Between the Frames
From Chicago cop to (comic) syndicate boss, an English major finds his niche in the funnies business.
How many ’toon versions of yourself do you have?
The comic strip artists of the syndicate Universal Uclick think so highly of its president, John Glynn ’90, that they have drawn or name-checked him into over 30 strips to date. Sometimes Glynn is invited to sit in for an artist and will make his own signature tag (slipping a UMass coffee mug into a panel of Dilbert while subbing for Scott Adams, for example)—but often artists like to surprise him, such as Pearls Before Swine’s creator, Stephen Pastis.
Glynn says the Pastis drawings are his favorites but adds, “He makes me much heavier than I look in real life.”
Comic strips aren’t what first pop into your head when you think of fame, until you remember how pervasive they are. They have serious cultural clout. The print wars between Hearst and Pulitzer in the early 20th century made “funny pages” a staple, as the publishers “were trying to make daily newspaper reading a habit by hooking kids,” Glynn says.
Universal, founded in 1970 as Universal Press Syndicate, currently represents 400 comics on its GoComics site. Eighty of these are in print and include titles you immediately recognize: Doonesbury. Garfield. Cathy. Yet as anyone who has followed the fortunes of print publication knows, the 21st century has been tough for newspapers and thus for print comics.
Glynn, who joined Universal in 2000 as an associate editor, has been a big cheese in this transitional period between print and electronic media and an eyewitness to its effect on comics.
How do you become president of a comics syndicate in the first place? Glynn came to UMass as an art major, but discovering himself to be “more of a doodler,” graduated with a major in English that helped him land a copyediting job at a trade magazine in his hometown of Chicago. He moved on to a position in sales at the same organization, but “I’d get a stomachache every Sunday night,” he says—a sure sign that you are in the wrong line of work. After taking a vacation, Glynn gave his notice.
Glynn happened to have a blue-colored parachute: his grandfather and uncle had been police officers in Chicago. “They urged me, ‘Take the test!,’” he recounts. “’It’ll always be a backup!’” So he became a police officer, working midnights from 1996 to 2000.
Yet the third shift is not conducive to starting a family, which Glynn and his wife very much wanted to do. So he returned to publishing, relocating to Kansas City to work at Universal—and they now have three kids together.
You read the words in your own head, in your own voice. You don’t have to sit through an ad. It’s fast, bite-size entertainment. The investment you put in is minimal, but the payoff can be great.
Glynn’s affinity for storytelling makes him a strong judge of quality in overseeing the aggressive expansion of Universal Uclick into the digital world. “I was involved in acquisitions very early on,” he says. “Every piece of material we launch still comes over my desk.” (It also makes him a good-natured fabulist: his colorful alumni file claims that he was involved in Women’s Drill Team, Animal Husbandry Club, and Opera Workshop—all of which are rhubarb.)
It’s said that crisis and opportunity are the same thing, that how you look at a situation makes it one or the other. The squeeze on print newspapers has caused them to be less likely to take risks, limiting comic page real estate and making the entry point for new comic artists even narrower—a pinch that Glynn feels: “We used to launch three new print comics a year; now we launch one.”
However, the transition into more electronic forms does present vast opportunities—some unexpected. For example, the online format has produced a surprising new business model.
The sequence of comic merchandising used to be that a strip—such as Garfield, say—would gain traction in print and after accumulating enough material be compiled into a book. But the online format is reversing that formula. For example, after its initial success online, the innovative strip Phoebe and Her Unicorn, by Dana Simpson, went on to become a book series “and then we took it to syndication,” relates Glynn with emphasis. “In this case, it was backed by more than editorial hunch, by people actually responding to it. And it’s become one of the top seven debuts in our history.
“The audience for Phoebe showed up immediately,” Glynn continues. “It started lapping older, more established strips. It’s impressive that in this day and age a new product can have that kind of impact, and it gives us more data to convince editors to carry a comic.”
A large part of the success of online comics can be attributed to social media. Whereas you used to clip comics you identified with out of the paper and tape them to your office door, now you can “broadcast yourself on a much bigger level,” says Glynn. Sarah’s Scribbles (by Sarah Andersen), the “Heart and Brain” installments of Nick Seluk’s The Awkward Yeti, and Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language are all popular shares online.
Online comics possess a distinct advantage in allowing a freedom of expression not often found outside the editorial pages. There have been famous incidents of papers not running installments of strips like Doonesbury, Bloom County, and The Boondocks. Because of the broad nature of their markets, and the incendiary nature of today’s ideological climates, newspaper comics often play it safe. They “have a hard time pushing the envelope with anything controversial,” says Glynn.
But even though newspaper editors “have loosened up from the Eisenhower era” (Glynn’s words) and allow more controversial matter than they used to, “on GoComics, we’ll still run something a lot of editors won’t,” says Glynn—whether that content be edgy or racy.
Glynn is quick to point out that it’s too soon to declare the end of the funny pages. “It’s a misconception that everything is evolving away from print,” says Glynn. “Small and medium markets in particular are chugging along. I suspect newspapers will be around for a while—Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet have been making major investments in newspapers recently, and I don’t think anyone questions their investment acumen.”
For aficionados of popular and print culture, now is definitely an exciting time to watch—quite literally. Comic publishers like Universal Uclick are experimenting with new formats for devices, developments that could shape the way the art form is perceived and even mentally processed. Expect to see more single panels, which are best for tablets, and for more vertical layouts that facilitate storytelling while scrolling. Glynn’s firm is looking at how to reconfigure classic strips while maintaining their integrity, and exploring ways to make GoComics a deeper experience.
You might also catch a glimpse of John Glynn in your favorite comic strip, now that you know to look.