Women Not Welcome: Newspaper comics

It’s strange, but it seems like newspaper comics strips are seeing less and less strips about, created by, or targeted toward women. Maybe I’m just imagining it, or creating a pattern where there isn’t one, but if so I’m not the only one.

Ah, who needs over half the population?

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse ended a nearly 3o-year long run in 2008. Fortunately it’s still around, as the comic is starting over from the beginning for a new generation, with slight modifications or “fixes“.

But this year saw the end of the legacy strip Little Orphan Annie, originated by Harold Gray in 1924. So beloved was this strip, that in 1945 New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously read it to children on his radio address during a 17-day strike that halted newspaper deliveries across the city (NPR story). When it was cancelled this past summer, it was only appearing in 20 papers.

Perhaps more notable was the end of Cathy by Cathy Guisewhite this past October. Starting in 1976, this strip was the first, and for a long time remained the only one created by a modern single woman talking directly to modern single women.

And on January 2, 2011, another legacy strip, Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, Reporter, will come to an end. It’s currently being created by writer Mary Schmich, a reporter herself who started working on the comic in 1985, and June Brigman, a fine illustrator if ever there was one, who joined in 1995. The strip began in 1940, although it took some convincing because the editor wasn’t keen on the strip’s creator being a woman. Sadly, like Annie, Brenda Starr will be running in less than 20 papers when it comes to an end.

We’ve come a long way since 1940, so maybe it’s time to retire these strips and make room for new ones that speak more directly to today’s women.

So what’s come up to replace these female strips? Not necessarily new female strips, according to Daily Cartoonist Alan Gardner. Back in October, following the cancellation of Cathy, he did a study to find out what editors chose to put in their Cathy‘s spot. Apparently most chose Dustin by Steve Kelly and Jeff Parker, a new strip about a kid that moves back in with his parents after college. So basically young men making another comic about a young man. Not very encouraging. But the second most-chosen was Stone Soup by Jan Eliot, a comic about a single mother raising her two daughters. The strip started in the 1990s.

So it’s not a total lost cause. But… considering the conventional wisdom of the impending death of newspaper comics and newspapers in general, it might be a lost cause for everyone. When things are bleeding badly though, it’s the perfect time to try something drastic. Editors and syndicators should take the opportunity to be experimental. Kick off the dust of the old funny pages format and take a radically rejuvenated approach to reaching out to new readers. What’s the worst that could happen? The readers you’re already losing leave? Maybe you’ll get them to take a second look.

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