SDCC 2004 - Part Four:
July 30, 2004

I want to dedicate a full page to the panel that I held on Sunday because not only do I want to recap what happened, but I want to go over the subject matter we talked about. I was afraid the panel would be a total bust and that we were going to end up with a small attendance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The panel was packed, standing room only. Before we got started, I asked the crowd to flip me the bird so that I could have a memento of the occasion. The panelists consisted of myself, Gabe and Tycho, Kris Straub, R. Stevens, Michael Jantze and Dave Kellett. Oliver Tull moderated for us. The subject of our panel was the future of the comic strip as we know and love it. My assertion is that the syndicates are going to be dying off soon and that more and more the newspapers no longer want to pay for comic strips. So where does that leave the cartoonists. Is the web the future?

The PA guys felt they had nothing to add and at one point during the panel Gabe even leaned over and said to me "I don't know what we're doing here." That was a little disappointing because the fact that they've never even considered syndication is why I wanted them on the panel. Those two have had more popular and financial success than most syndicated cartoonists. They never once needed the syndicates. Hell, they never even THINK about the syndicates. That's significant to me. But they really didn't have anything to add. Instead Gabe took a pot-shot at Michael Jantze for watering down his strip in order to conform to family paper standards. I guess with a front row full of PA fans, they had to keep up their "cooler than school" personas. Michael Jantze, on the other hand, had plenty to add. Michael became savvy to the power of the internet before the syndicates did and he licensed back his own property from them for net sales. At the time, the syndicates didn't know what they were signing away. So Mike really represents the hybrid. He's syndicated, but he's also got a strong online presence. He also explained the entire history of syndicated cartoon features, which set the groundwork for my announcement and my theory on why newspaper syndication is going the way of the dodo.

Why it all began...
As Michael Jantze was kind enough to explain, the newspaper comics feature was invented as a tool to sell more newspapers. At the time, there were huge newspaper wars in almost every city as more than one paper would compete for readers. If your paper had a cartoon feature that the other didn't, you could draw more readers to YOUR paper. It was big business and the syndicates made a LOT of money from cartoon features. It was shady and handled in back-rooms sometimes. Michael says the term Yellow journalism was coined because of the sneaky things people did to get a hold of the first cartoon: the Yellow Kid.

Over the years, things calmed down some, but competition between papers in the same city was still strong. The syndicated played an important role. They were there to guarantee that cartoon features were edited, family friendly and always delivered on time. The syndicates OWN all the cartoon feature, not the creators themselves. Should a cartoonist crap out, they could just hire someone else to draw it. The papers could buy 10 features and only have to write one check. It was a good system. The syndicates got money for their features and in turn offered something that other newspapers didn't have. Some papers would buy a strip and never publish it, just so the other competing paper couldn't have it on their funny pages.

Today things are very different. The days of two paper cities have long past. Now there's one city per paper and competition is dead. In fact, sometimes the papers of many neighboring cities are all owned by one large corporation. Simply put, newspaper competition is over. Newspapers no longer need comic strips to help them sell papers. The comics page has simply become another expense for them.

Michael Jantze told the crowd at our panel that a 20 comic funny page could cost a newspaper 150,000 a year. Now think about this, because this is the key to my announcement: newspapers are PAYING the syndicates for the privilege of developing their cartoon brands. Think about this. If Coca-cola wants to use newspaper advertising to strengthen it's brand, it has to pay for that kind of exposure. The syndicates makes millions from their comic features via books, television, movies and merchandise. The only way they are able to sustain that kind of income is due to the exposure and advertising that the newspapers give them. But the syndicates offer nothing in return. The funny pages are full of retreaded old strips that have lived way past their prime. Entertainment wise, they provide nothing. The syndicates really got a sweet deal. But that's about to change.

Knight-Ridder lays down an ultimatum...

Last January the cash-strapped Philadelphia Inquirer asked syndicates for some strips free of charge for a year. The syndicates refused. This year, the California based company Knight Ridder, which owns 31 daily papers around the country, has demanded a 20 percent reduction in the rates its papers pay for comic strips. If the syndicates don't comply, Knight Ridder is threatening to cancel more than 100,000 dollars worth of business. The newspapers are wising up and they're unwilling to pay. The Syndicates have nothing to offer them save a large bill. I've talked to a couple of syndicated cartoonists and even they see the writing's on the wall. One cartoonist, who I won't name, said to me "If any one newspaper would get the balls to just 86 their comics page, and suffer through the months of letters they would receive, we'd be done for. Once the papers realize they can survive dropping the comics page, everyone will do it."

This last year, I was contacted by Universal Press Syndicates about PvP. They know the strip and were very interested in syndicating it as a feature. I would love to see PvP in newspapers and we started talks. I let them know that there were six years of archives available and that I could edit the strips to conform to family paper editorial standards. The only thing I could not do was give up my ownership and rights to my creation.

Under no circumstances would I relinquish my copyright, book deals, merchandise deals, rights to market my strips, etc. If they wanted PvP, we would agree to a newspaper distribution deal and that was it. After six weeks the syndicates returned with their answer: They wanted PvP...all of it. If they could not have the rights to the feature, they weren't interested. So we parted ways.

But I've already become attached to the idea of seeing PvP in the papers, and that's why I've decided to start a new program. In the coming months, I'll be putting into effect, a program in which papers can receive PVP for free. That's right, free. They don't have to pay me a cent for it. I will provide for the papers, a comic strip with a larger established audience then any new syndicated feature, a years worth of strips in advance, and I won't charge them a cent for it.

The exposure and prestige of PvP appearing in daily papers would more than pay for itself in a months time. In exchange, I can offer the papers a comics feature that's tried and tested, funny and best of all, free. They have nothing to lose or risk financially. They can see, in advance, a years worth of strips so they don't risk me flaking out on them. Most of all, I can provide them with yet another bargaining chip against the very syndicates. This is the perfect climate to take this step.

Of course, this may not work at all. Convincing one paper, any paper, in a major market to take this on might be more daunting than I realize. But if it works, and even one paper takes PvP as a feature, then I win. We all win. Imagine if an aspiring cartoonist could create a feature, own it and through some talent and hard work, get it into major market newspapers without having to sign over his rights and profits to a syndicate who really has nothing to offer him or her. Imagine if newspapers were soon filled with features that were creator owned, free of charge and most importantly....actually funny. It's a crazy dream, but I think it's possible. Even doable.

After the panel, syndicated columnist RC Harvey approached me. I've read a lot of RC's work and I was sure he was going to come up and give me a lecture on being foolhardy. Instead, he shook my hand and with a grin that ran from ear to ear said "Mr. Kurtz, you're about to become quite a threat!"

We'll see.