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Digital rebirth for comic strips

"See you in the funny pages" takes on a new meaning for cartoon artists who are making a home on the Web.

Hans Bjordahl is the quintessential new-media cartoonist.

Bjordahl, a 36-year-old program manager for Microsoft's Outlook e-mail program, has also been a cartoonist for years, first at his college newspaper in Colorado and later for the Denver Post in Colorado.

Today, you can find his weekly comic strip, "BugBash," in Microsoft's internal newsletter MicroNews, and on the Internet, where it can reach a diverse and growing audience without piggybacking on the newspaper syndicates that have long dominated the distribution of newspaper comic strips.

Like other types of entertainment, comic strips are changing with the times. As the newspaper space allotted to comics shrinks along with advertising dollars, cartoonists are looking for new ways to reach their audience. Even "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams, who has had an online presence for 11 years, started publishing a blog in October.

"Comic strips are moving away from newsprint," said Don Asmussen, a political comic-strip writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. His "Bad Reporter" is syndicated through Universal Press Syndicate in 30 newspapers. "If it's not going to appear in print, then why not move it? Animation is the future of cartooning."

No doubt, newspapers have lost many of their big comic strip names over the last decade. Famed strips such as "Peanuts," "Calvin and Hobbes," "The Far Side" and "Bloom County" are gone. Some newspaper groups like the Tribune Company, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, have cut costs by dropping editorial cartoonists, despite their popularity.

As one comic-strip writer put it: "Newspapers try to satisfy everyone and therefore they satisfy no one."

Comics online

As comics move online, the rules for reaching a broader audience are changing, and the skills those cartoonists need to reach their audience change as well.

Bjordahl, for example, maintains a blog with a small group of fans, and plans to join a federation of niche comic strips--including a paleontologist comic--that target specialized ads to his audience.

Traditional comic-strip writers also face tough competition from animated cartoons. The political satire of was a staple of the last presidential election, in many ways setting the bar for animated humor.

Traffic to humor sites, which include comic strips, grew 20 percent last year and attracted roughly 30 million unique readers, according to market researcher Nielsen NetRatings. The top sites, according to Nielsen, are sites that largely carry animated cartoons like and The popular satire site The Onion and, a collection of syndicated comic strips that includes "Marmaduke," are in the top 15.

Also, much of the buzz for Web comics comes through grassroots fandom in the blogosphere. Asmussen's political strip, for example, gets a lot of play from blogs such as Wonkette.

"I'm still waiting for the ultimate combination of visual blog: blog, drawing, animation, music. Technology brings out new talents," said Asmussen.

But making a transition to animation isn't easy. Animated cartoons require cartoonists or their design partners to have knowledge of animation programs like Flash. They need music, voice overs and, even with computer technology, can be tedious and time-consuming to produce.

Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president general manager of United Media--which syndicates a selection of 50 comic strips to most U.S. newspapers--said she would like to see her company embrace animations, but they're very expensive. An animation running 30 to 60 seconds for the Web can cost between $2,000 to $8,000 to produce.

"Comic strips are a unique art form unto themselves," Wilson said. That said, she noted that the syndicate is "trying to launch stuff on our site that's edgier to attract a younger person. There's a struggle between being edgy and operating in the traditional newspaper space."

For animations, she said, the company is looking for partners to offset costs, and at some point, she believes, the format will be supported online by advertising and subscriptions. "There's a good future for the syndication business online because animation, e-mail, phone, PC, all of it makes it a bigger not smaller market."

Still, comic artists will likely have a more difficult time making money, Asmussen believes. Readers rarely pay for comics online, and creators will be hard pressed to attract enough readers for a hefty paycheck from advertisements or by selling related merchandise.

That's where wants to help. The company was started by two Yahoo employees who write a comic strip in their spare time called "OK-Cancel." Kevin Cheng, who works in interaction design for Yahoo, first got noticed in the software blog community when he wrote a strip and essay for his masters' thesis on the OK-Cancel site.

Since then, he and partner Tom Chi have licensed their comic to textbooks and magazines and made their bread and butter through advertising. Now Offpanel is signing other niche artists--including a dinosaur specialist and a freelance writer--to deals that give writers 80 percent of the advertising profit.

"This could be the answer for a lot of talent out there that's never going to get a syndication deal, with newspapers in decline," said Bjordahl.

Like many comic writers, Bjordahl keeps a day job to pay the bills, but his first love is the comics. "It's amazing how much funny stuff happens when you're trying to put together software and technology." Bjordahl said. In fact, some people believe his college comic strip, "Where the Buffalo Roam," was to be on the Internet.

"I felt like Forrest Gump."