Comic Timing Coincidence?
July 2, 2008 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Recently I keep thinking that there is some sort of mild conspiracy going on between print comic strip artists. One day, three strips will have a gag involving a scarecrow. The next day, two or three other strips will have a joke about stop signs. The day after that, several comics will be about a wheelbarrow, or the moon, or some same-themed idea. Is this coincidence?

Sometimes it is shared among single-panel comics, and sometimes the idea is spread over the regular 4-panel strips as well. Since comic strips are drawn well in advance, it seems to me that there must be some sort of agreement (or mild-mannered conspiracy, if you will) about 'what to draw' for a certain day. Does anybody know anything about how this is accomplished? A yearly meeting of comic strip artists where this agenda is set? A website where they sign up for days involving ideas that they have already had? Or is it just statistically valid, although improbable, that a changing but certain number of strips will feature the same joke on the same day?
posted by eaglehound to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think there are usually several days worth of comic strips stockpiled in advance for print, rather than there being a specific strip for each day. So perhaps there is an editor who picks out which strips to use each day, and happens to pick ones with similar jokes, whether on purpose or not.

That said, confirmation bias seems to be the stock answer to this sort of question now, and if you see a random set of comics every day it's not too unlikely that eventually a group of them will have the same subject.
posted by lucidium at 8:49 AM on July 2, 2008

Mm, most print comics are dated, and while the deadlines are a couple of weeks in advance, they most certainly have a specific order.

Syndicated cartoonists do seem to communicate in their little social group, though, and they have conspired before, though I'm struggling to find a link for this. Didn't several trade strips for a day, drawing each others work? And haven't they often done joint tributes for dead artists?

One link I can find easily shows that editorial cartoonists, for their part, certainly hit the same notes sometimes.
posted by rokusan at 8:56 AM on July 2, 2008

What comics strips specifically? Lots of comics, especially those created by Mort Walker are written/drawn by teams that have worked on other comics with other artists and even with relatives. The authors/creators know each other and have worked together, they could very well be adding these hidden bits to comics.
posted by Science! at 9:00 AM on July 2, 2008

I think there are usually several days worth of comic strips stockpiled in advance for print,

What about all the comics with a continuing plot?

Now, there are a lot of comics that share writers/artists (I think someone from "Apartment 3G" works on "Six Chicks," for instance). And writers/artists do collaborate once in a while (like when all the comics were celebrating Blondie's 100,000 year).
posted by Airhen at 9:00 AM on July 2, 2008

I would imagine some comic strip artists have similar 'inspiration' filters and some news item, article, or general social meme floating around at any given time would maybe trigger a response among those scribbling few who pick it up. A month or two later - hola!, cluster themes mysteriously appear and disperse.

So as comic strip artists don't work in a cultural vacuum, if you read a whole lotta strips, random patterns would inevitably emerge.
posted by freya_lamb at 9:02 AM on July 2, 2008

Okay, I'm one of those comic strip creators. Here's the secret view from the inside. There's is no secret view.

While there are occasions when cartooning groups (think the National Cartoonist Society) will suggest its members add something to their comics to commemorate something or rather, it's only a suggestion and usually it's a big event or at least big for comics people. (I recall doing a panel honoring emergency workers after 911 and another to salute Dick Tracy's 50th anniversary.)

For random ideas it is indeed pure coincidence ... and amazing at that. For one thing, we all work ahead and assign dates to our individual comics. Right now my syndicate has all my cartoons into September. Others work a little closer to deadline. Some because they're topical; some because, well, it's hard and they're late.

That's why it makes things like the following so weird.

I once did a panel essentially saying that before the Great Wall of China, there was the Great Red Velvet Rope of China. You can picture it ... a couple of beefy Chinese bouncers checking mongol horde members off their clipboards before allowing them into the country. The day that ran, not one but two other single panel cartoonists had the exact same idea. We actually emailed each other (one I knew ... one I didn't) and marvelled over the coincidence.

I once did a panel about the guy who invented the telephone tree answering system and his first day in hell. He encounters no Satan but a desk and a phone asking him to Press 1 for boiling oil, 2 for Eternal labor and so on. Turns out, the day the panel runs is the day after the actual real guy who invented that sytem dies. Hooo boy did I get some mail.

Yes, some of us in the business are friends. But we're spread out all over and mostly work in isolation. Probably the one biggest gathering is the NCS annual weekend (just took place over Memorial Day in New Orleans) but I've never seen anything discussed about coordinating ideas. Though there was the one tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we pick a day and all of us put the word 'suck' in our cartoons just to see what newspaper editors would do.

I can't issue an ironclad guaranty, but from what I've seen in the ten years or so I've been doing this, it's 99% coincidence.
posted by lpsguy at 9:18 AM on July 2, 2008 [17 favorites]

It's a conspiracy! They are all plotting against us.
posted by Ponderance at 9:21 AM on July 2, 2008

Thanks for asking this question. This is something I've noticed for years and wondered about as well.
As a kid I imagined each comic strip's artist/writer would be sitting in their own cube at the newspaper's office and each week they'd be given a write-about-this-if-you're-out-of-ideas topic and they could choose to use it in their strip or not.
That was obviously not how it worked. =)
I'd love to find the definite answer.
posted by simplethings at 9:26 AM on July 2, 2008

I've noticed this, too. Especially with Foxtrot (in the past), Get Fuzzy, and Pearls Before Swine. There may have been one more.
posted by peep at 9:42 AM on July 2, 2008

The Comics Curmudgeon is pretty good at pointing out these moments.
posted by pised at 9:45 AM on July 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, lpsguy, and others. What I marvel at is that these shared comic elements are not socially topical, or political, or laudatory (like the 50 years of Dick Tracy), but rather prosaic items like the moon, tripping over a rock, or catnip. If it were fireworks around July 4th or electoral jokes, that would be one thing. But it is that essential randomness that keeps me wondering about artist cooperation.

I know that the Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine guys are friends, so they make private in-jokes sometimes. But these coincidences involve a far larger group than just them.

I only follow Questionable Content on the web -- do others who follow both print and web comics see any patterns there?
posted by eaglehound at 9:59 AM on July 2, 2008

Once in a blue moon there is a collaborative effort in the industry -- usually to pay homage to a colleague experiencing a particular milestone or to call attention to a failing of the industry itself. But that's only on occasion.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:00 AM on July 2, 2008

Of course there was always the Big Comic Switcheroo of 1997.
posted by svenvog at 10:28 AM on July 2, 2008

I have had similar questions about TV reruns, particularly dramas, particularly Law & Order and other shows on TNT's Primetime in the Daytime. Like on the first one, the suspect will be a teacher, and on the second one, the actual killer will be a teacher, and then on the third one the suspect will again be a teacher. Or Lenny's wisecrack at the beginning will be almost identical in three consecutive episodes. Or the same character actor will play the suspect's sister, then the judge, then the suspect in three. You get the idea. In fact, it kind of drives me crazy if I start thinking about it too much. Which is less likely: that it's all a coincidence/confirmation bias, or that the person who picks the eps actually bothers to choose them based on knowledge of their contents? I don't know.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:47 AM on July 2, 2008

I used to work for a syndicated cartoonist, and I can verify that, on occasion, cartoonists will synchronize strips for a gag or something. Even though the strips are done weeks (months, if you're really good) in advance, they are all printed on specific dates. it's quite easy to organize a scarecrow gag day, for instance.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:18 PM on July 2, 2008

Collective unconscious?
posted by boy detective at 5:34 PM on July 2, 2008

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