Comic Strip Writing as a Career

A timely commentary on the state of the comic strip market

Like most endeavors that fall into the realm of creative writing, comic strip writing is a hard way to make money. For years the goal of a comic strip writer was simple, get syndicated and appear in tons of newspapers. If you could get a major syndicate (such as King Features Syndicate, Universal Press Syndicate, United Media, the Washington Post Writers Group, or Creators Syndicate) to accept your comic, then you could get placed in daily newspapers. If your comic strip did well, dozens or hundreds of newspapers would pick up your comic and you could make a living. If you were lucky enough to create the sort of comic that sold well as books (not all do) then you could make even more money. If you had the sort of characters were easy to market as toys or other merchandise (Snoopy, Opus the Penguin, Garfield) then you could hit the jackpot and really make some big money.

While syndication is still the most obvious path toward success, it is not an easy path to navigate. To begin with, it is very hard to break into newspapers, even if you have a syndicate behind you. Newspapers aren’t exactly doing well. Every few days we get news of yet another newspaper folding. The city I live in, Tucson, Arizona, recently lost its afternoon daily.

With each newspaper that folds,  the market for comic strip shrinks a little more. Even when a newspaper stays in business, it still doesn’t mean that it will be seeking new comics. Many newspapers have dropped the number of comics they carry, often going down from two full pages to one or less. Also, because newspapers appeal to older readers more than younger readers, the comics tend to remain the same year after year. In many cases, even after the original comic writer or illustrator dies, the syndicate just replaces them because it is easier to keep a successful comic going without its author than it is to get a new comic placed. In recent years, newspapers have even resorted to printing reruns of popular old comics such as Peanuts, For Better or For Worse, Bloom County and Foxtrot.

The good news is that newspapers are no longer the only place to get your comic seen and read. Like most forms of writing that are hard to market elsewhere, comic strips have found a home on the web. The writers of these comic strips, such as Basic Instructions, Medium Large and xkcd have built a following on the web. Francesco Marciuliano, the author of Medium Large also has a syndicated comic, Sally Forth, which he took over from another writer. The web doesn’t offer the kind of money that successful syndication offers, but there are opportunities for profit such as books or merchandise. Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions, for example, sells books, t-shirts, clip-art and custom drawings. One advantage to putting your comic on the web instead of using newspaper syndication is that there is a great deal more freedom. A web comic can tackle material too controversial for newspaper comics, such as almost anything that has to do with sex.  It can also break the format rules that bind newspaper comics. Basic Instructions, for example, has a large four panel style that will never fly in a newspaper. At one point, under the tutelage of Dilbert author Scott Adams, Meyer tried to turn his comic into a three-panel piece like in most comics, but everyone seemed to agree that it works best in its original format (see links below).

To sum up, comic strips aren’t a place to go to get rich. You might get lucky (there are some new comics making headway in the newspapers such as My Cage) but chances are you’re going to struggle for a long time before you get a profitable following. It is something you should do if you love, just like writing poetry or writing short stories.

Articles about the comic strip writing life:
Comic Strip Writing 101:  Francesco Marciuliano (Sally Forth, Medium large) writes a nice tongue-in-cheek guide to his day.

The Interview: ‘Pearls Before Swine’s’ Stephan Pastis “If you’re from a certain generation, you basically learn to read with “Peanuts.” It’s sort of the template for the modern strip. Its influence ceased to be noticed because it’s in everything.”

Interview with Tom Batiuk (Funky Winkerbean, Crankshaft) This has some great details of how he got syndicated.

Here is a nice series of  advice that Scott Adams (Dilbert) gave to Scott Meyer (Basic Instructions)

Basic Instructions, Part 1: Basic Instructions Part 2, Basic Instructions, Part 3, Basic Instructions Part 4, Basic Instructions part 5, Basic Instructions part 6, Basic Instructions Part 7,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>