SEARCHING FOR CATHY’S SUCCESSOR

Posted by on November 15th, 2010 at 12:04 PM

As soon as Cathy Guisewite announced her impending retirement—and Cathy’s—the comic strip firmament began trembling as a scramble commenced among survivors to fill the vacant slot in over 700 newspapers—a virtual windfall of opportunity not experienced since The Far Side ceased on January 1, 1996, a day after Calvin and Hobbes retired.

At Editor & Publisher (October’s issue), cartoonist-reporter Rob Tornoe summarized the contest by reviewing the availability of comic strips about women by women, assuming that newspaper editors, known to be a somewhat knee-jerk lot when it comes to their comics sections, would be looking for an exact replacement for the profession’s iconic strip about female issues by a female.

Judging from his article, Tornoe sees only four “female-centered” strips that might meet the knee-jerk criteria; and here they are:

Rina Piccolo’s Tina’s Groove (launched in 2002), about “a single, smart, attractive waitress … Shrewdly self-aware, Tina refutes cliched notions of single women as neurotics obsessed with career or [getting married].”

Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends (1994) “celebrates the essence and angst [lovely phrasing—RCH] of three contemporary women friends in their forties … [who deliberate] about office politics and body image and snicker about their ex-husbands’ girlfriends.”

Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup (1995) is about “an extended family living in two households. … Women may be the central characters of the strip, but its kindness toward men and a wide array of children characters [of different ages]… create a big tent for comics readers of all ages.”

And Terri Libenson’s The Pajama Diaries (the newest of the crop; started in about 2006), which appears as illustrated pages of Jill Kaplan’s diary, wherein she records her efforts to “juggle her work [she works at home as a graphic designer], family [husband and two children], and sex life—or lack thereof—without going bonkers.”

These are all excellent strips—well-drawn realistic comedy on every hand—and no newspaper editor can go wrong in resorting to one of them to replace Cathy. An obvious candidate, Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, is probably not eligible: chances are it already appears in most of the papers looking for the next Cathy. Hilary B. Price’s Rhymes with Orange, although by a woman, doesn’t concentrate on women’s issues enough to measure up. Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia is probably too satirically edgy to qualify in the same competition. Besides, Sylvia is an “older woman.”

Some newspapers, Tornoe speculates, will not look for a square peg to fit in the rectangular hole Cathy leaves behind. Quoting Alan Gardner at DailyCartoonist.com, Tornoe agrees that some editors “will use this departure to run a near endless stream of comic strip trials, which they can usually run for free until they find a permanent replacement.”

Well, maybe. At first, I guessed that the strips by Rina Piccolo, Sandra Bell-Lundy, Jan Eliot and Terri Libenson will be recruited pretty fast. But Gardner found out differently by doing some research.

Gardner gathered and analyzed information from several sources to try to find out which strips most benefitted from Guisewite’s retirement. First, he consulted the syndicates themselves, asking them to name which three of their strips were selling the best. Here are the results (strips with a * indicate a feature launched this year):

Creators: *Dogs of C-Kennel, *Diamond Lil, Free Range; King Features: *Dustin, Zits, Rhymes With Orange; United Media: Pearls Before Swine, *Freshly Squeezed, Big Nate; Universal Uclick: Stone Soup, Cul de Sac, *ThataBaby!; Washington Post Writers Group: Pickles.

Only one of Tornoe’s list made it—Stone Soup. But Gardner wasn’t content to let the question dangle solely on the testimony of self-interested syndicates. He also watched Google News for announcements from newspapers about which strips they were putting in Cathy’s place, and he assembled some additional stats from syndicates. He determined that all three sets of data pointed at these three strips as the top contending Cathy replacements: Dustin by Steve Kelly and Jeff Parker; Stone Soup by Jan Eliot; and Pickles by Brian Crane.

Gardner cautioned against accepting the conventional wisdom that Cathy would be replaced by another strip about a young single woman by a women cartoonist. And indeed, only one of his top contenders falls, however tenuously, into that category—Stone Soup.

In the November issue of Editor & Publisher, Torne returned to the subject obliquely, by running through a list of recently launched comic strips. This fall—or, rather, October—is a great time to start marketing a new strip: with the Cathy hole to fill, the chances are very good that new strips will find a niche easier than at any other time since Dilbert profitted from the Calvin and Hobbes/Far Side departures.

In our next couple of postings, we’ll look at some of the strips Tornoe touts. And here, by way of a preview, is Tornoe’s E&P cartoon suggesting the dimensions of the on-going conflict. How many of the characters in this drawing can you identify? (Come back and look in again after we’ve run through the newer contenders.)

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