In the apocalyptic world of print media there are the upper reaches—where a Sam Zell scratches to save the bankrupt Tribune Company from $13 billion in debt. And there are the lower reaches—where $8,000 is a big deal. That’s what D.C.’s alternative weekly, City Paper, figured it would save by dropping syndicated comics.

So they’re gone now, every last one of them. Except for Ben Claassen’s Dirtfarm, the exception that proves the rule.

Claassen had an office job at City Paper a few years ago and was dying to draw a comic, but no idea seemed strong enough and the idea of a weekly deadline terrified him. At the time City Paper was running a comic called Stinkfish. “It was pretty bizarre,” he told me in an e-mail. “I asked the production manager about it, and was told that it was done by a guy named Buzz who no one really knew much about.” “Buzz” signed the strip P.J. O’Ross. Claassen says his real name was Robert Chambers.

“Buzz was a gigantic, overly energetic white-haired old man who smelled like he was homeless, and had shown up at the CityPaper office one day to ask if they would run his cartoon (then called Dirt Wolf). They didn’t quite know what to make of him, but said they would forward it on to the art director.

“The art director didn’t know what to make of his comic either, so he sent him what I imagine was a form rejection letter. Buzz showed up again about a week later. This time he asked how much it would cost to run his cartoon as an advertisement. They told him that a space that size would cost about $300 thinking he would back down and give up, but he instead said ‘OK’ and pulled three smelly $100 bills out of his sock and slapped them down on the reception desk. He did this for three months. They eventually just gave him the space.”

Claassen and Buzz became pals, and when Buzz got sick he asked Claassen to take over the cartoon. After Buzz died in 2004 Claassen renamed it Dirtfarm.

City Paper dropped its comics because in late 2007 its owner, Creative Loafing, which also owns the Reader and four other weeklies, slashed its budget. Dirtfarm survives because Claassen said he’d do it for nothing. “City Paper feels like family to me,” Claassen explains. “I called the publisher and told her that I would rather have it run for free than to not have it run at all.”

The Reader still runs Dirtfarm now and then and pays Claassen when it does, but he’s not sure how many other papers do. “I’m really bad with marketing,” he allows, “and am actually quite timid about the whole thing. I send it to a list of e-mail addresses every week, but hardly ever follow up, and rarely even bother to send out invoices.”

Publishers have always looked at cartoons as a place to save a few bucks. Remember when Jules Feiffer left the Village Voice in 1997 after a salary dispute? Among alt-weeklies, the penury has become a contagion. Village Voice Media, the chain that controls the Voice and 14 other alternative weeklies, just stopped publishing syndicated comics too. “We’re going to take another look at the end of the quarter,” associate executive editor Andy Van De Voorde told me. “There are no guarantees.”

What are you saving? I asked him. He said, “If you added it all up? Jeez, a few thousand dollars. [The comics] typically run from $20 to $35 a week [per paper] to more than that in the larger markets.”

Dan Perkins, who as Tom Tomorrow draws and writes This Modern World, lost 11 papers when Village Voice Media dropped its comics. “Believe me, I wasn’t so naive as to imagine I was going to get through this economic mess without taking some hits,” he wrote on his blog recently. “Nonetheless it’s a serious chunk of major cities to lose in one fell swoop.” Perkins told readers to complain to their local papers, and added, “Keep in mind: it’s not just my cartoon, it’s all of them.”

Max Cannon, creator of Red Meat, wasn’t so calm on his own site: “It’s a sad state of affairs,” he wrote, “and potentially the end of an industry—if you want to call it that—where a small handful of ragtag scribblers like myself have slaved for many years (for very little money, if you ever wondered) to bring you a laugh or two every week.”

Sure, Cannon conceded, “times are tough.... [But if] the humble $10 to $20 that I generally get paid for a RED MEAT strip is going to bring the whole operation tumbling down, then the alt-weekly industry is already dead on its feet.”

The headline over Cannon’s post: “The Alternative Comics Apocalypse Has Begun.”

Since the early 80s, Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook were fixtures in Reader classifieds. No more. The January 8 Reader carried one of those intricate full-page panels Groening draws about once a year, but before that, there hadn’t been an issue with comics in it since November 27, and there wouldn’t be another until January 29. Space for comics comes out of space for editorial as a whole, and there’s not enough room for all the editorial the Reader wants to run. The Reader still wants to run comics, and lots of other things it can’t fit, but readers can be forgiven for not realizing that.

When Creative Loafing bought the Reader in 2007, Barry was down to four papers. “In the past,” she e-mailed me, “every time a paper I was in was sold, the buyers usually kicked out at least some of the cartoonists right away. And my strip was usually one of the first ones to go. A sad, weird-looking comic strip isn’t something a new owner cuddles up to.”

In September 2008 Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy. “Either [Groening] told me, or I told him,” Barry went on. “We were both still in shock about the Reader getting sold. I remember telling him the news made me decide to quit my strip.” She thought she saw writing on the wall at the Reader, which paid her a lot more than other papers did. “It’s always been $80 a week since the day I started,” she wrote. “Back then it was enough for me to almost live on, in the days of $99 apartments and scrounging artist lifestyle....

“I know Matt’s conflicted about this and what he’s going to do. Like every one else, he’s in fewer and fewer papers. But he really does not want to give up his strip, he doesn’t want to quit. But quitting is lovely. I love to taunt him about how magical it is to not have a weekly deadline after 30 years.”

“It’s very difficult,” says Groening, “when you’re sitting there trying to come up with a punch line and you call up Lynda Barry and say, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ and she says, ‘Yes. Quit.'”

Life in Hell still runs in some 40 to 50 papers, most of them in the college press, Groening says—but that’s a fourth as many as used to carry it. Thanks to The Simpsons he doesn’t need the money. But “I like sitting down once a week and knocking something out all by myself,” he says. “The rest of my life is full of collaborators.” He thinks something’s happened to alt-weeklies that he doesn’t like. “There’s a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of strategy and certainly a decline of design. Alternative newspapers don’t seem to be the hippest thing around.”

If they were, Groening believes they’d look at comics differently. “When you’re looking casually at newspapers you can’t tell where the editor’s ‘delete’ button has inflicted itself on whatever you’re reading,” he says. “But when you look at a cartoon, you believe this hand-drawn, hand-written artifact has some independence.”

Groening supposes that when the last paper sends him packing he’ll continue Life in Hell online or in books. But again, he’s in a unique position to do that. The cartoonists all seem to have Web sites, but Max Cannon warned his readers not to assume comics will survive there. “None of us make our living from our Web sites,” he wrote. “Let me repeat that for emphasis: WE DON’T MAKE A LIVING FROM OUR WEB SITES.”v

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