John Hambrock is flying out today to attend the National Cartoonist Society’s convention in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he is one of the finalists for the prestigious Reuben Award for best newspaper comic strip.
But while he’s on the West Coast hobnobbing with fellow cartoonists, his creation — “The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee” — is back home, where it belongs, on the pages of the Kenosha News.
As regular readers of our comics page know, the Kenosha News recently changed its comics lineup, which is now a combined effort with the Racine Journal Times. (Both publications are owned by Lee Enterprises, and combining the pages into one package is a financial savings.)
Readers of both newspapers were asked to vote for their favorite comic strips, and Bob Heisse, the Kenosha News editor, said nearly 2,000 readers took part in the survey in February.
In Kenosha, we lost some favorites, including — in the cruelest cut — “Edison Lee,” which is created in downtown Kenosha, not far from our newspaper offices.
Despite going to bat for our hometown comic, which has been running in the Kenosha News since its November 2006 debut, Heisse said he was bound by the survey results showing reader favorites.
For a few days last week, “Edison Lee” was gone from our newspaper but, starting May 10, it was back.
Just in a slightly different spot.
Instead of running on the comics page, “Edison Lee” now has a home on our puzzles page, nestled beneath the crossword each day.
Which makes Hambrock happy.
“Facebook exploded with people asking, ‘Where’s Edison?’” Hambrock said. “I’m glad that people protested, and I was thrilled to see it back in the paper.”
“Edison Lee” is part of King Features and runs in about 120 papers, Hambrock said. When he started the daily strip almost 13 years ago, it ran in 40 papers.
“The business goes up and down,” he said. “We were part of a package King Features put together a few years ago, and we picked up about 40 papers in one day. But then we lost the Houston Chronicle, which cut two pages of comics, and that was a big loss.”
Being out of the Kenosha News, he said, “really hurt — I’m right here in the neighborhood, on Seventh Avenue.”
“Edison Lee” does still run in some major city newspapers, including the Toronto Star and Miami Herald, and it’s gone overseas, running in some newspapers in India.
“You get in some newspapers and then you lose a few,” Hambrock said. “The numbers jump around.”
A changing business
Like the newspaper industry itself, which has gone through many changes, the comic strip business has changed, too, Hambrock said.
When “Edison Lee” started out, successful strips ran in about a thousand newspapers; now, strips are lucky to hit the 100 newspaper mark.
“We’re doing better than average, and we hold out hope we can keep it going,” Hambrock said. “It’s a tough business, and no one has come up with a digital model that works yet.”
When Hambrock started “Edison Lee,” he signed a 10-year contract. Now, after 12½ years and some 4,562 strips, he’s happily surprised it’s still going.
“I thought 10 years would be it for me,” Hambrock said of that first contract. He then signed a five-year extension, which means “Edison Lee” lives on for a while.
“We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that newspapers will still run comics,” he said. “The days of being in thousands of newspapers are probably over, as are the days of making a solid living just being in newspapers.
“Cartoonists love this work, but we have to branch out and find other ways to market it. The ‘Pearls Before Swine’ creator also writes children’s books, and I’m working on an ‘Edison Lee’ graphic novel series.”
“I think comics will be around in 20 years, but the format may be different.”
As he nears his 13th anniversary of cranking out comic strips on a daily basis, Hambrock is happy that he doesn’t lack for ideas.
“I read a lot, and I observe,” he said. “You think, ‘How am I ever going to do this seven days a week?’ but the characters kind of write for themselves. They take the strip in new directions, and pretty soon it’s there.”
For “Edison Lee,” the “there” includes being in the Kenosha News. Welcome back, kid!
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