Gary Larson of "The Far Side" was the first to quit, last New Year's Day. Then, in the spring, Berke Breathed, who created "Bloom County" and later "Outland," announced that he, too, was through with comic strips.
And tomorrow, the curtain will close on another of the most popular strips in newspapers, "Calvin & Hobbes," about the raucous antics of a 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger companion. After 10 years, Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of "C&H;," wants out.
What gives? In one year, three comics superstars in the prime of their careers -- Mr. Larson is the oldest at 45 -- will have walked away from strips that are loved by millions and that earned them millions. You could say it's because they're rich and burned out. But the reason's not that simple.
Fact is, the cartooning business has changed. For older cartoonists such as Mort Walker of "Beetle Bailey," Bil Keane of "Family Circus," Hank Ketcham of "Dennis the Menace" and Charles Schulz of "Peanuts," the unwritten rule was that you created a strip and you drew it until you dropped.
Along the way, the most successful cartoonists have become mini-conglomerates, often employing assistants to help write gags, ink their panels and handle the various licensing deals for greeting cards, calendars, coffee mugs and lunch boxes.
But for many of the younger cartoonists such as Messrs. Larson, Breathed and Watterson, the landscape has changed. At a time when newspapers are shrinking the space they allot to each cartoon, these cartoonists are feeling the tug of other outlets, not the least of which are television and the emerging Internet.
"A lot of the good writing talent now goes into other fields," said Jay Kennedy, comics editor at King Features, the biggest and oldest newspaper syndicate. "With the salaries in Hollywood, talent may go there first."
Some cartoonists can't take the grind. Messrs. Larson, Breathed and Watterson all chose to work by themselves -- a relentless, seven-day-a-week routine, even with the benefit of sabbaticals, which each of them took at one time or another.
Many cartoonists think the solitary lifestyle may have done them in. "Most cartoonists work in a spare bedroom by themselves," said Mr. Walker, who began drawing "Beetle Bailey" 45 years ago and hired an assistant early on. "You lose track of the world. You don't get any input. I remember once going to the grocery store and being afraid to talk to people."
Of course, Messrs. Larson, Breathed and Watterson can well afford to walk away from their strips.
Their take from newspapers, even after their syndicates get their cut, has certainly been lucrative. Large newspapers pay only $75 to $100 per week for a strip, but when a strip runs in 1,900 papers, as "The Far Side" did, or 2,400 papers, as "C&H;" did, the money adds up.
Increasingly, the real loot comes through books and licensing deals: calendars, coffee mugs, T-shirts, stuffed animals, dolls -- you name it. Mr. Larson's Far Side Enterprises, with 19 books and a booming greeting-card business, is said to have earned more than $500 million over the years. Mr. Breathed has done well with "Bloom County" dolls. And Mr. Watterson, though he has refused to license his characters for such items as mugs and cards, has produced 14 books, each selling more than 1 million copies.
Few in the industry foresee a mass exodus of top-notch cartoonists from the business.
"You're talking about three people out of the 225 cartoonists currently syndicated," said King Features' Kennedy. "In the history of cartooning's 100 years, I can't name any others. So I don't think we're looking at a trend at all."
David Astor, who covers the syndicate industry for the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, agrees. "For most of them," he said, "it's a dream come true and they would never give it up."
That certainly includes Mr. Keane, the 36-year veteran of "Family Circus," who now follows his grandchildren around for ideas. "I wouldn't want editors to know it," said Mr. Keane, only half-jokingly, "but I would do it for free."
It also goes for Mr. Walker, the 45-year veteran of "Beetle Bailey," who drew his first cartoon at 3. "I was recently at a lunch with about 20 other cartoonists and I asked them, 'If you had $10 million in the bank, would you quit?' he said. "They all said, 'No. What would you do? What's more enjoyable?'"
Just because "Calvin and Hobbes" is disappearing from newspapers doesn't mean it is going away forever. In a farewell letter last month to newspaper editors, Mr. Watterson said, "I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises."