Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The History You Don't Know

Above: a sketch I drew from the Small Press Expo.

I met a fellow last week who told me this about my field of cartooning:

"I guess you guys can't make a living what with everything going for free on the Internet."

And then he laughed, in a kinda braying way. Like when Pinocchio turns into a Donkey. It was ugly.

Ugly and wrong.

There is a saying that Harry Truman said (and maybe he made it up:
"There is nothing new, only the history you don't know."
So, I was reading a collection of columns by H. Allen Smith and this story caught my attention:
"The only Broadway personality I knew before I got to Broadway was a singer named Gene Austin, an amiable, robust, hard-drinking balladier from Louisiana. In the 1920s, when phonograph records were sold at seventy-five-cents apiece, he was Mr. Big of the recording business and he made a fortune singing such tender roundelays as 'My Blue Heaven,' 'Girl of My Dreams' and 'Melancholy Baby.'

"Radio smothered the recording business, and Gene Austin with it, and for approximately ten years a phonograph record was a rare commodity. The new generation knew it only as a black disc used by movie comedians to smash over the heads of fat ladies or by college boys to eat. Then records came back.

"Juke boxes in saloons were in large measure responsible for the renaissance, and one of the first smash hits in these nickel-gobblers was 'Bei Mir Bist Der Schön' as sung by the Andrews Sisters."

- LOW MAN ON A TOTEM POLE by H. Allen Smith, Chapter XIV, Coming Up in Frisco (copyright 1941 by H. Allen Smith)

Let's zoom forward to the 21st century, where another art form is going from paper to digital -- and other Mr. Bigs of this time are seeing their fortunes diminish.

Let me start with what I don't know --

  • as print newspapers collapse,

  • as syndicates go from making money from selling comic strips to giving them away on the Web (and making their dough not from content, but from Web advertising),

  • as book sales decline and publishing houses are no longer looking at new projects --

-- what I don't know is what will happen next in the field of cartooning.

And here's what I do know: I do know that people love cartoons. Nothing will change that.

The then-new media of radio may have "smothered the recording business," but the audience was still there for crooner Gene Austin, even though radio wasn't putting money into his pocket like records had.

All we cartoonists have to do, to quote (of all people) Rupert Murdoch, is turn a certain percentage of those eyeballs looking at that Web page into dollar signs. Okay, disregarding the messenger, the message is valid.

I've been seeing this trend for years. I get corporate clients, I sell out my comics -- all thanks to the Web.

Put good work out there, and it'll rise to the top.

More anon.

- This is an edited version of an original blog post from January 12, 2009.


John Platt said...

Great advice. I'm really getting serious about my gag cartooning, and I was beginning to bemoan the lack of markets. But I think they're out there for me and for others.

P.L. Frederick said...

When the world is in flux — and when isn't it? — people want humor: cartoons, comedians, jokes.

Thanks for the nice post. It's a reminder that we've been here before. :-)

P.L. Frederick (Small & Big)

Jeff Pert said...

Here, here! You were more restrained than I would have been re the braying moron. I have an allergic reaction to smug idiots.

I'm constantly telling folks that people will never get tired of cartoons (thank God!). Now it's just up to us to ride the rapids of change and find new ways of getting our stuff out there.

Brian Fies said...

I've seen that Small Press Guy, or someone just like him, myself. You're not exaggerating.

I like the analogy with records and radio, but am not assuaged. An art form I grew up loving is changing, mostly for the worse. Even if something wonderful emerges as a result--even if people again value cartoons enough that a reasonable number of pros could earn a living making them--we will still have lost something great, along with the people driven from the career. I wouldn't give up radio, but I can still regret the loss of the talent that couldn't survive the transition from records.

I think you're right: folks will always love comics and cartoons. My question is: will generations used to getting (or taking) free content value them enough to pay someone to create them? If not, it'll become a field full of part-time hobbyists and the real pros will find something more profitable to do with their talents. In other words, quality will go to crap, and I'm afrid no one will notice or care.