Comics explore survival in new media

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The transition from comic books and newspapers to digital platforms has changed the way cartoonists do their job, and it’s not funny.

For cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, the digital age is a double-edged sword. The payments cartoonists receive from newspapers were more substantial when people paid to read the paper every day, he said. The good part is an expansion in readership because of a wider online audience.

“No matter where you are in the world, no matter what’s going on, you can find us,” Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist writes the Nancy cartoon of the United Feature Syndicate. He has also worked on cartoons such as Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and the Pink Panther. He was also personally chosen to draw Jim Henson’s cartoon strip, The Muppets. He still writes comics every day, and Nancy’s readership has actually increased in the past four years.

“We are being read right now seven days a week, 57 million people in 80 countries all around the world,” he said.

According to Gilchrist, it does not matter what platform people read comics on. There just needs to be a good story that makes people smile.

“My job is … to have a story and characters that are going to find a little piece of your heart that you are going to want to check in on every day,” Gilchrist said.

Unlike the Nancy cartoon, many comics have perished. Sharon Swenson is a BYU assistant professor of media arts critical studies who understands that some stories retold through movies or TV succeed because of their audience. “Basing a film on a popular comic means a built-in audience and multiple sequels,” Swenson said.

According to Swenson, some stories, such as ones about superheroes, are compelling because they reflect common psychological phases. “Films are like dreams,” Swenson said. “They let us experience what we fear or what we long for.”

She further explained that they reflect universal experiences such as coming of age and leaving childhood behind as well as the inevitability of facing obstacles in life. Stories need to draw people in.

“Without these mythical elements, (the stories) can appeal to contemporary social issues and humor but may not have the same staying power,” Swenson said.

According to Mark White, professor of philosophy at the College of Staten Island, the reasons comics have survived boils down to characters that people want to read about. “Story lines and situations come and go, but the best characters live on,” White said.

White is known as the comics professor and has written many books and articles on philosophy, economics and law. He has also written books exploring the philosophy of comic books and superheroes. “Many comics characters have been around for 50 years or more and have stood the test of time,” White said.

A story’s ability to succeed as a remake is often contingent on its general appeal to many generations. Batman has more than 20 movie versions, including cartoon renditions. Each of the major motion picture versions offer something new to the audience, whether it be better graphics, intense action or a new plot twist.

“They’re classic stories, each time told in a different way,” White said. “Each retelling brings new shading and nuance to a familiar story.”

White also compared the differences between the first “Spider-Man” film, with Tobey McGuire, and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” with Andrew Garfield. Although they both tell the story of the origin of Spider-Man, they are different in tone, style and attitude.

Through advances in technology, classic stories are brought to life in new and more exciting ways. “Changing technology allows certain characters to evolve cinematically,” Swenson said.

Gilchrist also speaks of the appeal superheroes have to multiple generations. “Marvel characters have been around a long time,” Gilchrist said. “They are classic stories that … appeal to different generations.”

Movie remakes have extended past the comics and superhero stories into fairy tales as well. Television shows and movies explore new ways to tell the original Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Gilchrist, Swenson and White all agree that aside from stories and characters, the continual remake of old stories comes down to business and marketing. The success of comics and fairy tales provides the built-in audience for major motion pictures.

“While the narrative is always important, the way the story is conceptualized and produced and marketed almost always determines the financial success of a film,” Swenson said.

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