The Economics of Comics
How Money Influenced the Art
Al Capp, who drew Li’l Abner as a newspaper comic strip character for most of his adult life, had a wooden leg and a speech impediment. When he talked, he punctuated his utterances with hiccoughed hoots of laughter that heralded the approach of a punchline long before anyone else could see it coming. In discussing his choice of careers, he used to say, amid irregularly emitted but almost suppressed guffaws, that he decided to become a comic strip cartoonist at the age of 11 when he learned that Bud Fisher was paid $5,000 a week for drawing Mutt and Jeff as newspaper comic strip characters and was constantly marrying French countesses.
“I decided,” Capp would hoot, “that was for me. After all, how much—hoot!—does a bottle of ink cost?” Another hoot.
This autobiographical fragment is, like many promulgated by Capp, somewhat awry. Fisher didn’t marry the Countess Aedita de Beaumont, whom he met on a trans-Atlantic boat ride while returning from France, until 1924 when Capp was 13 not 11. And by 1924, Fisher was making considerably more than $5,000 a week. (The Countess and Fisher soon divorced, but she and her offspring inherited the copyright on Mutt and Jeff, so her name appears in the fine print on the strips.)
But Capp was, as he said, 11 years old when he decided upon a career as an artist. That year, his family moved from New Haven, Connecticut, where Capp had lost his left leg by falling under a moving streetcar trolley, to Brooklyn, where he was enrolled in P.S. 62., which, Capp alleged, was located “in the Brownsville (or Murder, Inc.) section” of the storied New York borough. Because he was not possessed of two sound lower extremities, young Alfred (as his family called him) could not win the respect of his classmates in the ordinary, or Brownsville, way—which, Capp claimed, consisted chiefly of “attacking classmates from behind and running off with their possessions before they could scramble up.”
He won respect, instead, by drawing. He was good at drawing, good enough that his scalawag peers would pay him a nickel or a dime each to make drawings of them depicted as the professionals they aspired to be—namely, cowboys, pirates, bookies, or neighborhood assassins. Admiration for his talent and his pay skyrocketed when Miss Mandelbaum entered the curriculum of P.S. 62.
“Miss Mandelbaum taught drawing,” Capp recalled, “and was the first female teacher (in fact, the first female of any kind) to enter our classroom. It quickly became apparent to Miss Mandelbaum that I was the Talent, and she showed a great interest in my work, coming in every day, bending over my desk to watch me draw and (nothing is more distracting or destructive to the artist) coaching me as I went along. My classmates showed a great interest in Miss Mandelbaum’s coaching, mainly because of what happened to her neckline when she bent over to coach me.”
Capp, realizing an opportunity when one pounded on his desktop, quickly accepted commissions from his classmates, who paid him the princely sum of a quarter each for pictures of Miss Mandelbaum in a one-piece swimming suit and, later—as matters progressed—in nothing at all.
Some years thereafter, Capp heard about Fisher marrying countesses and determined that a career as a newspaper comic strip cartoonist was probably the most remunerative of the artistic avenues open to him.
He had little choice if he was in it for the money. There were no comic books at the time luring him into their four-color embrace, but even if there had been, the money in cartooning was, then, in syndicated newspaper comic strips. Then and for much of the rest of the century. Comic book artists, until quite recently, made almost nothing, comparatively speaking. And that brings us to one of the great ironies that has plagued the artform from its very beginnings and through much of its history until the 1980s.
As I said in a book of mine, The Art of the Comic Book (still available right around here), the art of the comics is practiced regularly in but two formats: newspaper strips and comic books. Of the two, the book format easily has the greater artistic potential. Comic strips operate within a severely cramped realm that not only limits panel size and number but restricts the unfurling of narrative developments in those strips that tell stories from day to day. While the daily installment format inherently builds the suspense necessary to any story, it also requires a certain amount of repetition each day in order to recapitulate the events of preceding days. Only on Sundays can the newspaper strip approach running the full gamut of its capacities.
But in the comic book with its equivalent of a couple dozen Sunday pages all between a single set of covers, the medium has its best chance to realize a greater range of possibilities. Comic books can tell their stories all at once with no repetition (and therefore with greater dramatic impact), can exploit varying panel sizes and shapes to embellish stories with special narrative-enhancing visual effects, can manipulate time over longer periods to create mood, and can do it all in color. Despite this advantage, the economics of the field mitigated against comic books’ achieving much of their potential until the 1980s.
For one thing, the market for comic books was historically the young reader. Not at first. At first, comic books were manufactured for the whole family, including, since they were in the majority and had the money, adult parents. The first comic books were reprints of newspaper comic strips, which were directed at the whole family.
(On Sundays, strip cartoonists were advised to veer off in the direction of youthful readers more than on weekdays. The young were more inclined to read the comics on Sundays. On Sundays, the comics were printed all together in a single section, and kids could spread the funnies on the floor and read them avidly. On weekdays, the comic strips were scattered, in those early days, throughout the paper, one on this page, another on that, and the size of the newspaper made it unwieldy for youngsters to hold in order to search for this smattering of strips, page by page, so most kids didn’t bother. They waited for Sundays.)
When Superman came along, the family-orientation of comic books soon evaporated. Superman had been regularly rejected when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster submitted it as a newspaper comic strip. Ditto when they re-tooled it for comic book publication. The reason for its rejection was, usually, that it was unbelievable.
Not for kids.
Kids believed in all manner of fanciful things—from elves and fairies to magic tornadoes that transported children to far-off kingdoms, from talking animals to talking automobiles. They could believe anything, surely anything as ordinary as a being from another planet who could leap tall buildings at a single bound. Their fathers and mothers, however, were not likely to be as credulous. For them, Superman was unbelievable, and since comic books aimed for family consumption (which means adult purchasers), Superman was beyond the pall.
For a while.
Eventually, a couple of editors in the infant industry were persuaded to publish Superman, and when newsstand sales figures began to arrive at the home office, Superman’s publisher realized he had a winner on his hands. He also discovered that the buyers of this product were mostly youngsters.
We can easily imagine a light-bulb turning on over publisher Harry Donenfeld’s head: “Ah, ha!” he would say, his brow illuminated by the light-bulb’s radiance, “so it’s kids who buy comic books, not their fathers. Well, we can do something about that.”
The “something” was to begin tailoring comic books not, as previously, for the pulp magazine reading public, not for adults, but for juveniles. Donenfeld did exactly that, and so did all the copycat publishers who followed eagerly in his footsteps, printing comic books by the bale about super-powered characters in tight-fitting costumes, leaping tall buildings hither and yon.
By the time the comic book industry began publishing whole comic books of stories concocted expressly for comic books instead of reprinting newspaper comic strips, the transition from adult to juvenile literature was well underway. By the end of the 1930s, the transformation was virtually complete. Henceforth, comic books were for kids.
And kids, in our society (like it or not), are to be sheltered from a vast range of ideas and subjects. The consequent effort to produce comic book stories suitable for young readers resulted too often in producing simple-minded stories in the misguided belief that youth is equivalent to immaturity (as it is) and immaturity to mindlessness (which it isn’t).
This wasn’t universally true of the comic book industry, but it was true enough for long enough in this country to inhibit the medium’s growth to full potential. Oddly, in the 1980s, a compensatory effort to make comic books more appealing to older readers erred in another direction by supposing that “mature themes” would enable comics to grow up. Although that’s probably valid to some extent, the notion too frequently took flight by mistakenly equating “social issues” or “personality portrayal” with “mature themes.”
There’s more to mature storytelling than that: there is also the way a social issue is treated and how the story is told.
While comic books have been addressed to the young for most of their history, newspaper strips have unabashedly aimed at adult readers as part of the circulation building mechanism of a newspaper: they seek shamelessly to make habitual newspaper buyers out of the adult population, adults usually having more money to spend on the things advertisers blandish on newspaper pages not otherwise devoted to comics.
In order to attract and hold such readers, comic strips have traditionally been more realistic in story, more cerebral (but not necessarily intellectual) than action-oriented—even, in remarkable degree, more mature—than comic books.
But an even more insidious economic circumstance inveighed against comic books’ developing to their inherent capacities as a visual-verbal narrative art through the first fifty years of their history. Until the late 1980s, a successful comic book artist could not expect to make as good a living as a successful comic strip cartoonist, many of whom made small fortunes at their craft.
The income of a strip cartoonist, whose work is syndicated for distribution to hundreds of newspaper clients, grows as the number of papers subscribing to his feature increases. The book cartoonist was paid a page rate that seemed to have little relationship to the number of comic books sold with his work on their pages. An accident of comic book history, the page-rate formula was established in the very beginning, ironically (and unwittingly), by the newspaper syndicates.
Syndicates charged the publishers of the first comic books $5-7 a page for reprint rights to their comic strips. And when publishers started looking for original material for comic books instead of reprinting newspaper strips, that new material had to be produced at a rate competitive with the reprint fees. Comic art shops were invented to do just that. With their teams of writers, pencillers, and inkers, these shops cranked out material with the assembly-line efficiency of a factory, each specialist contributing to the final product those aspects of it that he did best—and quickest. By streamlining the process, they could produce enough pages a week to make the paltry page rate pay living wages for all concerned.
Shop practices thus established the per-page rate as the unit of pay for comic book artists and writers. The per-page rate was often higher than the per-newspaper rate in newspaper syndication, but the book cartoonist could hope to increase his income only by increasing the number of pages he did (and there are practical physical limits here) while the strip cartoonist’s income went up quite independently of the quantity of his output. Still does.
On the basis of these economic facts alone—without considering, in other words, such things as the personal preferences of cartoonists for one comics format over the other—we would expect to find more cartoonists doing comic strips as a life’s work than doing comic books. In fact, of course—with a few notable exceptions—that is precisely the situation. It’s no wonder that Siegel and Shuster first sought syndication for their work: they, like Al Capp, knew a syndicated comic strip could bring them both fortunes.
Given the modest income that comic book cartooning has traditionally afforded, we cannot be surprised to discover that the comic book industry has traditionally been more of a young cartoonist’s field than the comic strip industry. Many cartoonists plying their pens in comic books were doing their first commercial work, comic books being historically the proving ground for virtual beginners. The more skilled these artists became, the more qualified they were for more lucrative positions in the wider field of commercial art. And as they became qualified—often after relatively short stints—many comic book artists left comics to move into advertising art or other, richer, related fields. (And much the same can doubtless be said for those who write comic books, many of whom left—or hope to leave—for careers in motion pictures or television.)
The consequences of this circumstance for the state of the art of the comics were not cheering. Comic strips were likely to be drawn by seasoned and experienced cartoonists—who, in this, the most constricted format of the art, could not exploit very much their experience. Comic books, whose greater flexibility in format would permit fuller development of the art, were likely to be drawn by cartoonists still in apprenticeship whose penchant for experimentation was comparatively untempered (and unguided) by experience.
The economics of the comic book industry were such that the four-color format was assured of a reasonably steady influx of new, young talent. Youthful enthusiasm is usually accompanied by the kind of inventiveness unfettered by tradition that is good for the art. That’s a plus. But this advantage is offset considerably by the likelihood that many young and inventive cartoonists would leave the field just as they began to master its nuances. And when they did, they undermined the art form’s potential by depriving the medium of the possible benefits to be derived from the skill of experienced cartoonists, cartoonists who have mastered the rudiments and discovered which new techniques work and which don’t. Experience isn’t everything. But it is something—something that, compared to the comic strip field, the comic book field was often woefully lacking.
I don’t mean by any of this to belittle the considerable accomplishments in comic book art of cartoonists who happen to be relatively inexperienced. Nor would I opt for making it any more difficult than it already is for young talent to enter the field. Such a course would surely have robbed the art of such innovations as those injected by Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jim Steranko, and the like.
Nor am I forgetting the achievements of cartoonists like Jack Kirby and Gil Kane and Joe Kubert and Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Cole and Carl Barks and others who have steadily worked a lifetime in the field: by such exceptions, the rule is proven.
But we are contemplating the potential of the unique visual-verbal art of the comics. And since the greatest potential—because the greatest flexibility—lies in the comic book format, it is worth pausing for an instant to reflect on what the state of the art would be if Adams and Steranko and others like them were still drawing comic books. Or if Will Eisner had done it full-time as a living all his life instead of part-time as a hobby in his senior years.
Where would they have taken the art form next? What would they do for an encore?
The field has attracted more Adamses and Sterankos. And that’s good. But it’s too bad that the Adamses and Sterankos did not stay longer—long enough to build on the experiences of their too brief periods of innovation and brilliance, long enough to profit from the mistakes and the successes of their experiments—long enough, that is, to help elevate the art of the comics to whatever heights it might achieve in the most flexible of its formats.
It is ironic that the economics of the industry have for so much of its history worked against the art—not always with success, mind you, and not universally, with every single cartoonist, but often enough to establish a tendency that prevailed until the 1980s, when, at long last, the circumstances began to change, at first slowly, then with dramatic alacrity, yielding, finally, a cornucopia of works in different genres, all challenging to the inventive enterprise of their creators, who, increasingly, produced the whole artifact, concocting the plot, writing the dialogue, and penciling and inking the drawings. Comic books thereby verged on the cusp of becoming works of art rather than being the soulless, stamped-out products of a factory.
All that creativity is brought on, as it was for Al Capp, by the money it promises. And it is ever thus.
Feetnoot: The foregoing essay appeared almost as it is manifested here in the April 2003 issue of Comic Book Marketplace.