Female artists are disappearing from print comics at chain newspapers

The latest warning signs for some female artists began last fall. Suddenly, their work began disappearing from many American comics pages.

An announcement started hitting the pages of newspapers dotted around the country: the USA Today Network, owned by Gannett, was “standardizing” its comics across more than 200 publications. One of those newspapers, the Coloradoan, published a list of comics, batched in groups, that it said made up Gannett’s new lineup of options.

What began to concern some cartoonists and industry observers: None of the dozens of comics listed as print offerings for Gannett papers was actively being created by a woman artist.

End of carousel

Just three strips in Gannett’s list of print comics have a credited woman: “For Better or For Worse,” which creator Lynn Johnston says is in reruns; “Luann,” by writer-artist Greg Evans and his daughter, co-author Karen Evans; and “Shoe,” by artist Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly.

As the changes rolled out at many Gannett papers between October and early this year, Hilary Price, creator of the long-running syndicated strip “Rhymes With Orange,” said she began to see a significant dip in her sales income.

Price said she is accustomed to encountering misogynistic reader responses to her work as an artist. What is becoming professionally demoralizing to her lately, though, is the sense that female artists are being removed from America’s comics pages as several newspaper chains have consolidated or contracted their print funnies in recent years.

Some female cartoonists say that as they endure double-digit percentage losses in their income from client papers, their representation in print, already historically unbalanced, is growing alarmingly, and disproportionately, small.

“A long time ago, I got an email from a troll saying he could draw better than me with his penis,” said Price, whose award-winning strip is co-created with Rina Piccolo. “The unfortunate effect of these consolidations is that whether or not you can draw well with it, you must be in possession of one.”

The crunch comes as print newspapers across the country shrink, reshuffle their features, or close entirely. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain and considered a bellwether for the industry, is just the latest to shake up its print offerings. The McClatchy and Lee Enterprises chains, for example, have substantially cut their range of comics offerings in recent years.

Reached by The Washington Post, a Gannett representative said its “revitalization” made 34 comic strips available to its papers on Sundays (and one fewer on weekdays), and based its selections on reader surveys. They include credited women and diverse characters. “Our comics pages have been updated to provide a consistent and modern presentation for our evolving audience while incorporating beloved favorites,” Gannett told The Post in a statement, while noting that it offers a larger roster of comics online.

Price said her client income dipped by 10 percent amid changes at Gannett papers. And Georgia Dunn, creator of the syndicated “Breaking Cat News,” said her income dropped substantially in recent months as a result.

“I don’t think it’s a Machiavellian plot — I don’t think it’s intentional,” Dunn said of the optics that female artists are being disproportionately affected by the industry’s changes. “But they overlook us a lot.”

A fatigued business model

What recent large-scale restructurings of American comics pages do signify is a symptom of a larger problem. Comics as an art form continue to explode online — including independent comic strips and South Korea-sprung Webtoons — as well as on graphic novel and manga bestseller book lists. And Hollywood is still adapting comics apace, such as the recent Oscar nominees “Nimona” and “Robot Dreams.”

Yet comics tethered to print newspaper syndication are enduring the contraction of a fatigued business model: Where such features as “Peanuts” and “Garfield” could climb to the heights of well more than 2,000 client newspapers in decades past — and scores of cartoonists could live comfortably on syndication alone — now it’s rare for a new feature to achieve massive success through the print pages.

“There is definitely less opportunity,” said Stephan Pastis, who notes that his strip “Pearls Before Swine” has about 950 clients after being launched more than two decades ago. On one hand, he said, his recent book tour showed him “there is still a crowd out there and there are still people reading the comics.”

Yet “are we in the same place we were in 2008? Definitely not,” Pastis said of the growing obstacles. “We are not even where we were in 2020.”

When Johnston’s highly popular “For Better or For Worse” launched in syndication in 1979 — following the successful trailblazing debut of Cathy Guisewite’s “Cathy” — the strip helped encourage next-generation female cartoonists that they had a place on the funny pages, Dunn said. Both strips appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers at their peak.

Today, though, “newspapers are shrinking and are dropping their comics pages,” Johnston said. “It’s a different industry now, and a lot of women are doing children’s books and graphic novels” instead. Artists like Raina Telgemeier (“Smile”), she said, “are just soaring into the sky with it.”

Karen Evans, the “Luann” co-writer who was recently elected board president of the National Cartoonists Society, said that among her and her colleagues, the future of newspaper comics can feel uncertain: “We’re all trying to figure it out.”

Despite the challenges, cartooning and comics are still relevant, Evans said, and their creators deserve respect even as the industry changes. Her organization is expanding its members, and artists are trying out new art forms and mediums. “Broadly speaking, I see more voices represented, including at leadership levels within the industry.”

Historically in newspapers, print syndication has paid better than online distribution. But syndication is an entrenched business model, born out of the debut of American newspaper comics as huge audience draws more than 125 years ago.

“I think about comics syndication on the broader level, and it is really about finding other outlets beyond newspaper print syndication,” said C.J. Kettler, president of King Features Syndicate. “While that is obviously the backbone of our business,” her company is looking for “deeper” ways clients can use comics to engage readers, especially online.

For now, though, the consolidation of print comics is affecting even iconic comic strips. Last month, readers criticized Gannett papers for seemingly refusing to publish a Sunday “Doonesbury” strip over its political content satirizing how American history is taught in Florida classrooms.

Gannett told Quill magazine in a statement, however, that “the ‘Doonesbury’ comic was not singled out” for its content. Instead, the chain had dropped “Doonesbury” as part of its fall reshuffling of comic strips, which completed its rollout over the winter. “Each market impacted received a thorough explanation as these changes were implemented over the past several months.”

Dunn said she was aware of the coming Gannett changes last fall, but it was only this year that she saw the full financial impact of the restructuring: “It didn’t really start affecting me income-wise until the last two or three months.”

The “Breaking Cat News” creator shared with her readers the bad news that she might have to make some hard financial decisions as her client income dropped sharply. But “when I shared with them how this restructuring hit me, they made up my lost income overnight,” she said.

“I woke up and opened Patreon and started crying,” she continued. “I felt like George Bailey at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ ”

D.D. Degg, who writes for the industry website the Daily Cartoonist, took note of Dunn’s situation and began tracking the editorial choices made by various Gannett papers, as they announced their new comics lineups. He told The Post the papers seemed to draw from the same few dozen comic titles, most of them created by men. (Gannett papers note that subscribers can read a larger lineup of comics through its online offerings, which include more strips created by women.)

Chain newspapers can decide to run comics outside of standardized offerings, Degg said: For instance, the Gannett-owned Providence Journal chose to retain their popular “Wallace the Brave” on a different page after readers rallied to save it.

Stephanie Piro, one of the creators of the syndicated comic “Six Chix,” said the relative prevalence of female characters can cloak the lack of female creators: “I’m not even sure that readers are aware that some of the strips that sound like they are done by women are in fact done by guys. I don’t know how many people look behind the scenes at the people actually drawing these scenes.”

Dunn noted, too, that many of the strips that survive such consolidation are legacy strips whose original creators are long deceased. She wrote on social media in February: “There are more dead men than living women in the funny pages.”

Kettler said she is sympathetic to the larger economic challenges faced by newspapers in a rapidly shifting environment. “I’ve been pretty vocal and open about the fact that we understand that it’s due to financial and cost constraints on the side of the newspaper companies, so we fully understand why” contractions and consolidations are “a new imperative for some of them.”

Yet Kettler is optimistic that her industry can thrive: “The comic market itself is huge. This is not a category that is getting smaller — this is a category that’s growing. It’s our job to cultivate all the distribution platforms,” including digital, “where there is no constraint on real estate.”

Evans, the NCS board president, also sees opportunity by pursuing many channels of connection with fans, who adapt to support the “work they love.”

“Changing opportunities means diversifying skills,” she said. “My dad and I now juggle social media, a fan newsletter and bonus content alongside creating the daily ‘Luann’ comic.

“Will it be enough in the long run? Well, I don’t know what the future of cartooning will look like, but I’m honored to be a part of the journey.”

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