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How Comics Were Syndicated
in the Age of Metal Printing

From roughly the 1910s to the 1980s, comic syndication required a, yes, Rube Goldberg-like series of steps from cartoonist to newsprint. This will occupy at least a couple dozen pages in the book—maybe more!

For an overview of how it worked for a syndicated artist, you can watch a video below showing the process that I created for the 2022–2023 “Man Saves Comics!” exhibition at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Or follow along in text, pictures, and captions below. You can click or tap any image to expand it and then click again magnifying glass to zoom in further. (Sources provided in full with links below.)

For a quicker visual summary, see this streamlined explanation.


The Cartoonist

  1. The cartoonist draws a strip, typically at a much larger size than it will be reproduced in a newspaper. The cartoonist may apply tone by stippling or shading with lines, or—particularly in later decades—cutting shapes out of tints (in the form of tiny dots) and pasting them onto their layout boards.
  2. Sidney Smith draws a character from “The Gumps.” (The Chicago Tribune film, From Trees To Tribunes,, 1931)


The Syndicate (and Engravers)

The original art is handed off to a syndicate, which needs to shrink it to the size or sizes used in newspaper clients and produce a form that newspapers can use to create their layouts. (A syndicate may have had in-house production or, commonly, worked with an engraving company for some or all of the following.)

  1. This starts with a film negative. Using a camera, often a very large apparatus, the comic strip is photographed and reduced onto the negative.*

    Several of the steps appear here in taking a piece of original art (a drawing, ad, or other material and exposing it onto negative film. (Horan Engraving Co., The Art And Technique Of Photo-Engraving, 1952, p. 21)

  2. The negative is stripped off its underlying media and assembled with other negatives on a sheet.

    An engraver examines a negative (here of a photo) before it is exposed onto a zinc plate. (U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information [FSA/OWI], 1942, call number LC-USW3-009033-E [P&P] LOT 242)

    A negative assembler examines a sheet of negatives prepared for the next step. (Horan Engraving Co., The Art And Technique Of Photo-Engraving film, 1950s)

  3. The sheet of negative is clamped into a frame, in later years with a vacuum to ensure complete contact, on top of a zinc metal plate coated with a photosensitive emulsion. It’s exposed under intense light to harden the emulsion for the clear parts of the image, where lines, dots, and areas of black will appear in print, while masking out the opaque parts where no ink should be applied when printed.* (For color strips, four plates are made, one for each of the four printing colors: cyan, yellow, magenta, and black, or CMYK.)

    A zinc plate exposed to negatives under intense light. (Horan Co., Photo-Engraving film)

  4. The zinc plate’s photosensitive layer is developed and then coated with a fixative to prevent the image from further exposure.*

    “Fix” or fixative is poured over an exposed zinc plate to prevent further development. (“Making of a Funny,” Popular Science, June 1940, p. 85.)

  5. Now, a “Ben Day man” (most printing plant jobs were carried out by men) would add tints and solid colors as needed on the black plate, the only plate for daily black-and-white strips and one of four for color comics. To get colors beyond gray and black, tints and solid had to be added to cyan, yellow, and magenta as well, to combine to make one of hundreds of possible colors. A Ben Day artist masked the area that didn’t need tint by brushing on a water-soluble paint called gamboge. After the gamboge dried, the artist applied oily ink to a sheet of dots or lines and rubbed or burnished it over the appropriate area. The gamboge gets washed off while the oily pattern remains. This might happen several to hundreds of times across a full-color comic.

    Painting the gamboge. (Horan Co., Photo-Engraving film)

    Preparing to ink a Ben Day screen onto a plate. (“Making of a Funny,”, p. 87.)

    Burnishing the ink via a Ben Day screen. (Horan Co., Photo-Engraving film)

  6. Next, a worker takes the zinc plate and puts it into an etching bath. Any area on the plate that wasn’t hardened under light or painted with a Ben Day screen is etched away. This leaves a raised portion that matches what needs to be printed, and a relief beneath it that will not. Etching requires many passes in and out of the bath, between which the zinc plate is brushed with Dragon’s Blood, an acid resist that coats the exposed or Ben Day inked portions that helps keep the portion to be printed from being eaten away through each pass. After etching, the plate is routed to remove excess metal in the non-printing part of the plate and trimmed to size.*

    Examining a zinc plate removed from the etching bath. (Trees to Tribune film.)

    Brushing a zinc plate between etchings with Dragon’s breath. (“Making of a Funny,”, p. 86.)

    A zinc plate created for “The Wizard of Id,” 27 April 1966. (Glenn’s collection)

  7. After some finishing steps, workers would create molds, called “flongs” or “mats” (from matrix or matrices, a word for mold) by putting a piece of special raw material, like a flexible thick index paper, under pressure in contact with the plate. Depending on circulation, mats might be made in the dozens to over a thousand per strip. A week of daily comics, six for Monday through Friday, might be arranged into a single sheet for easier production and shipping.

  8. A worker makes a sheet of comics flong for a syndicate in a press, then removes it for examination. (“How Cartoons Are Syndicated,” Popular Mechanics, March 1926, p. 453)

    A sheet of six daily (Monday to Saturday) black-and-white Doonesbury comic strips on a sheet of flong (rotated to fit) from May 1973 preserved before use by someone ostensibly at the Hartford Courant (Glenn’s collection)

  9. The flongs are packaged by the mail room and sent out to newspapers.

    A mailroom worker packs comics flong to send from the syndicate to newspapers. (“How Cartoons Are Syndicated,” p. 456)


The Newspaper

A newspaper had to turn the mold back into a relief plate from which they could print. They liked doing it so much, they did it twice! Here’s why:

  1. The newspaper’s receiving office opens and processes flongs from syndicates, sometimes from several different syndicates. (They also received ads in this fashion and illustrations or photos for syndicated columns.)

    A sheet of Al Jaffee’s “Tall Tales” flongs and a proof sheet received at a newspaper office. (Los Angeles Times, A Newspaper Serves Its Community, 1959)

    A single daily Doonesbury comic in flong form from 8 May 1973 (Glenn’s collection)

  2. In the stereo department—stereo being short for “stereotype,” the term for cast lead alloy printing plates—workers take the mat, put it into a flat caster, and pour in hot lead alloy. This solidifies almost immediately. The flat plate essentially reconstructs the original etched zinc plate. The lead-cast strips are cut and filed to size.

    A Doonesbury stereotype cast at a newspaper for a May 1978 paper. (Glenn’s collection)

  3. You’d think this might be the last stage, but it is not. Layout artists compose a comics page with headlines, text, crossword puzzles, and other matter along with the cast comic strips, aligning all the non-typeset items to be “type height,” or the plane of the printing surface (0.918 inches in America). The page is “proofed,” printed on a flat press by hand to check for imperfections.

    A page-makeup person fits the last pieces into a text-heavy daily newspaper page. (U.S. FSA/OWI, 1942, call number LC-USW3-009095-E [P&P] LOT 242)

    A press operator pulls a proof of the laid-out page before the page is used to make a flong. (“Making of a Funny,”, p. 87.)

  4. From this layout, the stereo department creates a full-page flong under heavy pressure. This now represents the final stage of the page as it will be printed.

    A worker creates a flong from the laid-out comics page. (“Making of a Funny,”, p. 87.)

    The comics page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9 May 1935 in flong form. (Glenn’s collection)

  5. The flong is bent into a half-round—using yet another custom device that heats and bends it—and placed into special casting equipment that creates a full page of a newspaper as a hemispherical plate that will be mounted on rotary presses. The plate is trimmed and cleaned up, and often put on a conveyor belt that carries the roughly 40 lb (18 kg) hunk of metal to the press room.

    Manchester Guardian stereotype department workers load a curved flong into a stereotype caster. (Guardian archives, reference GUA/6/9/1/4/G box 3)

    Curved stereotype plate (parts missing) from an unknown newspaper, 1970s era. (Glenn’s collection)

  6. In the press room, a press operator hoists the plate onto the press and locks it in place. When all the plates are ready, the operator starts the press at low speed and checks quality, then ratchets up to full speed.

    A press operator loads a plate onto the rotary press. (U.S. FSA/OWI, 1942, call number LC-USW3-009067-E [P&P] LOT 242)

  7. The paper whizzes through at high speeds between rotating plates that pass through ink and then push it directly onto paper (in this era; later, there’s a more complicated process). At the far end, the printed paper is cut folded, gathered, bound in bundles, thrown on trucks, and sent out into the world.

    A press operator starts up the printing press to run the comics pages. (“Making of a Funny,”, p. 88.)


The Reader

  1. Finally, the comics reader gets the newspaper at a newsstand, train station, airport, or at their front step! They can read the most important part of the paper: the comics.

    Someone examines the comics pages. (Newspaper Story, Encyclopedia Britannica Films, Inc, 1950)

    Jazz drummer and bandleader Theodore Dudley “Red” Saunders and his wife Ella read the comics pages with their children (and dog). (U.S. FSA/OWI, 1942, call number LC-USW3-001482-D [P&P] LOT 192)


Image Sources 

Images come from a number of sources, most of them available for further study online, with links provided below. You can find scans and pictures of nearly every item in my personal collection in a Flickr album.


*My description of making a negative and exposing and etching a zinc plate is a remarkably brisk summary of a much more involved process that lasted at least until the 1950s—if not decades more in some shops—that’s fully detailed in this two-page set of illustrations and descriptions from The Printing Art: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Development of Printing and Printed Salesmanship, June 1924, pp. 336–337, as reproduced from the seemingly unobtainable The A-B-C of Photo-Engraving, Baltimore-Maryland Engraving Co., 1923.

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