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The economics of comic-strips

The economics of comic-strips — The odds of creating a successful cartoon like ”Peanuts” or ”Calvin and Hobbes”

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He’s bigger than Bon Jovi. Bigger than Eddie Murphy. Bigger than Janet Jackson. He’s one of the biggest money-makers in show biz, and he’s helped his creator become the 10th-highest-paid artist in American entertainment. His name is Snoopy, and he’s the most popular comic-strip character in the world.

Last year the big-nosed beagle with recurring dreams of glory enabled Charles Schulz to earn $28 million. Another cartoon pet, a cranky black-and- orange cat named Garfield, helped Jim Davis earn $11 million. Although exact figures aren’t available for Doonesbury‘s Garry Trudeau or Calvin and Hobbes‘ Bill Watterson, industry insiders say that these and other big-time cartoonists earn multimillion-dollar incomes as well. Even moderately successful cartoonistist — those with comics syndicated in fewer than 600 newspapers — can make as much as $100,000 a year from the strips alone.

Cartoons are big business these days. And it’s not only newspaper syndication that’s generating money: There’s also product marketing, with comic strip characters gracing everything from inflatable kiddie pools to key chains to coffee mugs to pajamas. There are highly profitable book deals, calendars, motion pictures, and — if you’re as lucky as Simpsons creator Matt Groening — hit TV shows.

But aspiring cartoonists beware: The odds against making a living from a comic strip are astronomical. Every year cartoon syndicates receive more than 4,000 proposals for new strips. Of those, only about 15 will actually see the inside of any newspaper — and only three or four of them will survive beyond their fifth year.

Even if a new strip finds a foothold in the marketplace, the competition can be fierce. There are only some 1,600 newspapers left in the United States, and most are already crowded with established comics. The industry divulges no figures on how many U.S. papers carry each strip, but Peanuts, Garfield, Blondie, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible are generally viewed as the most widely syndicated, with No. 1 Peanuts reportedly running in about 2,000 papers worldwide.

Although the comics clique is a genial one, there have been industry rows, such as the one in the early ’80s between Trudeau and Bloom County‘s Berke Breathed (Trudeau thought Breathed’s strip bore more than a passing resemblaace to his own, and responded by snubbing the artist at industry affairs).

Those strips that survive beyond their fifth year, however, usually manage to live long and prosper. The Katzenjammer Kids, those rambunctious, prank- playing tots who enlivened so many papers in the ’30s and ’40s, are still as mischievously youthful as ever, if not as widely seen, at 93. Which makes good ol’ Snoopy, at only 40, still a young pup with a bright future.