The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #5

Posted by on July 2nd, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Newspaper syndication is one of the most brutal ways to make a living in comics, and that’s saying a lot.  Just to lay out the current situation: according to editor Tea Fougner, King Features receives about 300 submissions a month, although the volume varies wildly from month to month.  Of those, two or three each month are “syndication quality”–but King only picks up only one or two new strips each year.  Most strips that get picked up are the work of established cartoonists, often editorial cartoonists, who have been trying to break into the funnypages for years.

Make it through that gauntlet, and you have to get into roughly 100 newspapers, depending on the size of each paper’s market and how much it pays for strips, to make a living.  With newspapers dying off left and right, that basically means you need a blockbuster, a strip newspaper editors decide they’ve got to have.  The last strip like that was Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, way back in 1999.  For everyone else, it’s a long, hard uphill slog fueled by countless ramen dinners.

Hence the common phenomenon of the syndicated comic strip that runs for exactly one year, long enough for the creator to give it an honest chance before abandoning his or her most cherished dream and moving on to something that doesn’t rely on the goodwill of elderly people who would rather be doing the Jumble.  A lot of good, weird strips of recent decades ran for a year, and this is my favorite.

by Daniel Pinkwater and Tony Auth

In college, I struck up a correspondence with children’s book writer and NPR essayist Daniel Pinkwater, my favorite living author.  Mr. Pinkwater was supportive of my crude efforts at drawing comic strips, or possibly just amused, and at one point he sent me a copy of one of the rare surviving collections of his own strip, Norb, written by himself and drawn by political cartoonist Tony Auth.  A chronicle of the ongoing adventures of eccentric scientist Norb, tough teenage girl Rat, Eugen the woolly mammoth, and other oddballs, Norb was a serial adventure comedy in the vein of Thimble Theatre (and, for that matter, my own later webstrips Narbonic and Skin Horse), with evidence of a strong Terry and the Pirates and Tintin influence.  It lived for one year, from August 5, 1989 to August 4, 1990.

I suspect that Pinkwater and Auth (and the late, great Jay Kennedy, who brought the strip on board at King Features) always knew it was a long shot.  The inside cover text of my Norb collection opens on the phrase “uniquely doomed.”  Pinkwater’s introduction (in which, among other things, he characterizes Auth as a backwoods hillbilly who was convinced to draw the strip by the gift of a dead ‘coon) notes, “NORB appeared in upwards of 70 daily newspapers.  The rest is history.  The hate mail, the shabby and cowardly practice of many papers dropping a strip after the first two or three hundred complaints, and the catcalls and brickbats delivered by the aesthetically undeveloped.”

Imagine those readers.  Imagine that one day they open their papers, and this is what has replaced Hi and Lois:

Confusion.   Chaos.  Deep, abiding annoyance.

I realize now that my adoration of Pinkwater may be responsible for the perverse pride I feel when my writing makes people look at me cockeyed.  From a purely business perspective, it’s not a useful attitude for a cartoonist to have.  You’d think it would be, but it’s not.  Trust me.  At any rate, I so identified with this uniquely doomed strip that for years I used “Norb” as my Internet handle; there are people online who still call me that.

Typical Norb storylines found the characters helping Sherlock Holmes retrieve the Great Onion of Budapest from a giant robotic pack rat (a mission that takes them through a Sam’s Strip-like convention of old cartoon characters telling hoary jokes), exploring a haunted house and getting imprisoned within a cubic mile of tapioca, and embarking on a massive journey through time, space and dimensions in a coracle powered by the Golden Yo-Yo of Alexander.  Rereading it now, it’s obvious that this was all much too interesting to survive.

Norb is long gone from papers, and the paperback collection is hard to find, partly because many of the books fell apart due to poor binding.  But it’s great that it did get collected.  Many strips have their year in the sun and vanish without a trace, indefinitely and unfairly forgotten.

It’s tempting to claim that the syndicates would never take a risk on anything this weird nowadays, but King’s lineup includes a strip about a seagull and a lugworm who are best friends, so there’s no telling whether something like Norb could happen again.  Which is the last line in the daily strips, incidentally: “No telling.”

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4 Responses to “The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #5”

  1. Daniel Pinkwater says:

    I could have gone on longer with NORB. We had a two-year commitment from King Features. But Auth was becoming depressed by the hate mail and papers dropping the strip. This struck me as strange–as an editorial cartoonist, he was the subject of anger and rejection all the time. Both Israeli and Palestinian sympathizers had trashed his office, for instance. I think the wholesale rejection and hatred of NORB affected him because it was the work of his heart, and the contumely and billingsgate surprised him. I, myself, as an author of books for children, was completely inured to abuse, and anyway writing it was easy–usually I would do the whole week’s serialized strips and the separate Sunday story while watching Dr. Who of a Sunday afternoon. Auth had to draw all those great panels. So we ended it, and went our separate ways. Auth took holy orders I am told. I have continued to write the same novel over and over, and also picture books and chapter books. Shaenon Garrity is a magnificent human being.

  2. Oh, poor Auth. It’s got to be discouraging to realize there’s no respite from the hate. Hell, people get madder about strips than they do about editorial cartoons.

    A great pleasure to hear from you, by the way. Thank you very much for the kind words.

  3. […] scale in our weird little medium? In any event, newspapers in 1989/1990 couldn’t handle what he was dishing out, but Shaenon Garrity is willing to share what we all missed out […]

  4. […] Over at Anime News Network, Jason Thompson devotes his latest House of 1000 Manga column to Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga… David Welsh posts off-the-cuff reviews of Code Breakers and Library Wars… Melinda Beasi, Danielle Leigh, and Michelle Smith discuss volumes 11 and 12 of NANA at Comics Should Be Good… Vom Marlowe deconstructs Mick Takeuchi’s Bound Beauty at The Hooded Utilitarian… Christopher Butcher praises Twin Spica while discussing the challenges of selling it… Roland Kelts addresses “Japan’s pop-culture branding gap” at The Comics Journal… and Shaenon Garrity proves once again she’s read more comics than you with the latest installment of The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen, this one focused on Daniel Pinkwater and Tony Auth’s NORB. […]