by James Lincoln Warren
In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, there was a three inch column on page AA2 (in “LATEXTRA”, the section following the front page section which supposedly contains late-breaking news) stating that the Tribune Company, which owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles TV station KTLA TV (which began operations in 1942 as “W6XYZ”, the first television station west of the Mississippi), after having consulted with its creditors, has delayed presenting its revised bankruptcy plan to the court. Most of you out there probably aren’t following the story, which began back in 2008, and which has recently been made more interesting by the fact that one of the proposals for saving the company involves having former Disney CEO Michael Eisner take over. Whatever happens, the Tribune saga has been held out for the last several years as evidence of the daily newspaper’s demise.
Even after having changed corporate masters and severely slashing its staff and budget over the last several years, the Times is still hæmorrhaging money. Its subscriber base, which at one time was well over a million, is now less than seven hundred thousand—and this without any serious print competition, since arch-rival Hearst’s Herald-Examiner folded (please excuse the pun) over twenty years ago.
I don’t know if this newspaper will survive or become yet another casualty of our post literate culture. I can tell you that although there’s still a lot worth reading in it, it certainly isn’t the excellent L.A. Times I remember from when I first moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s anymore. I’m pretty sure it will hang on a while longer, but if it goes, it’s going to take a lot of things down with it.
Like comic strips. News I can get anywhere in this digital age, but reading comics online just ain’t the same. It doesn’t smell the same, you don’t get ink on your fingers, and you can’t take in the whole collection of strips at once. You can’t fold it up your netbook and shove it in your pocket, then toss it away when you’re done.
Not that I’m all that crazy about most contemporary strips these days, but I learned to read by perusing Sunday comics pages and comic books, so they fill an important place in my heart. When I lived in Brussels during my junior high school years, one of the things I most coveted was the American comics in the International Herald-Tribune.
One of the things that has mostly disappeared from the comics pages is strips that aren’t gag oriented. About the only daily strip in the Times that still tells stories is “Rex Morgan, M.D.” — there’s also “9 Chickweed Lane”, but that’s still primarily a humor strip, although it has lately metamorphozed almost into a post modern “Gasoline Alley”.
There aren’t any detectives at all.
And who could forget Secret Agent X-9? Well, just about everybody, I admit, although he survived from his inception in 1934 until last year. What really makes that particular comic strip noteworthy were the two guys who wrote and drew it during its first year: Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond, of Flash Gordon fame, who also gave us Rip Kirby, mentioned above, although when I read that excellent strip every day in the late 60s and early 70s, it was drawn by the marvelous John Prentice. (Raymond had been killed in an auto accident in 1956.)
And not just cops and private eyes. There were reporters. Yeah, OK, I hated Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, who first appeared in 1940 and is still with us, because despite the redheaded bombshell’s occasional forays into crime, it was essentially an adventurous romance strip. But Steve Roper, on the other hand, was a true crime-fighting investigative reporter, and his buddy Mike Nomad was every inch the tough unlicensed P.I.-type epitomized by Travis McGee and Matthew Scudder — although the evolution of that particular strip is a strange tale. It started as a humorous Western.
Like so many newspapers, most of these strips are long gone, and there has been nothing to replace them. But wouldn’t it be cool if detectives came back to the comics page?
If there are any comics pages.