With the final demise of Apartment 3-G in not just artistic but also actual production terms, the natural question is: who wins? That is, who gets the spot suddenly opened up in about three hundred newspapers?
Let me take this second paragraph to point out the most recent Reading The Comics post over on my mathematics blog. Thank you.
I should point out, I don’t know how many newspapers Apartment 3-G was running in at the end. I say “about three hundred” because whenever a comic strip’s circulation is mentioned it’s usually given as “about three hundred”. “About three hundred newspapers” is the comic strip circulation figure equivalent of “has a girlfriend in Canada”. It’s possible enough, and disproving it would take more work than anyone cares to invest.
Certainly not winning are the soap opera strips. As a genre they’re dead, probably squeezed the same way soap operas proper are dying (in the United States). Kids don’t grow up reading them, and adults have better things to do than follow the soaps. I don’t know when the last new syndicated soap opera strip to launch was. The closest might be Dan Thompson’s Rip Haywire, which is an action-adventure strip, but a humorous, self-spoofing one. That means the main story would be serviceable for an action-adventure strip, but every panel includes a joke about how stupid the Kardashians are or something like that, and when the villain reveals his plan he owns up that this is a kinda dumb thing to do. It’s a fun strip, one of Thompson’s nearly six dozen good daily strips that he’s producing, but it’s not a soap. And I’m not positive it appears in any newspapers.
I would expect Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann and Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean to make the most gains from the spaces available, actually. Both strips have moved into the semi-serialized format that’s the closest the market will support to a soap-opera strip. In this format — I think of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury as the defining example of it — there are a couple of story lines going on, and each week will advance one of the stories. But nearly each daily strip will contain a punch line, or an attempted punch line, so the strip doesn’t quite abandon the joke-a-day format.
(This isn’t to suggest that humor strips with story lines are a modern development. Walt Kelly’s Pogo mastered the form, and strips like E C Segar’s Thimble Theater/Popeye were certainly doing that. But they would have typically one story going at a time, and focus on that for as long as conditions warranted. I think the markers of the semi-serialized format are that there are multiple story lines going on for the various characters, that one of them will be picked up for any given Monday-to-Saturday sequence, that the following week is likely to follow a completely different thread, and that the full week will be devoted to a single thread. Funky Winkerbean, for example, has so committed to this that its snark community gets confused when the strip does six days of unconnected gag-a-day jokes without an overarching topic.)
You may protest that Luann and Funky Winkerbean are already successful, commercially if not artistically. (There is a lot to snark about the plotting in both comic strips.) And yes, they’re probably doing about as well as syndicated comic strips not drawn by Charles Schulz half a century ago can hope to do. But success and acclaim tend to attract success and acclaim. That newspaper editors have heard of them makes it easier to pick them up, in newspapers that haven’t picked them up already. This may be cosmically unjust, but it is an unjust trait every human field has.
If King Features Syndicate were really on the ball, they would be pushing some of their semi-serial comics, such as Norm Feuti’s Retail, heavily. But then if King Features Syndicate were on the ball, some editor would have stepped in on Apartment 3-G sometime the past two years. (There is a rumor that Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock had strips, or at least scripts, prepared through to January 2016. If true, this would explain why the last few weeks of the strip so ineptly wrapped up events. I would be fascinated to see these strips and learn if they were pulled because they somehow managed to be even worse, or if the syndicate just decided to cut its losses finally.)
I have seen reports of King Features placing Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem into newspapers. That’s basically a panel strip, although done in the long rectangular dimensions of a three- or four-panel comic. It’d be a good choice for any newspaper that doesn’t already carry Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo, if there are any. King Features has also started recently Take It From The Tinkersons, by Bill Bettwy, which is unlike other family comics by being about the Tinkerson family instead of other family-comics families; and David Reddick’s Intelligent Life, which hops on the bandwagon of The Big Bang Theory with the speed and precision we expect from the comics page.
Universal Uclick should be able to place Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and her Unicorn into at least a few of those emptied spots. Simpson’s is the first comic Universal Uclick has launched into newspapers in several years, and it’s got a pleasant, charming whimsy. It’s also benefitted from well-meaning reviews that claim it’s a female version of Calvin and Hobbes. It’s no girl-based clone of that comic, though. It really only shares the superficial traits of being well-drawn and starring a child and an animal with Bill Watterson’s masterpiece. But the syndicate would be fools not to trade on good publicity, and I’d expect many readers to like what the strip actually is once they’ve read it.
But it’s also sadly possible that no comic strip will reap a bonanza of new spots from this. It might all go to the tire ads instead. November 2015 has been a harsh month for syndicated comic strips, and that in a bloodbath year. While everyone was watching Apartment 3-G collapse, Larry Wright’s impossibly gentle panel strip Kit ‘n’ Carlyle ran its last installment, on the 7th of November. And come the 29th, Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set panel is to retire. Kit ‘n’ Carlyle was about a kitten making a mess of its owner’s dates or food or drapes, rather like Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts without the despair and misanthropy. The Dinette Set was all bite, daily peeks at some horrible people who don’t get it. It doesn’t really have punch lines, more of an atmosphere of awkward unpleasantness. I can’t fault the many readers who never got what was supposed to be funny in this.
I don’t know that I ever saw Kit ‘n’ Carlyle in an actual newspaper, but then I don’t remember when I last saw Apartment 3-G on paper either. The Dinette Set I remember seeing at least a few times, so maybe it runs in four hundred newspapers. Also finished this year were Fred Wegner’s Grin and Bear It and Steve Sicula’s Home and Away. Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup last month switched from daily to Sunday-only publication, which is almost as good as stopping altogether. Daily and Sunday comics pages are only loosely connected. Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s family strip Edge City is ending with the close of 2015. Given all this, I wouldn’t blame a comics page editor for taking the chance to reorganize everything and drop all but the cheapest or most popular comics. Or the tire ads.
If there are still comics page editors, or newspapers, soon.