Get Funky

This morning’s Funky Winkerbean moved me to cut, paste, and blog:

What a gorgeously-drawn strip. And that’s been a consistent feature of the thing. Every character has a distinctive appearance. Everything’s drawn with an economy of line that communicates clearly, yet omits no necessary details. Characters have solid anatomy. The artist is a good “director,” choosing his shots well to communicate the story, and he gets good performances out of his actors.

Even the “cinematography” is top-notch. Pay attention to how this strip is lit and colored. Given the current state of the print biz and the comics page thereon, I have to think that the colorist is working with the online edition in mind instead of the limited range of soybeans smeared across mashed-up trees.

Which brings up a question: given that a comic strip pubished online can be any size or dimensions…why do most newspapers’ sites scale them down?

This JPEG was copied from the Seattle Pi comics page, which is where I read “Winkerbean” every morning. I had to scale it up here on my MacBook to make sure y’all could see the strip for what it is. Even at with the upsampled resolution artifacts, it “reads” so much better at a thousand pixels wide.

There are a couple of subscription services that’ll put all of your comics on one page. The trouble is that the user interface isn’t great and if they’re missing just a few of your favorites…well, what’s the point? You might as well save yourself some money and keep visiting three different newspaper sites every day (in my case: Seattle Pi, Yahoo!, and the Houston Chronicle). You’re still forced to make side-trips for webcomics like PVP, Girls With Slingshots, and XKCD.

It’s funny how the wheel keeps turning around. A hundred years ago, the comics page was hotly-contested property. The right collection of strips sold papers, period. And the comics page reflected that. They were printed big, with plenty of landscape for artists to play in and enough room for dialogue. You didn’t cheap out on the printing or production, either.

Newspapers are in no danger of dying off. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you a timeshare or the digital equivalent: trying to line up angel funding for yet another social news bookmarking service. But the industry needs to adapt to the new currency of readership. And here, comic strips can fulfill their traditional role by being the thing that brought you to the paper in the first place.

It works. I read a lot of Seattle Pi and Chronicle articles because I finished my comix-viewing and saw an interesting headline linked in the column next to “Pearls Before Swine.”

Comics aren’t the answer. But a smart newspaper will invest in improving their comics infrastructure. I want a system that displays full-color comics at high resolution using a helpful but inobtrusive Flash player that takes me through all of my favorite strips (skipping over “The Lockhorns,” “Momma,” etc.). The paper that commissions such a system, and makes it easy for me to send people to their site by blogging about today’s “Funky Winkerbean” or emaiing a link to last week’s “Peanuts” to a friend, will do very well.

14 thoughts on “Get Funky”

  1. Hmm, is the character with the new hat a boy or a girl? Maybe it’s too gorgeously-drawn but I can’t identify.

  2. You could cut down on some of the side trips if you subscribe to the comic’s RSS Feed. I can’t speak for the others, but I know that both PVP and XKCD have RSS feeds. In PVP’s case I believe the feed just contains a link to the comic, while XKCD embeds the comic itself. While you (might) still need to visit the site, if nothing else you’ll know when to visit the site by receiving the update in your RSS reader.

  3. Andy,

    I’ve set up a folder full of links to various comics sites, and use Safari’s “Open in Tabs” command to open them all at once each morning. Therefore it doesn’t really matter how many different sites the comics come from; I just have to have found them once.

  4. As I recall, one of the reasons (if not the biggest one) that Bill Watterson ended Calvin and Hobbes was that he was tired of fighting the papers over presenting the Sunday strip so it would fit the page width. In its final year in the Chicago Tribune it was crammed into a corner of the page so you’d almost miss it if you weren’t careful.

    When I get my comics nostalgia on I get all misty over Prince Valiant. That strip, I know for a fact, explains how I learned to read before my fifth birthday. This was in the early ’50s — I think Hal Foster still did the strip then — and I remember spreading the Sunday comics out on the floor and just diving into it. For those who never read the strip, Foster didn’t use dialog balloons; he had a paragraph of narration under each panel. And while it was written all caps in present tense, he punctuated properly, with the dialog in quote marks. And it was a weekly serial adventure, so I was picking up the mechanics of reading a story and carrying the continuity in my head from week to week. And the art was glorious! Prince Valiant was spread out over a full page of the Sunday comics, so when I say I dove into it I’m serious. Foster put so much detail into his characters and sets that it fairly took my breath away. And every few weeks he would give us an 11 by 17 final panel depicting a castle or a tournament or a market day with horses, carts, and a cast of thousands. Whatever they paid the man was not nearly enough. Fantagraphics Press has done a fine job of reprinting the strip, but it simply isn’t practical to reproduce the strip full-size, so some of the detail is lost. Pity.

  5. Now, I may be something of a snob, but if a site doesn’t have an RSS feed I won’t remember to check it with any regularity. I don’t mind clickthrough feeds so they still get the site traffic or feeds with embedded adds, but without a feed it may as well not exist for me. As a geek with a rapidly-growing collection of comics I follow I have been saved by http://www.comicalert.com/ which will create an RSS of all those newspaper sites that post the strips but don’t RSS. As for resolution they publish in, well, there the only option is to hope a different nespaper does a better job…

    I supose this makes me more appreciative of Dark Horse’s http://www.myspace.com/darkhorsepresents site which does publish comics beautifully (albiet very inconvenient for linking-purposes or archiving!!).

    I was having a similar conversation with the Northampton Comic store owner the other day. I still believe that the web is a much more powerful distribution medium for comics, but it needs to be done thoughtfully with a solid interface, various rss options, and some form of archival access and ideally physical print versions for collectors. I think that the webcomics are way ahead of the traditional newspaper comics here.

  6. I use the Daily Comics widget in Dashboard. It comes (free) from New Planet Software. It has a vast catalogue of comics and editorial cartoons.

  7. I do the same as Norman Ferguson, I have a comics folder set up in my browser as well and utilize the feature open all in tabs. Then close each tab as I’ve read the comics.

    I used to follow more strips in my RSS reader, but I got frustrated with the comics that didn’t place the strip within the feed and had me go to the site. What’s the point of offering the feed if I’m still going to the site (Penny Arcade, PVPOnline, VGcats, CAD). The main reason this annoys me is that I spend time reading my comics RSS feed on my iPhone and it’s highly bothersome when the app closes to open the comic in Safari, then having to close safari, reopen NetNewsWire, wait for it to re-sync, and finish reading my other strips.

    Also I might have to follow Andys lead and start reading the Houston Chronicle online. I grew up in Houston and reading the funnies in the daily paper was one treat I loved. The Chronicle is, to me at least, the best daily city paper. And I’ve not been able to find another equal to it.

    Oh well, enough ranting about comics. Great post Andy.

  8. I’m a bit confused; I went to the link for Seattle PI, and it just linked to comics.com; I didn’t find any “build your own comics” page like Houston Chron has.

    Although, having said that, comics.com has recently gone through a major upgrade, and DOES have a custom comics page, although the comics offered is somewhat limited. Nice thing they have is a good search tool and extensive archives (I was able to find Arlo & Janis’s Puss ‘n Boots series on there quite easily)

    Houston Chronicle is by far the best comics site, if only for numbers of comics. I have a bookmark to a huge comics page there where I read most of my comics.

    As for how I read them, I used to use the Morning Coffee add-on for Firefox. It worked well, but when I started using Foxmarks to keep work and home in sync, it proved less useful (because Foxmarks doesn’t sync Morning Coffee’s configuration, and also because Morning Coffee didn’t work with TabMixPlus (least not for me)).

    Now I have a series of folders of bookmarks organized by “daily”, or individual days, and have everything therein tagged, and use the “Open Today’s Bookmarks” experimental add-on to open all my comics (or the ones updated on that day) easily.

    As for the comics I read, I have my Houston Chronicle page for most, and a comics.com page as well. Then I have a smattering of other ones (some linked from gocomics.com or Washington Post). I read the new xkcd in my RSS reader, but put the random link in my daily comics as well, so I get an xkcd fix every day). I can also tag columns I like to read on the day they come out, so read that, too.


  9. a helpful but inobtrusive Flash player that takes me through all of my favorite strips[…]and makes it easy for me to send people to their site by blogging about today’s “Funky Winkerbean” or emaiing a link to last week’s “Peanuts” to a friend


    You realize that you’ve described two almost mutually incompatible mechanisms, there, right? I mean, the latest versions of ActionScript make it theoretically possible, but I haven’t seen anybody implement any of that anywhere other than in a tech-demo type of situation…

  10. “[L]imited range of soybeans smeared across mashed-up trees” — Sounds like you may not have actually seen a printed version of the Sunday comics in a while. Newspaper printing and color reproduction techniques have gotten good enough that the shading and gradations seen in this “Funky Winkerbean” strip really do reproduce faithfully.

    Which is why it’s such a damn shame that Sunday comic strips are at such a small size in this day and age. If currently active cartoonists such as Patrick McDonnell and Brooke McEldowney were being given a full page, everyone’s minds would be consistently and repeatedly blown; between the improvements in printing and the things that are possible with Photoshop and other modern technologies on the artists’ end, they’d be able to do things in the Sunday comics that Winsor McCay and George Harriman could only dream of.

  11. Wait, there is still a daily (or at least weekly) Funky Winkerbean strip? I hadn’t seen it for years. The art looks nothing like the strip I remember. I like the new look for familiar characters. It reminds me of the character design from Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost: like they finally got someone who new how to draw.

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