Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ghosts in the Machine

365 jokes. That’s what a syndicated cartoonist has to come up with every year. 365 printed jokes. That’s a lot of material, especially when you consider that for every published joke, there are probably five or more rejected gags that didn’t make it.

Why do I bring this up? I mention this because cartoonists, faced with this daunting situation, sometimes use writers. It’s a common practice in the comic strip business that goes back to the very beginning of the industry. Newspaper cartoonists in the 20s and 30s routinely employed both art assistants and writers. In fact, many successful cartoonists started out as assistants to the big names in the biz.

With Peanuts, Charles Schulz ushered in the era of the individual creator and influenced a generation of cartoonists that eschewed, for reasons of artistic integrity, the use of writers or assistants.

These cartoonists are to be commended for their singular vision, of course, but to my mind there’s nothing inherently wrong with using assistants – for art or writing.

Jay Leno has writers. So does David Letterman. The current and former writers of The Simpsons could fill up Madison Square Garden. Nobody gets upset when these guys do it, but somehow when a cartoonist uses a (usually uncredited) writer, he or she is being "lazy."

That’s just not true. If anything, using outside writing talent helps keep a strip fresh. It’s easy to fall into a rut when you’re cranking out material daily. Multiply that grind by several years, and you can get serious burnout.

I won’t mention names, but I know of several syndicated 'tooners who occasionally (or more than occasionally) use gagwriters. Does this make their strips any less funny? Nope.

Most gagwriters aren’t credited for their work, which is kind of a shame. It’s standard operating procedure for syndication, but it would be nice if the collaborators got a little pub. Buddy Hickerson, creator of The Quigmans, generally lists his writing partners on his strips, which is a nice touch.

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