following sentence:

“…presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered.”

Boy, isn’t that the truth? And isn’t that the real reason that syndicates are getting less and less for their features every year? Because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip is tenure for both the creator and their syndicate partner. Just put it on auto-pilot until the artist dies, then get a new artist and put the auto-pilot back on.

In this interview, Garry discusses his friends Gary Larsen and Bill Watterson, both who felt the time had come to retire from cartooning. And having read interviews with both of those cartoonists, they seem like creators very uncomfortable with the idea of “tenure.” But again, how feasible is it for a cartoonist with 20 plus years under his belt to re-invent what they do or start from scratch?

I do a lot of soul searching about what I do for a living. I think about it a lot. The last thing I want to do is take it for granted. And as I reflect on my one measly decade of cartooning, I see an obvious pattern. It’s during the times I was most comfortable that things started falling apart. And it was during the moments of struggle, upheaval, change and dissatisfaction with my work that I turned the most important corners.

Don’t be upset with Garry Trudeau or any other established syndicated cartoonist for speaking the truth about their chances of making a living with Web Comics. They are in the wrong place at the right time. And many of them have become complacent and comfortable with their tenure in a system that is now crumbling down all around them. They are unable to start from square one and they are 5-10 years away from their partner syndicates having established digital revenue streams for them to exploit.

Instead take this as good warning, and a lesson to be learned. Always keep an open mind. Always think five moves ahead. Be mobile. Be Agile. Be flexible. Be uncomfortable. Be hungry. Never be satisfied. Never seek tenure.

And now, the obligatory Star Trek quote to cap off the blog post despite the fact that it’s not remotely appropriate or relevant:

“Vigilance, Mr. Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.” -Captain Jean Luc Picard, in ‘The Drumhead’