Funnies are getting to be serious business

It starts when a fast-talking frog named Conrad dupes a chubby princess into marrying him.

But he's not the bewitched handsome prince he says he is - just a streetwise amphibian looking for a place to hide out from bookies. Such is the stuff one of America's newest comic strips is made of. ''Conrad,'' created by cartoonist Bill Schorr, made its debut in newspapers nationwide on Nov. 8.

Behind this whimsical kingdom, however, lies a world shared by all comic strips - a world where bottom-line logic rules supreme and funnies are serious business. It's there, in the offices of syndicators and newspaper editors, that economic pressures are subtly reshaping what you see and read on the comics page.

Comic strips are becoming more specialized, zeroing in on certain slices of the comics-page-consuming public. At the same time, many cartoonists are feeling the nudge of commercialism - from lucrative sub-industries that put comic-strip characters onto everything from greeting cards to clock radios.

With many big-city dailies folding or merging with other local papers, the space available for comic strips has dwindled. The result, say insiders, is the kind of hard-bitten competition in which Charlie Brown needs to win every baseball game of the season.

''Years ago, there were more and larger big-city papers, and some printed three or four pages of comics,'' says Bill Yates, comics editor at King Features Syndicate, one of the nation's largest comic-strip syndicators. ''But now when you come out with a new feature, you sometimes get one of your own knocked out.''

Although competition is stiff and steady, syndicators still get bags full of submissions from aspiring artists - each one hoping to spawn the next Snoopy or Garfield. But only a handful ever get their paws onto newsprint.

''We don't use the old 'throw them at the ceiling and see what sticks' technique,'' says Mr. Yates, who sifts through more than 2,000 submissions a year. From these, only one or two are chosen to become syndicated strips.

As a whole, the comic-strip industry usually cranks out about 25 new syndicated strips a year. But, according to one estimate, at least 80 percent of those fail in the long run.

''Of course, the superstars are even more super today than they were 30 years ago,'' says Sid Goldberg, executive editor of United Media, a major New York-based syndicator. A good example of this is ''Garfield,'' a strip only 41/2 years old, whose lasagna-gobbling feline is already curled in the lap of the so-called ''golden circle'' of comics syndicated in more than 1,000 newspapers. As if that weren't enough to make anyone purr with pride, all seven Garfield books are currently on the New York Times best-seller list for trade paperbacks - Jim Davis is the first author to do that.

Says Mr. Goldberg, ''You can still become a millionaire by becoming a cartoonist, but it's just much tougher.''

It's whisker-licking wonders such as Garfield - together with an ever-growing list of old favorites such as ''Beetle Bailey'' and ''Blondie'' - that make life tougher for newcomers. Explains one syndicator: If a newspaper only has 15 slots for comics, and 14 are sewed up with these favorites, there's a never-ending tussle over that last spot.

''The thing that was stunning to me was what a snake pit it was when I was trying to get in,'' says Doug Marlette, creator of ''Kudzu.'' Mr. Marlette's story of a boy growing up in the backwater of Bypass, N.C., has been syndicated since June and appears in more than 100 newspapers.

A new comic strip is usually given about six months to a year to carve its niche among readers. But newspaper editors sometimes cut a comic after only a few months, if it flounders. It's during these initial months that competing syndicates try to ''knock out'' a newcomer any way they can - and plug in one of their own.

Sometimes, however, the decision to drop a new strip can tip the scale in the rookie cartoonist's favor. ''Kudzu,'' for instance, was chucked by the Baltimore Evening Sun in August, but reinstated after editors were barraged with phone calls, letters, and even petitions from irate fans. A spokesman for the paper says the outcry came from a broad range of readers.

''That really was a great break for us, because it became a warning shot to other syndicators to lay off,'' Mr. Marlette said. But while the competition for spaces nettles newcomers such as Marlette, it's the smaller size of the strips themselves that irks established cartoonists and other observers.

Daily comic strips, up until about the mid-1930s, sprawled the full width of broadsheet newspaper pages. Many of today's Sunday color comic strips are punier than daily strips of 50 years ago. The shrink-down started in the 1940s, with the first small strips introduced as space savers.

But - except for notable exceptions such as "Peanuts" and "Doonsbury" - this smaller format "Limits development to only one type of comic strip, the very simplistic, three-panel gag,"says Bill Blackbeard, director of the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art. "There's very little space for dialogue balloons in which to develop character, point, or idea. "

Comic-strip historians contrast most of today's strips - which often have only a few characters and a gag a day - with the intricately developed characters and meandering plot lines found in classics such as ''Li'l Abner'' and ''The Gumps.''

Mr. Blackbeard, curator of one of the largest public collections of printed comic art in the world, says ''postage-stamp sized'' artwork and the pressure to hike readership as quickly as possible makes many strips dependent on flash-in-the-pan tactics.

''Syndicators are looking for work from artists that have a new, funny cat gimmick or a new, funny kid gimmick,'' Blackbeard said. The process, he adds, is squelching genuinely creative, inventive cartoonists.

For their part, syndicators prefer to talk about ''targeting'' their audience , sculpting a comic strip so that it appeals to a certain group. And sometimes, as with the television-launched ''Muppets,'' comic strips are created around characters already popular in another medium.

''There's a lot of people that jump on the bandwagon in our business, so we do target an audience - but we try to do it before everybody else does,'' says John McMeel, president of Universal Press Syndicate.

A current example, he says, is his syndicate's nine-month-old strip ''Duffy.'' Set around the bumblings of a bulbous-nosed office manager, this strip was designed to ''take on the corporate world'' - at the middle-management level, anyway.

Specialized strips are sometimes easier to shoe-horn into newspapers, since they can be sprinkled outside the comics page. Many dailies, for instance, print locker-room favorite ''Tank McNamara'' right in with the football scores and talk-show host ''John Darling'' with the TV listings.

''All the syndicates are looking for a focal point, an easily identified audience,'' says Bill Schorr, creator of the somewhat spiced-up variation on the aforementioned frog-meets-princess story, ''Conrad.'' Mr. Schorr, an editorial cartoonist at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, says it was a syndicate that nudged him into trying his pen at a comic strip.

''They originally asked me to do a relevant strip, something contemporary like divorced mothers, something trendy,'' Schorr said. ''But that just wasn't what I wanted to do.'' In the end, three different syndicates were vying for the right to distribute the adventures of Conrad the frog.

Several new cartoonists say they're bucking the trend toward specialized strips. One of these, Berke Breathed, creator of the sometimes irreverent ''Bloom County,'' says he wants to talk to more that just the 25-year-old liberals.

''My idea is to keep it as wide ranging as possible,'' says Mr. Breathed. ''So you have a couple of romances going on, Milo as an anchor man at a news desk, the penguin dreaming - as much imagination as I can possibly throw into it.'' What that does, he says, is make the strip harder to sell.

But while targeting may be the wedge for getting a strip in the paper, it's licensing - a powerful and growing influence in the comics business - which gets them everywhere else. Licenses are legal agreements that let companies use comic-strip characters to embellish everything from wastepaper baskets to T-shirts.

These deals can translate into big bucks, netting some cartoonists a hefty chunk more than they make from newspaper syndication alone. ''Peanuts'' and ''Popeye,'' for instance, both earn more profits from licenses than syndication fees, although officials won't say how much more.

''It's only been in the last three or four years that licensing has been recognized as a useful marketing tool - mainly, I think, because of the state of the economy,'' says Tom Drape, president of Universal Licensing Corporation, the licensing arm of Universal Press Syndicate.

There are at least a dozen comic strips now being licensed - many more than ever before. The most successful ones include ''Peanuts,'' ''Ziggy,'' and ''Garfield.'' In 1981, for example, more than $140 million worth of Ziggy-emblazoned goods were sold in the United States through more than 30 licensees.

''What you're providing a company or an ad agency is not only a creative package, but also a marketing audience,'' Mr. Drape said. ''People who read 'Cathy' are going to be drawn to whatever she's on or whatever she's talking about - whether they know the product or not.''

But cartoonists quickly point out that their main concern is what goes on when they pull a stool up in front of the drawing table. According to his syndicate, Garry Trudeau, creator of ''Doonesbury,'' won't permit any licensing of his characters - except for book publishing. Other artists say they hold a tight leash on the licensing hounds.

''I've been concerned with keeping all the items true to Cathy,'' says cartoonist Cathy Guisewite. The Cathy character is licensed to 30 companies, making such things as jogging outfits, appliance covers, and cookie jars.

The product, she says, ought to make people laugh and feel good the same way the strip does. Take the Cathy nightshirt, for instance. It shows our heroine in bed surrounded by empty candy wrappers and food containers, with the caption: ''Wake me when I'm a size 5.''

Many cartoonists say they especially like the artistic challenge of moving their characters beyond the boundaries of newsprint and into animation.

''Working with an animated Garfield gives me a lot of insight,'' says artist Jim Davis. The overgrown house cat recently debuted in a half-hour animated special. ''It was a big step, because he walks and talks and moves - and the characters had always moved in my mind anyway.'' The trickiest part, says Mr. Davis, was coming up with a voice. After auditioning 50 actors, the producers finally settled on the voice of Carlton the doorman from the old ''Rhoda'' television sit-com.

For the most part, prime-time specials are seen as the best way to introduce comic-strip characters to TV audiences. And so, for example, Ziggy's pie-shaped face will show up for the first time on TV early this month, while an animated version of Lynn Johnston's ''For Better or for Worse'' is in the works for 1983.

In coming years, you're likely to see more characters stepping out in full-blown television series. In early 1983, CBS-TV plans to begin a half-hour, prime-time comedy based on the comic strip ''Cathy.'' Details about format are still sketchy, but officials say an animated Cathy will introduce and conclude live-action programs.

And beginning next September, the ''Peanuts'' characters will have their own Saturday morning cartoon show. Television, of course, is nothing new for Charlie Brown and the gang - they've starred in more than 20 animated specials since 1965.

Comic strips are getting into television ''because that's where the money is, '' says one licensing executive. ''There's a lot of opportunity to expand the audience for a comic character through TV.'' And, of course, the more people that recognize Ziggy's innocent smile and Garfield's crafty grin, the more likely these faces are to show up in even more places.

But while the licensing business booms, some observers say it may be coloring the content of the funnies. For example, many of the newest strips are centered on animals - which experts say license more easily than human characters.

''People will pick up a stuffed Garfield, but never a stuffed Jon,'' said Davis, referring to the cat and his owner. Many artists, meanwhile, say animals are just fun to draw and throw open a wider range of humorous possibilities.

Whatever the reason, the menagerie is growing: ''Conrad'' is a talking frog; ''Rudy,'' a strip that begins in January, is a nattily dressed chimpanzee trying to revive his career in show business; and ''Ribbons,'' launched in September, is about a pampered dog.

''I notice that all the cartoonists these days seem to want to bring in some kind of animal,'' says ''Peanuts'' creator Charles M. Schulz. ''Whether it's a turtle, a frog, a penguin, or something else, I think they're looking for another Snoopy.''

Mr. Schulz says licensing of his characters evolved slowly over the years. Today, over 100 companies license the Peanuts characters. And, sure enough, it's Snoopy that gets snapped up the most.

But successful licensing is like a good joke - they both hinge on a keen sense of timing. Some licensing agents won't move a comic strip off newsprint until at least five years after it's introduced. This, they say, gives the strip a chance to garner a core of devoted fans.

But some strips seem designed to create a licensing success along with the daily dose of ink-on-paper humor.

For instance, ''Ribbons'' was first created to go on a Hallmark greeting card. The curly-haired canine scored so high in a marketing test, however, that Hallmark honchos decided to forget the cards for the time being and build a comic strip instead.

''Normally, there's a great success with a comic strip, then comes the licensing. But in this case the whole thing is happening simultaneously,'' says Ted Hannah, director of advertising at King Features, which is working with Hallmark on syndicating the strip.

Next spring, Hallmark plans finally to start selling the Ribbons greeting cards. Meanwhile, prototypes of stuffed animals - Ribbons and her boyfriend - have been made. And that's just the beginning. If Ribbons is the howling success Hallmark figures she will be, the dog will also end up on posters, plaques, and gift wrap.

A Hallmark spokesman says the company is working on ''two or three'' other comic-strip ideas, but won't give out any details.

''We've got some very good competition out there,'' he said.

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