Why mobile is the future of comic strips
Matt Groening, the creator of the long-running Fox animated series The Simpsons, recently announced that his even longer-running cartoon strip Life in Hell will soon vanish from the pages of its flagship newspaper LA Weekly, where it has appeared for the last 22 years. Groening is not the only cartoonist hit hard by the ongoing recession and the implosion of traditional print publishing, but he's certainly the most high-profile, and this week he sat down with CNN.com to discuss, among other things, the strip's future. "I feel like the floodwaters are rising. The alternative newsweeklies are really struggling," Groening said. He added that he's mulling the possibility of continuing Life in Hell online, but cracked that "the idea of establishing a web presence that I'll have to feed on an ongoing basis doesn't give me a lot of pep."
And with good reason, since web comics so far have proven a mixed bag both creatively and commercially--like so many other online content efforts, comics publishing has failed to establish a digital revenue model that truly works. But what about mobile? The digital future of comics, books, magazines and newspapers took a significant turn this week when online retail giant Amazon.com announced it will introduce a free Kindle e-book application for Apple's iPhone and iPod touch devices, offering consumers full access to more than 240,000 premium titles. Amazon's new mobile effort would seem to threaten sales of its $359 Kindle e-reader device, but the company contends mobile distribution will in fact complement the Kindle business model, offering users the opportunity to consume content in abbreviated, snack-size periods. "We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle," Ian Freed, Amazon's vice president in charge of the Kindle, told the New York Times, citing the time spent waiting in a grocery store checkout line as an ideal example of the iPhone reading experience.
Few forms of creative expression are better suited to that kind of brief consumer engagement than comic strips. Life in Hell--a crudely illustrated but consistently sharp and insightful black-and-white strip--would seem like a natural on a Kindle or on an iPhone, as would any number of classic daily efforts including Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Krazy Kat or Doonesbury. I've pointed this out before, but the late, great Charles Schulz conceived Peanuts in a four-panel format that could be arranged horizontally, vertically or even as a square, all dependent on the needs of the newspapers that published it--by extension, an entire strip could fit horizontally across an iPhone screen, or as a square on a Kindle screen, or even as a panel-by-panel slideshow optimized for a smaller, more basic handset, and still remain true to Schulz's original vision. Moreover, a comic strip can offer a complete and satisfying experience whether you read just one strip or several weeks' worth at one time--after all, the strips were written and drawn for readers to enjoy on a daily basis, but taken in larger chunks, the best comics offer extended storylines and levels of thematic depth as compelling as any more traditional narrative.
Perhaps most important, both the Kindle and the iPhone offer cartoonists a revenue model that can support their endeavors in the absence of conventional print outlets. A recent flurry of lavish reprint series spotlighting strips including Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy has proven there is a sizable audience willing to pay for collected editions of vintage comics-page favorites even at suggested retail prices close to $50--the sixth and final volume reprinting Milton Caniff's groundbreaking World War II-era adventure tale Terry and the Pirates even ranks 10th on the New York Times' brand-new list of bestselling "graphic books," so it seems safe to assume that many more consumers would line up to purchase a year or two of a favorite strip via Kindle, which typically charges $9.99 for new releases and best sellers. Artists also could independently distribute their strips through the App Store, packaging content in different permutations and price points (e.g., a month of strips collected for 99 cents or a year for $9.99) or even adopting a free, advertiser-supported model. As a recent wave of breakthough online efforts like Achewood and The Perry Bible Fellowship has made clear, comic strips are far from dead, even if traditional distribution channels are going away--now, thanks to mobile, a new era of funnies business is on the horizon. -Jason