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The Celebrated Life And Lonely Death Of Brenda Starr, Reporter

Brenda Starr investigates (Tribune Media Services)

Brenda Starr is going to die on January 2, 2011.

Who?

See, that’s the problem.

In another era, nobody would have asked who Brenda Starr is. She’s a comic strip character, the star of a daily serial that’s been running for over 70 years. “Brenda Starr, Reporter” was in hundreds of papers at one point, and spawned a couple of movies (one with Brooke Shields (!), the other with Jill St. John). But when the end of the strip was announced this week, the comic was appearing in a relative handful of papers, and you can find entire generations who don’t know who she is, because they don’t read the papers and don’t read comic strips.

Check that. They may read comics, but when they do, it’s online. And online, webcomics get equal — or higher — billing than traditional newspaper comics, which tend to be grouped on syndicate sites or newspaper sites where younger readers may never find them.

Satire In 'Brenda Starr'?!? (Tribune Media Services)

That’s a shame. The daily newspaper comic strip was and is a singular, interesting art form. It requires a very different talent and discipline from the web, where there are no restrictions. A cartoonist working in newspaper syndication gets an increasingly tiny space to be funny or tell a story, and has to deal with a rapidly aging readership intolerant of “edginess” and editors who like the comics to be a) cheap and b) non-controversial. Oh, and the number of newspapers that will buy comics is shrinking and the pay, unless you have a massive hit, often isn’t enough to live on. So it’s not at the top of the list of wise career choices.

Meanwhile, there are webcomics. Some are good, some not so good, and it’s sometimes hard to sort through the amateurish stuff to get to the good ones. And I wonder if the public’s ever-shortening attention span means that the static style of a comic strip is going to wither away in favor of animation; It’s already happening with editorial cartooning to some extent.

But even the most popular, longrunning webcomics — Achewood, Penny Arcade, XKCD, and several others — don’t have the cultural impact that Peanuts or Blondie once did, or that Calvin and Hobbes (are there people today whose only familiarity with Calvin is from those bootleg peeing stickers on the back of pickups?) did not too long ago. And there are some comic strips in the newspaper worth reading — I’m partial to Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Cul de Sac, Get Fuzzy, and a few others — even though the people who might find those strips appealing are just not picking up a physical newspaper anymore. (Highly recommended is the snarkfest that is the Comics Curmudgeon, wherein Josh Fruhlinger and commenters eviscerate the comics while revering them as well)

So, what’s the answer? Is the daily newspaper comic strip — with or without the newspaper — a dead art form, or just for old people to peruse through their bifocals while breakfasting on bran flakes? Can webcomics ever produce a Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts?

We need an intrepid reporter to investigate this. Put Brenda Starr on the story.

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5 comments

  • Maybe a little unfair to say Calvin & Hobbes who’s in that league that rarely happens in any medium as well as The Far Side both who stopped relatively early in their creators lives.

    Penny Arcade is pretty big in the specialist community of gaming nerds (and the related fields) but it seems almost all entertainment is more polarized and focused on specific groups simply because the world has become more specialized and fragmented.

    But another Calvin, Peanuts, Doonesbury etc. is pure serendipity in the moment, when the right genious creator with the broad appeal idea mesh with the right moment and media for the moment.

  • Web comics are starting to have a more cultural impact. I mean, web comics are still very young, especially when compared to news paper comics. Nearly every Fark thread has the infamous ‘Citation Needed’ from xkcd – and that was written in 2007.

    I also like the ability to meet and support the people who make me laugh on a regular basis. I’ve never heard of a newspaper comic convention (it might exist?), but I certainly enjoy attending the cons that web comic writers attend.

    Would you’re daily newspaper comic get the chance to say, “hey, if you like me then you’ll love my friend! Go read their stuff!” No, you wouldn’t. But I found Girls with Slingshots via Something Positive. Would you ever get Mary Schmich’s recommendations?

    And I doubt a newspaper would even think of printing Sinfest or Real Life Comics, and they’re tame by comparison to other web comics!

    It’s sad that so many newspaper greats are becoming history, but that’s not a reason to look down on web comics. You ask “can webcomics ever produce a Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts?” I say they already have; just give them time to show themselves.

  • At least Brenda Starr gets an actual ending. Little Orphan Annie got a worse send-off than Poochy did from the Itchy & Scratchy people, in a strip that ends with a panel basically saying “Well, sucks to be her, huh?”

  • If those newfangled “moving pictures” were going to kill comics, they would have done it when when they were newfangled.

    Will a webcomic ever get a Peanuts/Doonesbury/Far Side/Calvin & Hobbs larger cultural impact? Audience is more fragmented than ever, with all the new entertainment that be accessed on the web, but the audience is now international, which help make up the difference. I don’t think it’s happened yet (despite Penny Arcade making Times 100 list), but you’re still looking for an event that only happens once a decade or so.

    Editorial cartoons are dying because they aren’t funny. In three decades of life, they’ve never even managed to get a smile from me. They really aren’t a good format for anything except a summation of the day’s politics – and not a particularly good one if you don’t have the context of a larger newsource around them. So bundled with a newspaper, they work. On their own? Not so much.