Comic Strip


A comic strip is a sequence of drawings arranged in interrelated panels to display brief humor or form a narrative, often serialized, with text in balloons and captions. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, these were published in newspapers, with horizontal strips printed in black-and-white in daily newspapers, while Sunday newspapers offered longer sequences in special color comics sections.

Strips are written and drawn by a comics artist or cartoonist. As the name implies, comic strips can be humorous (for example, ‘gag-a-day’ strips such as ‘Blondie’ or ‘Marmaduke’). Starting in the late 1920s, comic strips expanded from their mirthful origins to feature adventure stories, as seen in ‘Popeye,’ ‘Captain Easy,’ ‘Buck Rogers,’ ‘Tarzan,’ and ‘The Adventures of Tintin.’ Soap-opera continuity strips such as ‘Judge Parker’ and ‘Mary Worth’ gained popularity in the 1940s. All are called, generically, comic strips, though cartoonist Will Eisner has suggested that ‘sequential art’ would be a better name.

Storytelling using a sequence of pictures has existed through history. One medieval European example in textile form is the tapestry. Printed examples emerged in 19th-century Germany and in 18th-century England, where some of the first satirical or humorous sequential narrative drawings were produced. English printmaker William Hogarth’s 18th century cartoons include both single panels and narrative sequences, such as ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (eight paintings showing the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift heir of a rich merchant).

The ‘Biblia pauperum’ (‘Paupers’ Bible’), a tradition of picture Bibles beginning in the later Middle Ages, sometimes depicted Biblical events with words spoken by the figures in the miniatures written on scrolls coming out of their mouths—which makes them to some extent ancestors of the modern cartoon strips. In China, with its traditions of block printing and of the incorporation of text with image, experiments with what became lianhuanhua (palm-size picture books of sequential drawings once used as political/propaganda tool for the Communist Party) date back to 1884.

The first newspaper comic strips appeared in North America in the late 19th century. ‘The Yellow Kid’ (about a bald, snaggle-toothed boy who hung around in a slum alley typical of the era) is usually credited as the first (it ran from 1895 to 1898 in the ‘New York World’). However, there are many examples of proto-comic strips. Swiss teacher, author and caricature artist Rodolphe Töpffer is considered the father of the modern comic strips. His illustrated stories such as ‘Histoire de M. Vieux Bois’ (1827), first published in the USA in 1842 as ‘The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck’ or ‘Histoire de Monsieur Jabot’ (1831), inspired subsequent generations of German and American comic artists.

In 1865, the German painter, author and caricaturist Wilhelm Busch created the strip ‘Max and Moritz,’ about two trouble-making boys, which had a direct influence on the American comic strip. ‘Max and Moritz’ was a series of severely moralistic tales in the vein of German children’s stories such as ‘Struwwelpeter’ (‘Shockheaded Peter’); in one, the boys, after perpetrating some mischief, are tossed into a sack of grain, run through a mill and consumed by a flock of geese. Max and Moritz provided an inspiration for German immigrant Rudolph Dirks, who created the ‘Katzenjammer Kids’ in 1897. Familiar comic-strip iconography such as stars for pain, sawing logs for snoring, speech balloons, and thought balloons originated in Dirks’ strip.

Hugely popular, ‘Katzenjammer Kids’ occasioned one of the first comic-strip copyright ownership suits in the history of the medium. When Dirks left William Randolph Hearst for the promise of a better salary under Joseph Pulitzer, it was an unusual move, since cartoonists regularly deserted Pulitzer for Hearst. In a highly unusual court decision, Hearst retained the rights to the name “Katzenjammer Kids”, while creator Dirks retained the rights to the characters. Hearst promptly hired Harold Knerr to draw his own version of the strip. Dirks renamed his version ‘Hans and Fritz’ (later, ‘The Captain and the Kids’). Thus, two versions distributed by rival syndicates graced the comics pages for decades. Dirks’ version, eventually distributed by United Feature Syndicate, ran until 1979.

In America, the great popularity of comics sprang from the newspaper war (1887 onwards) between Pulitzer and Hearst. ‘The Little Bears’ (1893–96) was the first American comic with recurring characters, while the first color comic supplement was published by the ‘Chicago Inter-Ocean’ sometime in the latter half of 1892, followed by the New York Journal’s first color Sunday comic pages in 1897. In 1912, Hearst introduced the nation’s first full daily comic page in his ‘New York Evening Journal.’ Formerly events in newspaper comic strips reverberated throughout society at large, though few of these events occurred in recent years, owing mainly to the declining role of the newspaper comic strip as an entertainment form. (In 1993, Lynn Johnston’s ‘For Better or for Worse’ created an uproar when one of its supporting characters came out of the closet and announced he was gay.)

Newspaper comic strips come in two different types: daily strips and Sunday strips. Most newspaper comic strips are syndicated; a syndicate hires people to write and draw a strip and then distributes it to many newspapers for a fee. A few newspaper strips are exclusive to one newspaper. For example, the ‘Pogo’ comic strip by Walt Kelly originally appeared only in the ‘New York Star’ in 1948 and was not picked up for syndication until the following year. Daily strips usually are printed in black and white, and Sunday strips are usually in color. The two conventional formats for newspaper comics are strips and single gag panels. The strips are usually displayed horizontally, wider than they are tall. Single panels are square, circular or taller than they are wide. Strips usually, but not always, are broken up into several smaller panels with continuity from panel to panel. A horizontal strip can also be used for a single panel with a single gag, as seen occasionally in Mike Peters’ ‘Mother Goose and Grimm.’

During the 1930s, the original art for a daily strip could be drawn as large as 25 inches wide by six inches high. As strips have become smaller, the number of panels have been reduced. The popularity and accessibility of strips meant they were often clipped and saved; authors including John Updike and Ray Bradbury have written about their childhood collections of clipped strips. Often posted on bulletin boards, clipped strips had an ancillary form of distribution when they were faxed, photocopied or mailed. The Baltimore Sun’s Linda White recalled, ‘I followed the adventures of Winnie Winkle, Moon Mullins and Dondi, and waited each fall to see how Lucy would manage to trick Charlie Brown into trying to kick that football. (After I left for college, my father would clip out that strip each year and send it to me just to make sure I didn’t miss it.)’

Proof sheets were the means by which syndicates provided newspapers with black-and-white line art for the reproduction of strips (which they arranged to have colored in the case of Sunday strips). Michigan State University Comic Art Collection librarian Randy Scott describes these as ‘large sheets of paper on which newspaper comics have traditionally been distributed to subscribing newspapers. Typically each sheet will have either six daily strips of a given title or one Sunday strip. Thus, a week of ‘Beetle Bailey’ would arrive at the ‘Lansing State Journal’ in two sheets, printed much larger than the final version and ready to be cut apart and fitted into the local comics page.’ Comic strip historian Allan Holtz described how strips were provided as mats (the plastic or cardboard trays in which molten metal is poured to make plates) or even plates ready to be put directly on the printing press. He also notes that with electronic means of distribution becoming more prevalent printed sheets ‘are definitely on their way out.’

Single panels usually, but not always, are not broken up and lack continuity. The daily ‘Peanuts’ is a strip, and the daily ‘Dennis the Menace’ is a single panel. J. R. Williams’ long-run ‘Out Our Way’ continued as a daily panel even after it expanded into a Sunday strip, ‘Out Our Way with the Willets.’ Jimmy Hatlo’s ‘They’ll Do It Every Time’ was often displayed in a two-panel format with the first panel showing some deceptive, pretentious, unwitting or scheming human behavior and the second panel revealing the truth of the situation.

Early daily strips were large, often running the entire width of the newspaper, and were sometimes three or more inches high. Initially, a newspaper page included only a single daily strip, usually either at the top or the bottom of the page. By the 1920s, many newspapers had a comics page on which many strips were collected together. Over decades, the size of daily strips became smaller and smaller, until by the year 2000, four standard daily strips could fit in an area once occupied by a single daily strip.

Early Sunday strips, such as ‘Thimble Theatre’ and ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ filled an entire newspaper page, a format known to collectors as ‘full page.’ Sunday pages during the 1930s and into the 1940s often carried a secondary strip by the same artist as the main strip. No matter whether it appeared above or below a main strip, the extra strip was known as the ‘topper,’ such as ‘The Squirrel Cage’ which ran along with ‘Room and Board,’ both drawn by Gene Ahern.

During the 1930s, the original art for a Sunday strip was usually drawn quite large. For example, in 1930, Russ Westover drew his ‘Tillie the Toiler’ Sunday page at a size of 17″ × 37″. In 1937, the cartoonist Dudley Fisher launched the innovative ‘Right Around Home,’ drawn as a huge single panel filling an entire Sunday page. Full-page strips were eventually replaced by strips half that size. Strips such as ‘The Phantom’ and ‘Terry and the Pirates’ began appearing in a format of two strips to a page in full-size newspapers, such as the ‘New Orleans Times Picayune,’ or with one strip on a tabloid page, as in the ‘Chicago Sun-Times.’ When Sunday strips began to appear in more than one format, it became necessary for the cartoonist to allow for rearranged, cropped or dropped panels. During World War II, because of paper shortages, the size of Sunday strips began to shrink. After the war, strips continued to get smaller and smaller because of increased paper and printing costs. The last full-page comic strip was a 1971 ‘Prince Valiant’ strip.

The decade of the 1960s saw the rise of underground newspapers, which often carried comic strips, such as ‘Fritz the Cat’ and ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.’ ‘Zippy the Pinhead’ initially appeared in underground publications in the 1970s before being syndicated. ‘Bloom County’ and ‘Doonesbury’ began as strips in college newspapers under different titles, and later moved to national syndication. Underground comic strips covered subjects that are usually taboo in newspaper strips, such as sex and drugs. Many underground artists, notably Vaughn Bode, Dan O’Neill, Gilbert Shelton, and Art Spiegelman went on to draw comic strips for magazines such as ‘Playboy,’ ‘National Lampoon,’ and Pete Millar’s ‘CARtoons.’ Jay Lynch graduated from undergrounds to alternative weekly newspapers to ‘Mad’ and children’s books.

Webcomics, also known as online comics and internet comics, are comics that are available to read on the Internet. Many are exclusively published online, while some are published in print but maintain a web archive for either commercial or artistic reasons. Two of the most popular are ‘Penny Arcade,’ focused primarily on video gaming, and ‘User Friendly,’ which bases its humor on the Internet and other computer-user issues. The majority of traditional newspaper comic strips have some Internet presence. King Features Syndicate and other syndicates often provide archives of recent strips on their websites. Some, such as Scott Adams, creator of ‘Dilbert,’ include an email address in each strip.

Most comic strip characters do not age throughout the strip’s life, but in some strips, like Lynn Johnston’s award-winning ‘For Better or For Worse,’ the characters do. The first strip to feature aging characters was ‘Gasoline Alley.’ A number of strips have featured animals (‘funny animals’) as main characters. Some are non-verbal (‘Marmaduke’), some have verbal thoughts but are not understood by humans, (‘Garfield,’ ‘Snoopy’), and some can converse with humans (‘Bloom County,’ ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ‘Mutts’). Other strips are centered entirely on animals, as in ‘Pogo’ and ‘Donald Duck.’ Gary Larson’s ‘The Far Side’ was unusual, as there were no central characters; it used a wide variety of characters including humans, monsters, aliens, chickens, cows, worms, and amoebas. John McPherson’s ‘Close to Home’ also uses this theme, though the characters are mostly restricted to humans and real-life situations. Wiley Miller not only mixes human, animal, and fantasy characters, but also does several different comic strip continuities under one umbrella title, ‘Non Sequitur.’ Bob Thaves’s ‘Frank & Ernest’ began in 1972 and paved the way for some of these strips, as its human characters were manifest in diverse forms — as animals, vegetables, and minerals.

The comics have long held a distorted mirror to contemporary society, and almost from the beginning have been used for political or social commentary. This ranged from the conservative slant of ‘Little Orphan Annie’ to the unabashed liberalism of ‘Doonesbury.’ ‘Pogo’ used animals to particularly devastating effect, caricaturing many prominent politicians of the day as animal denizens of Pogo’s Okeefenokee Swamp. In a fearless move, Pogo’s creator Walt Kelly took on Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, caricaturing him as a bobcat named ‘Simple J. Malarkey,’ a megalomaniac who was bent on taking over the characters’ birdwatching club and rooting out all undesirables. Kelly also defended the medium against possible government regulation in the McCarthy era. At a time when comic books were coming under fire for supposed sexual, violent, and subversive content, Kelly feared the same would happen to comic strips. Going before the Congressional subcommittee, he proceeded to charm the members with his drawings and the force of his personality. The comic strip was safe for satire.

During the early 20th century, comic strips were widely associated with publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose papers had the largest circulation of strips in the United States. Hearst was notorious for his practice of yellow journalism (poorly researched and sensationalist news), and he was frowned on by readers of ‘The New York Times’ and other newspapers which featured few or no comic strips. Hearst’s critics often assumed that all the strips in his papers were fronts for his own political and social views. He did occasionally work with or pitch ideas to cartoonists, most notably his continued support of George Herriman’s ‘Krazy Kat.’ An inspiration for Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Watterson and other cartoonists, ‘Krazy Kat’ gained a considerable following among intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s.

Some comic strips, such as ‘Doonesbury’ and ‘The Boondocks,’ may be printed on the editorial or op-ed page rather than the comics page because of their regular political commentary. For example, the August 12, 1974 Doonesbury strip won a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of the Watergate scandal. ‘Dilbert’ is sometimes found in the business section of a newspaper instead of the comics page because of the strip’s commentary about office politics, and ‘Tank McNamara’ often appears on the sports page because of its subject matter.

The ‘Great Comic Strip Switcheroonie,’ held in 1997 on April Fool’s Day, was an event in which dozens of prominent artists took over each other’s strips. Garfield’s Jim Davis, for example, switched with Blondie’s Stan Drake, while Scott Adams (‘Dilbert’) traded strips with Bil Keane (‘The Family Circus’). Even the United States Postal Service got into the act, issuing a series of commemorative stamps marking the comic-strip centennial in 1996. While the Switcheroonie was a one-time publicity stunt, for one artist to take over a feature from its originator is an old tradition in newspaper cartooning (as it is in the comic book industry). In fact, the practice has made possible the longevity of the genre’s more popular strips. Examples include ‘Little Orphan Annie’ (drawn and plotted by Harold Gray from 1924 to 1944 and thereafter by a succession of artists including Leonard Starr and Andrew Pepoy), and ‘Terry and The Pirates,’ started by Milton Caniff in 1934 and picked up by George Wunder.

The competition between papers for having more cartoons than the rest from the mid-1920s, the growth of large-scale newspaper advertising during most of the thirties, paper rationing during World War II, the decline on news readership (as television newscasts began to be more common), and inflation (which has caused higher printing costs) beginning during the fifties and sixties led to Sunday strips being published on smaller and more diverse formats. Daily strips have suffered as well, in 1910 the strips had an unlimited amount of panels, covering the entire width page, while by 1930 most ‘dailies’ had four or five panels covering six of the eight columns occupied by a traditional broadsheet paper, by 1958 those four panels would be narrower and have half the space of a 1910 daily, and by 1998 most strips would have three panels only (with a few exceptions). While most cartoonist decided to follow the tide, some have complained, with ‘Pogo’ ending in 1975 as a form of protest.

Since then Bill Watterson has written extensively on the issue, arguing that size reduction and dropped panels reduce both the potential and freedom of a cartoonist. After a lengthy battle with his syndicator, Watterson won the privilege of making half page-sized Sunday strips where he could arrange the panels any way he liked. Many newspaper publishers and a few cartoonists objected to this, and some papers continued to print ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ at small sizes. ‘Opus’ won that same privilege years after ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ ended, while Wiley Miller circumvented further downsizings by making his ‘Non Sequitur’ Sunday strip available only in an extremely vertical (near-page-long) arrangement. Few newspapers still run half-page strips, as with ‘Prince Valiant’ and ‘Hagar the Horrible’ in the front page of the ‘Reading Eagle Sunday’ comics section.

In an issue related to size limitations, Sunday comics are often bound to rigid formats that allow their panels to be rearranged in several different ways while remaining readable. Such formats usually include throwaway panels at the beginning, which some newspapers will omit for space. As a result, cartoonists have less incentive to put great efforts into these panels. ‘Garfield’ and ‘Mutts’ were known during the mid-to-late 80s and 1990s respectively for their throwaways on their Sunday strips, however both strips now run ‘generic’ title panels.

With the success of ‘The Gumps’ during the 1920s, it became commonplace for strips (comedy- and adventure-laden alike) to have lengthy stories spanning weeks or months. The ‘Monarch of Medioka’ story in Floyd Gottfredson’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic strip ran from September 8, 1937 to May 2, 1938. Between the 1960s and the late 1980s, as television news relegated newspaper reading to an occasional basis rather than daily, syndicators were abandoning long stories and urging cartoonists to switch to simple daily gags, or week-long ‘storylines’ (with six consecutive, mostly unrelated, strips following a same subject), with longer narratives being used mainly on adventure-based and dramatic strips. Strips begun during the mid-1980s or after (such as ‘Get Fuzzy,’ ‘Over the Hedge,’ and others) are known for their heavy use of storylines, lasting between one and three weeks in most cases.

The writing style of comic strips changed as well after World War II. With an increase in the number of college-educated readers, there was a shift away from slapstick comedy and towards more cerebral humor. Slapstick and visual gags became more confined to Sunday strips, because as ‘Garfield’ creator Jim Davis put it, ‘Children are more likely to read Sunday strips than dailies.’

Many older strips are no longer drawn by the original cartoonist, who has either died or retired. Such strips are known as ‘zombie strips.’ A cartoonist, paid by the syndicate or sometimes a relative of the original cartoonist, continues writing the strip, a tradition that became commonplace in the early half of the 20th century. ‘Hägar the Horrible’ and ‘Frank and Ernest’ are both drawn by the sons of the creators. Some strips which are still in affiliation with the original creator are produced by small teams or entire companies, such as Jim Davis’ ‘Garfield,’ however there is some debate if these strips fall in this category.

This act is commonly criticized by modern cartoonists including Bill Watterson and Pearls Before Swine’s Stephan Pastis. The issue was addressed in six consecutive ‘Pearls’ strips in 2005. Charles Schulz requested that his strip not be continued by another cartoonist after his death. He also rejected the idea of hiring an inker or letterer, comparing it to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts. Schulz’s family has honored his wishes and refused numerous proposals by syndicators to continue ‘Peanuts’ with a new author.

Starting in the late 1940s, the national syndicates which distributed newspaper comic strips subjected them to very strict censorship. ‘Li’l Abner’ was censored in September 1947 and was pulled from papers by Scripps-Howard. The controversy, as reported in ‘Time,’ centered on Capp’s portrayal of the U.S. Senate. Said Edward Leech of Scripps, ‘We don’t think it is good editing or sound citizenship to picture the Senate as an assemblage of freaks and crooks… boobs and undesirables.’ Because historically comics have been considered mostly for children, they have a significantly more rigid censorship code than other media.

Stephan Pastis has lamented that the ‘unwritten’ censorship code is still “stuck somewhere in the 1950s.’ Generally, comics are not allowed to include such words as ‘damn,’ ‘sucks,’ ‘screwed,’ and ‘hell.’ Naked backsides and shooting guns cannot be shown, according to ‘Dilbert’ cartoonist Scott Adams. Many issues such as sex, narcotics, and terrorism cannot or can very rarely be openly discussed in strips, although there are exceptions, usually for satire, as in ‘Bloom County.’ This led some cartoonists to resort to double entendre or dialogue children do not understand, as in Greg Evans’ ‘Luann.’ Young cartoonists have claimed commonplace words, images, and issues should be allowed in the comics.


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