Monday, 24 January 2005
Comics trips. When I was growing up, we didn't have a World Wide Web like you kids today: We had the Marion Daily Republican for news about our friends and neighbors, and the Southern Illinoisan for reports from the outside world. Sometimes Dad would even splurge and invest a nickel in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but mostly we read the hometown papers.
I don't remember which paper had the better comics page, but I do remember thinking they had a lot of dead weight in there. Strips like Hi and Lois or Blondie just recycled the same six jokes every week; maybe once in a while they'd hit the funny bone, but after the 83rd time Sarge punches Beetle the novelty starts to wears off. Gary Larson was a breath of — well, I wouldn't call it fresh air, but The Far Side was certainly unique — and Calvin and Hobbes's Bill Watterson was the best cartoonist of his time.
I read Watterson's tenth anniversary book, and what I remember most was his lament that commercial pressures were literally squeezing the comics. The publishers wanted to fit more comics on the printed page, and unless you had the clout of a Garry Trudeau (whose mostly-for-grownups Doonesbury strip often found its way to the editorial page), you had no choice but to try to draw into a smaller box. The size of the strip left only enough room for simplified drawings and limited dialogue; it was really only on Sunday that someone like Watterson could stretch his artistic wings.
The impression I received was that the comics pages were contracting, and that the only way a new artist can "break in" these days is if some other cartoonist retires. Watterson's retirement was a bonanza for Scott Adams, freeing up space in hundreds of papers for the up-and-coming Dilbert — but I really can't think of a cartoonist since Adams who's been nearly as successful, and I think part of the reason may be that there simply aren't any openings.…all of which brings me to Michael Jantze's The Norm. One reviewer described it as "the best comic strip you might not be reading," and I'd have to agree: Jantze's artistic skills are in Watterson's league, and his Sunday strips are a joy. The story centers on title character Theodore Norman Miller and his relationships with girlfriend / wife Reine (pronounced Re-NAY), best friend Ford, and other supporting characters — and with his own inner selves, who occasionally step out and take part in the action.
The Norm is the only comic strip I've seen that does regular fourth-wall jokes: Norm occasionally stops the action and talks directly to the audience, and sometimes has to adjust the "camera" so it's pointing in the right direction. (One week Norm was nowhere to be found, so the camera followed Reine around — who, of course, spent the week politely trying to shoo it away.) It's a strip that tells a story about the lives of its characters, and loyal readers have seen Norm go through relationships and breakups, jobs and layoffs, friends moving away and coming back home, and other milestones.
Until last September, The Norm was syndicated by King Features and appeared in about 70 papers nationwide — but Jantze decided to end his contract and strike out on his own, so he and wife Nicole are now distributing The Norm from their web site. They've gotten about 4,000 people to subscribe for $25/year, which is enough to keep them in pencils and web servers for the time being… but they're not going to get any new readers except by word of mouth.
About a year ago my other favorite new comic strip, Stephen Hersh and Nina Paley's The Hots, died an inglorious death from much the same causes: You can't earn a living drawing a syndicated comic strip these days. If you're an established cartoonist you can get by, but there's not enough room on the comics page — and not enough readers buying an old-fashioned newspaper — to let talented new artists establish a following.
So check out The Norm — and if you like what you see, tip the artist. Michael and Nicole Jantze are still working the kinks out of the non-members part of their web site, but hopefully soon you'll be able to preview the strip and find out what you're missing.