(Comic) Strip Mining

Comics editors scramble to replace Berkeley Breathed’s Opus

With cartoonist Berkeley Breathed’s decision to end his comic strip career, many Sunday funnies readers are about to find there’s literally no substitute for Opus.

Instead, starting this weekend, dozens of papers—including The Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland—are boosting the size of existing comics in order to fill the space.

The Washington Post Writers Group, which distributed Opus to nearly 200 newspapers, said at least thirty-four editors have reported they would not be buying a replacement strip. Another twenty-three said they will decide later.

Some editors admitted “this will really help” as they plan their 2009 syndicate budgets, said Amy Lago, comics editor for the Writers Group.

“I want to ask them, `Why are you cutting your comics pages?’” she said. “It just seems so counter to what they’re about.”

Considering Sunday preprint deadlines, Breathed’s Oct. 6 announcement gave editors little time to choose a replacement, and came late in a year of unprecedented shakiness for print revenue.

The savings wouldn’t equal a salary—Sunday cartoons generally run from five to one hundred dollars per week, depending on circulation—but would help editors struggling to cover many features’ announced annual price increases of 2 to 4 percent.

Still, some readers may appreciate seeing a favorite strip getting better play on Sunday, said Kate Sislin, who sells comics for Tribune Media Services. Some papers “really squished a lot of them in there,” she said, “so opening up that real estate can be a good thing.”

Many cartoonists might agree. In a 1989 interview with Comics Journal, reclusive Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson argued that “The size issue is crucial to anyone who cares about quality in cartoons. To save space, newsprint, and money, newspapers have been reducing the size of comics for years. It has gotten to the point now, where cartoons can no longer do what they do best.”

Yet others would welcome the chance to add another paper to their strip’s syndication list. Top sellers among those replacing the bow-tied penguin, according to the syndicates, have been Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy from United Media, The Argyle Sweater and Pooch Café from Universal Press Syndicate, Mutts and DeFlocked from King Features Syndicate, and Daddy’s Home and Speed Bump from Creators Syndicate.

The Post Writers Group pitched Darrin Bell’s politically savvy Candorville as a good fit for the Opus vacancy. Lago said about forty papers accepted that or another of the syndicate’s strips, such as Pickles.

Chad Carpenter’s self-syndicated Tundra has grown by twenty-six papers in recent weeks, with about ten of those as an Opus replacement, marketing director Bill Kellogg said.

The nation’s largest paper with Sunday funnies, the Los Angeles Times, added Bizarro, while The Washington Post chose The Knight Life.

In Seattle, the choice was Rose is Rose. The Dallas Morning News added Red and Rover. The St. Petersburg Times picked Mutts.

The Day of New London, Conn., took two strips—Pickles and F-Minus—to fill the hole Opus left.

Some editors didn’t add a new strip in time for this weekend’s sections, but plan to do so soon.

Mary Lou Nolan, assistant managing editor/features at The Kansas City Star, said she didn’t want to add a new comic without getting input from readers first.

The Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader plans to return Dennis the Menace to its pages in December, following reader outcry over its removal.

Meanwhile, The Sacramento Bee is auditioning Candorville and Secret Asian Man.

Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review features editor Ken Paulman, who added Pickles, said he had been looking for a way to get the comic in the paper since its second-place finish in an earlier reader sampling.

“I learned very quickly that you should never change the comics page without having some sort of survey to back you up,” he said in an e-mail. “Readers seem to appreciate having the input even if they don’t agree with the outcome.”

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Mitch McKenney , former features editor at the Akron Beacon Journal, is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Kent State University.