Birmingham Historical Comic Strips -- Birmingham News, The Naughts

Wanna know how hard it is to really launch a traditional syndicated strip these days? The Birmingham News is a fairly average American newspaper, which makes it a fairly good bellwether for the industry. Of the eight completed years of this decade, there have been four -- 2000, 2001, 2003, and 2007 -- where they made no changes at all to their comic lineup. Even that understates the level of stagnation, though, because the only change made in 2005 came when they picked up a half-dozen strips from a defunct semi-competitor, and the other three years featured only one change per year.

In September of 2002, they replaced Shoe with Get Fuzzy. In July, 2004, they added Prickly City, written by staff editorial cartoonist Scott Stantis (in one of the few vaguely interesting changes of the decade, they added it to the comics page, replacing Mary Worth's Family, for three weeks, then moved it to the editorial page and brought back Mary, first as Mary Worth then as Mary Worth's Family after a few months). In September, 2005, with the demise of the Birmingham Post-Herald, they picked up Foxtrot, Cathy, Family Circus, Frazz, and Funky Winkerbean on the comics page and Doonesbury on the editorial page. In December of 2006, they dropped Foxtrot a week early and picked up Pearls before Swine.

Get Fuzzy,Darby Conley,United Feature Syndicate
Prickly City,Scott Stantis,Universal Press Syndicate
Foxtrot,Bill Amend, Universal Press Syndicate
Cathy,Cathy Guisewite, Universal Press Syndicate
Doonesbury,Gary Trudeau, Universal Press Syndicate
Family Circus,Bill Keane, King Features Syndicate
Frazz,Jef Mallett,United Feature Syndicate
Funky Winkerbean,Tom Batiuk, North America Syndicate
Pearls Before Swine,Stephen Pastis,United Feature Syndicate

And that's it for the decade so far, with no likelihood of huge changes looming. If you look at it by decade, here's how it comes out if you count drop-and-add swaps as two changes:

20's  21
30's  37
40's  63
50's  63
60's  47
70's  66
80's  35
90's  29
00's  11

Now, in fairness, maturity can lead to goodness, even if it doesn't always lead to greatness. Here's the current lineup, with the date the strip starting running in the News:

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, 12/20/1920
Mary Worth's Family, 2/25/1935
Blondie, 8/14/1939
Rex Morgan, M. D., 5/10/1948
The Phantom, 5/23/1949
Judge Parker, 11/17/1952
Dennis the Menace, 5/10/1954
Marmaduke, 9/1/1955
Beetle Bailey, 10/10/1955
Wizard of Id, 11/26/1964
Drabble, 3/12/1979
Hagar the Horrible, 5/14/1979
Garfield, 5/28/1979
For Better or For Worse, 9/10/1979
Sally Forth, 1/24/1983
Mother Goose and Grimm, 10/1/1984
Luann, 3/18/1985
In the Bleachers, 8/7/1989
Baby Blues, 1/15/1990
Non Sequitur, 1/2/1995
Dilbert, 8/14/1995
Jumpstart, 6/10/1996
Pickles, 6/10/1996
The Buckets, 9/30/1996
Zits, 7/7/1997
Get Fuzzy, 8/19/2002
Prickly City, 7/12/2004
Cathy, 9/26/2005
Doonesbury, 9/26/2005
Family Circus, 9/26/2005
Frazz, 9/26/2005
Funky Winkerbean, 9/26/2005
Pearls before Swine, 12/25/2006

There's really not much there that you would objectively call "bad" -- maybe Marmaduke and Judge Parker are the only ones that I'd put there, while a few others just aren't aimed at or near me. They've added most of what I would consider the essential strips from the last decade -- Zits, Get Fuzzy, Frazz, PbS. The problem comes from an overabundance of caution, I think -- I enjoy Blondie often enough that I wouldn't explicitly seek to have it pulled from the paper, but are we really better off getting another decade of Blondie rather than finding out what Lucky Cow could have become? Are there likely to more new scenarios worth pursuing in the next five years in Barney Google or in Pooch Cafe? I'm not saying that every paper should be required to carry Frog Applause, but there has to be a balance between caution and courage, and the scale is stuck.

Last Updated: January 9, 2008