By Todd Allen
Yes, the world is a little stunned by the announcement of Matt Groening quitting Life In Hell. It isn’t like this hasn’t been threatened though. Back in November of 2009, roughly two and a half years ago, the Chicago Humanities Festival had a panel on the declining market for Alt Weekly comics. Groening was there. Lynda Barry was there. Chris Ware was there. Jules Feiffer was even there. And back then, Groening was already talking about quitting.
You think the comics market was getting scary before DC’s relaunch, that’s NOTHING compared to the state of the Alt Weekly market. It’s coming out that Life In Hell was down to 38 papers from a peak of either 250 (according to Groening) or 379 (his syndicator). The Alt Weeklies aren’t as strong as they used to be and one of the things that was getting cut early on was the comics. I have some vague memories of Groening mentioning that the LA Weekly had cut Life In Hell, so it must not have been too long after it happened.
The funny thing was, the rest of the panel had already given up the Alt Weekly Market. OK, Feiffer did it a long time ago, but Lynda Barry described at great length how she’d given up the ghost when her Ernie Pook strip dropped down to 4 papers. Barry had for some time been bugging Groening to quit his strip. Groening said this, and then said that he would think about quitting. At the time, I could be sure he wasn’t teasing the audience, but his comments felt real. Like it wasn’t the first time he’d thought about it, but maybe the first time he’d said it out loud in public. He was also under some peer pressure on that stage. Ware certainly wasn’t giving any love to the newspaper market. For that matter, he was also upset that artists were getting taught how to promote themselves. (Where I come from, we call that trying to keep artists from starving, but your mileage may vary.)
The economics of the Alt Weekly field got laid out in the retirement announcements. We don’t know how much the syndicate was taking, but if the paper was pay $18/week then 38 papers would generate $35,568 per year before split ($17,784 if it was a 50-50 split with the syndicate). If that price remained the same at the peak of syndication at 250 papers it would gross $234,00 or at 379 it would gross $354,744. Even splitting that with a syndicate, it used to be you could make some decent money in the Alt Weekly Market. Not so much anymore.
Actually, when he was starting out, Groening said he always charged for his comics as an illustrator, since they got paid a lot more than cartoonists. Some thing don’t change it seems.
After the panel, Mike Miner, the media columnist for the Chicago Reader (he might be the soul of the Chicago Reader) and I had some words about the how bleak the future for the Alt Weekly comics looked. He wasn’t happy about what he was seeing. The Reader (and The Reader has passed through a number of owners in recent years) had recently emerged from a time period where there weren’t running any comics and was able to bring them back, but he was all too aware how fragile the budgets for such things were. We talked a little about how new cartoonists were going online instead of trying to syndicate. Really, it felt like a pre-emptive wake for that market. Well, with Groening stopping his strip, it feels a little more like that’s what it really was.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.