IT WAS the potshot heard ’round the syndication world.
This week, as you may know, an Indiana 8-year-old called his local paper to rant about his favorite missing Sunday funnies. The boy, Mac, was being denied his “Peanuts,” “Garfield,” “Dilbert” and “Doonesbury,” among more than a dozen strips, because the Bloomington Herald-Times had replaced them over cost issues. And boy, Mac was going to let editor Bob Zaltsberg know the level of his disgruntlement.
So Mac, helped by Mom, left a voicemail Sunday that explained how much he wanted his favorite strips returned to their weekend home. And then it turned personal. Mac called the editor a “jerk.” And a “s—hole.”
Now, we newspaper editors are accustomed to plenty of personally directed salty language from adult comics readers. But clearly Mac knows words that have never appeared in “Nancy.”
The story, though, quickly made the rounds in newspaper syndication circles — partly because, well, it’s rather refreshing to hear any young reader feel so passionately about his traditional newspaper comics. But this also raises an interesting question: Have features editors been misreading the level of newspaper comics fandom among the very young?
This “S—hole Heard ‘Round the Syndication World” prompted me to reach out to “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce, who knows this terrain from numerous vantage points.
Peirce first syndicated “Big Nate” (which The Post carries) more than two decades ago, but in recent years, the feature’s grade-school characters have found a huge new popularity through the website PopTropica.com (led by “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” creator Jeff Kinney) and the graphic-novel “hybrid” series of best-selling “Big Nate” books. (The seventh book in the series, “Big Nate Lives It Up,” comes out next week; and on March 17 (7 p.m.), Peirce will give an easel talk and sign books at the Barnes & Noble in Rockville, Md.)
[Lincoln Peirce: How “Big Nate" became an “overnight" best-seller.]
Given this triple perspective on comic strips, Comic Riffs asked Peirce to share his insights: Are newspaper editors misreading the levels of passion beneath comics-reader demographics — or do most 8-year-olds, profane or otherwise, not give a hoot about newspaper print comics?
MICHAEL CAVNA: You, of course, have made a wonderful, even enviable broadening of “Big Nate” from the newspaper page to the “play” screen and book stall. So what do you think, Lincoln: Are kids still reading comics in high numbers? And do you sense the numbers have dropped off precipitously?
LINCOLN PEIRCE: This reminds me of the question that comes up every spring: Why aren’t more kids playing baseball? The short answer is that they have more options than they used to. Comics are the same way. There are countless alternatives now to what used to be the two primary sources of comics for kids: newspapers and comic books. Today’s kids can access oceans of comics on the Internet with just a few mouse-clicks. They can find shelves filled to overflowing with graphic novels at their local bookstore. And with schools and libraries finally [grudgingly] recognizing comics as a legitimate teaching tool, kids’ classrooms are apt to have plenty of books like “Captain Underpants,” “Big Nate,” “Diary of s Wimpy Kid,” and so on.
I’m a firm believer that kids will ALWAYS want their comics…but they’ll want them in whatever formats are the newest and shiniest. So: Yes, kids are still reading plenty of comics. They’re just not reading them in their daily newspapers.
MC: When you speak at schools or libraries, do you sense that kids who are “Big Nate” fans migrate from the books and PopTropica.com to the newspaper page? Do all formats bolster the other, or are most kids just not going back to newspapers? What do you hear from *your* young fans?
LP: One of the first things I noticed when I started writing the books was that most kids weren’t even aware that “Big Nate” had been a comic strip for nearly 20 years. That’s changed now — kids realize that it’s a strip as well as a book series — but does that mean they’re reading it in their local paper? Probably not. I think what happens more frequently is that they migrate from one kind of Big Nate book (a novel) to another kind of Big Nate book (a comic-strip compilation). I think compilation books — or archives on the Internet — are nearly always kids’ preferred way to read newspaper comics, because they can read weeks and weeks of strips in one sitting. It’s the equivalent of binge-watching a TV show on Netflix.
Having said that, I think there’s little doubt that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If one format enhances a strip’s profile, then all formats will benefit to some degree.
MC: Is there anything newspapers and features editors can do in 2015 to lure more kids to the comics page? Or are we past some evolutionary — or de-evolutionary — point?
LP: Well, they can do away with readers’ comics polls, for one thing. You can’t lure kids to the comics page by selecting your content based on the feedback of elderly adults. And they could spend a few extra bucks to make the Sunday comics “destination reading” again. How about adding pages to the Sunday section, increasing the size of the strips and putting the comics front and center, instead of burying them with all the reams of drugstore coupons?
That wouldn’t necessarily make kids drop their iPhones and pick up the Sunday funnies. But it would make reading the comics a far more enjoyable experience. When something’s fun to do, it at least stands a chance of creating new fans.
MC: Should more 8-year-olds be calling their local comics editors, with or withOUT the profanities?
LP: I write stuff that even on its raciest day would barely qualify for a PG rating, so I’m going to encourage the 8-year-olds to keep it clean. But YES! They should be calling their comics editors, writing letters and sending emails. Let’s get more kid-friendly strips on the comics page!