BINGHAMTON, N.Y., March 13, 2010— -- No matter how bad the news, no matter how grim the headlines, you could always count on a smile from at least one corner of the daily newspaper: the comics.
But in this day when we could use a laugh more than ever, the reality facing the comics section is anything but funny.
With the newspaper business hemorrhaging readers and money, newspapers are slicing the number of strips they carry.
Artist and filmmaker Mark Tatulli said he has seen 30 newspapers drop his strip "Lio" in the last 18 months.
"Newspapers are saving money wherever they can, and they are doing it by cutting the comics. It's affecting cartoonists across the board," Tatulli said.
"'Lio' was growing, closing in on 300 newspapers -- and then the market just went crazy," Tatulli said, adding that "Lio" is now in 270 papers.
The roll call of newspapers shedding comic strips is growing, from the Portland Oregonian, which shed 10 strips last year, to the Washington Post.
The cash-strapped Washington Times recently went a step further, eliminating its Sunday comics section entirely.
The savings can be enormous. The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., told readers that reducing the comics section by one page would save $300,000 a year.
"Sometimes change isn't funny, but it is necessary," the paper told readers. However, after an enormous outcry -- more than 1,200 reader complaints -- the Star-Ledger backed away from the reductions.
Some newspapers are trying to mask the cutbacks by holding "Survivor"-style contests asking readers which strips to jettison, and which to pick up. The number of strips dropped usually outnumbers the strips added, although sometimes papers will continue providing the eliminated cartoons online.
Newer strips are often the ones cut first, but even so-called legacy comics are feeling the pinch.
Mason and Mick Mastroianni draw and write "B.C." from a studio on the outskirts of this upstate New York city. The strip, filled with cavemen and slapstick humor, was handed down from their late grandfather, John Hart, who created it in the late 1950s.
The number of newspapers carrying "B.C." has fallen by about 5 percent a year over the last few years, they said.
"A lot of times, if we get canceled by a big paper, we'll ... talk to our syndicate, see what happened. And nine times out of 10, it's because either the paper went out of business, or just dropped an entire page of comics, to save space and save costs," Mason said.
The strips that survive this comics crisis are finding it more crowded.
To save costs, newspapers are squeezing more strips onto ever-shrinking pages. In 1950, "Little Orphan Annie" ran as a full-page strip in most Sunday papers; today, it often runs at one-third of a page.
The financial struggles of newspapers are not the only problem. In an age of Nintendo and Facebook, it's hard for the comics to compete for the attention of children.
In 1945, the demand for comics was so strong, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously read the funnies over the radio during a newspaper strike. It is hard to imagine such a scenario today.
"They are not part of the national conversation anymore," Tatulli said. "It used to be that you could turn on Johnny Carson, and hear him say, 'Hey, did you see that strip today?' I remember that show 'Newsradio,' when they had a whole episode about 'Dilbert,' and of course everybody knew what they were talking about.
"Today, new comics, nobody has a clue," he said. "We have a very solid following. But it is more niche than it has ever been."
In search of new audiences, the newspaper comics are now posted online. But the cartoonists do not make nearly as much money from the Internet as they do from newspapers.
"Cartoonists, in general, are looking to other avenues, other ways to get their products out there -- licensing, movies, television, things like that," Mason Mastroianni said.
"Putting them online is great for exposure, it's great for readership. It may help with licensing or merchandising at some point. But as far as making money directly from online, I am not sure if it can be done or it will ever be done," he added said.
The Mastroiannis have been trying to get a new comic off the ground, the "Dogs of C Kennel." They have drawn a new "C Kennel" strip every day for two years.
So far, the strip can only be viewed online. Newspapers, they said, have been unwilling to embrace new strips at a time when they are cutting back.
"We're waiting for the climate to get a little better, Mason says.
Asked if he thinks "B.C." will be around for his grandchildren, Mastroianni said, "That is a very difficult question to answer.
"I wish I had a crystal ball," he said. "I don't think that comics will ever disappear. But comics in the form they are now, syndicated in the newspaper, might disappear at some point."