Edge City's 15-year run reflects the state of the comics page

Edge City, a comic strip by local artists Terry, left, and Patty LaBan, has been syndicated for 15 years, but is now ending.

Like every kid who's ever wanted to be an astronaut, or an NBA forward, or president, Terry LaBan had a childhood dream that was a long shot: He wanted to become a syndicated cartoonist.

"That was my childhood fantasy," said LaBan, cocreator for 15 years with his wife, Patty, of Edge City, a comic about a suburban Jewish American family. "And I got to do it. But I got to do it when everybody stopped paying attention."

On Saturday, Edge City, which The Inquirer had carried since its beginning, will cease to exist. King Features Syndicate declined to renew the LaBans' contract.

The Wyncote couple said they were ready to move on, too. They figure everyone else has.

"When I was a kid, comic strips were like TV: It was something that everyone read and knew," said Terry LaBan, who is in his 50s. "But I would say that comic strips basically ended as a vital art form right around the time Calvin and Hobbes ended [in 1995]. There was a steady decline of the cultural importance of comic strips after that."

An essential part of newspapers' DNA for a century, the comics have been shrinking along with papers' circulation and revenue. What was once an Inquirer Sunday section a kid could pull apart to swap with siblings is now just four pages. And, as readership moves online, the path for comics - especially the mild-mannered, big-tent humor of newspaper funnies - has not been obvious.

Evil Inc, which has run in the Philadelphia Daily News for 15 years, is also set to disappear from print as creator Brad Guigar focuses on Evil Inc After Dark, a subscription-funded, not-safe-for-work Web comic. But Edge City, designed for broad appeal, didn't have an online constituency, LaBan said.

Newspapers were already grappling with eroding readership in 2000 when the LaBans landed a syndication deal, with a comic based on a family that paralleled their own. Terry, who is also a freelance illustrator (and whose brother, Craig, is The Inquirer's food critic), does the drawing and writing; Patty, a therapist, meets with him on Sundays to hash out story lines and edit drafts.

Patty LaBan said they wanted to capture a moment of cultural change: "It was the beginning of the shift to mobile phones and minivans and Starbucks on every corner."

They broached topics not found elsewhere in the comics, hosting a bar mitzvah and a seder, introducing a same-sex romance, and weaving in a Holocaust story inspired by Patty's work with survivors.

"For a while," she said, "we were like, How far can you push the comics?"

Still, Edge City never caught on in more than a few dozen markets, said Brendan Burford, editor at King Features.

Editors tend to stick with what's familiar, said John Glynn, president of Universal Uclick, the largest independent syndicate. Nuclear families and pets do well, he said; so do such stalwarts as Peanuts and Garfield.

Back in 2000, Glynn said, Universal debuted three comics a year.

"Now, we'll launch maybe one a year, just because the appetite for new content hasn't been there," he said. "The newspaper comics section, back when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer invented it in the early 20th century, was to attract children to read the paper and make it a habit. I don't know that that's a huge goal of newspaper editors today."

Syndicates have been pursuing new audiences independently, through online comics portals.

"Those sites aren't replacing print revenues by any means," Glynn said. But they're a place to test content: Universal Uclick has 80 syndicated comics and 200 more in online syndication. He uses Web analytics to sell to papers.

But features editors on the receiving end of those pitches also have to answer to existing readers.

Sandra M. Clark, The Inquirer's managing editor for features, said the paper conducted a reader survey about five years ago that showed subscribers were still partial to such strips as Beetle Bailey and Blondie - each more than a half-century old.

So, shaking up the status quo is a challenge.

"It is something readers are passionate about," she said. "If you say you're not running Blondie anymore, you're dead in the water."

Not to mention that "comics are a substantial investment, especially at a time when newspapers need to cut costs," Clark said. The paper spends about $20,000 a month on comics, not including newsprint.

An unfortunate side effect is that "the opportunities for new artists become much more limited," she said.

Guigar, the Evil Inc creator, said that was the case even in 2000. Newspapers were tough to break into. By contrast, "putting your stuff online, there was such a welcoming."

The 46-year-old Fairmount resident, who has written several books on Web comics, will end his print run in February. He has found a better way to distribute his work, he said.

Since June, he has invited fans to pledge monthly donations through the site Patreon.com. When he offered a "mature" version of Evil Inc for his $10-a-month supporters, contributions tripled.

These days, newspaper syndication functions on a different scale than it once did. Peanuts, at its peak, reached 2,600 papers. Today, Universal Uclick markets to only about a thousand, Glynn said.

"It's not the market that it once was, even in 2008," said Hilary Price, vice president of the National Cartoonists Society and creator of the comic Rhymes With Orange.

When she meets young artists, they still say their idols are newspaper cartoonists. "But now," she said, "a lot of talented artists see the Web as a great medium for them."

For those who are already syndicated, there are new concerns.

Mark Tatulli, 52, of Washington Township, has two syndicated strips: Lio, a wordless strip that runs in about 300 papers, and Heart of the City, in about 125 newspapers.

"We do have die-hard fans," he said, and it's still a decent living. But as the comics shrink, he worries that his work is being downsized to the point of illegibility.

"This is the thing that depresses me," he said. "Papers should be using comics to bring readers in, but they keep reducing them and making them smaller. They take a popular section of the newspaper and marginalize it."

For cartoonists, it's a constant hustle.

Dave Blazek, whose comic Loose Parts runs in the Daily News, has been syndicated since 2000. He still has a day job, producing ads for Philadelphia Media Network, which owns The Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com.

He's constantly trying to figure out ways to make his strip more enticing: offering it in single- and four-panel formats, and creating a custom size just for an oddly shaped hole in the Washington Post's Sunday issue. He recently added a weekly animated strip for online readers.

He has also tried to be more concise, because his strip is running smaller. Still, readers complain.

"As newspaper readership skews older, eyesight skews down," he said. "The other concern is, it gets so small, they have to take one of us out. That's happened to me."

Even so, he doesn't foresee a world without newspapers - or newspapers without comic strips.

"Comics are one of the fundamental parts of a newspaper," he said. "When you remove them, you become just like every other news source."

As for Terry LaBan, he said he would never attempt another daily comic. It's time to focus on other dreams. He and Patty will still have their weekly Sunday meeting, and fans can expect more collaborations ahead.

Still, after bleeding newspaper ink for 15 years, it's not easy to turn this page.

"There's nothing really like the newspaper comic," he said. "You don't have to seek it out, and it's just breathing. It's always there."

smelamed@phillynews.com

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@samanthamelamed