Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the art of the newspaper comic strip.
Newspaper Comics 101: The Gags
Rarely has an art form experienced as astonishing a rise in popularity and esteem as the newspaper comic strip did in the 20th century, and rarely has an art form fallen out of favor as abruptly and alarmingly. During the “yellow journalism” wars of the late 19th century, publishers relied on cartoons to drive up circulation, and in the decades that followed, newspapers developed large, lavish comics sections, with features meant to appeal to children and adults alike. Intellectuals of the early 20th century wrote essays hailing what was being called an original American art, and the creators of the best-read strips became household names. The boom-times for newspaper comics extended deep into the second half of the 20th century as well, as paperback collections and merchandise turned the biggest strips into cash cows for their syndicates.
But the seeds of the format’s decline were being sowed then too, with editors shrinking and cutting sections, newspaper readership declining, and the strips themselves developing a reputation for being hacked-out and pitched to the lowest common denominator. As comics in general have begun to be taken more seriously in the 21st century, many of the best strips are starting to be collected in handsome, well-received anthologies. And yet some comics fans still tend to think of newspaper comics as the schlocky, mass-market end of the medium, not as worthy of serious consideration as graphic novels and long-form adventure books.
Part of this loss of prestige stems from the generally low opinion of the “gag-a-day” comic, which in recent decades has become dominant. At their worst, gag-a-days are bland, obvious, and unfunny, with poorly drawn, generic characters delivering punchlines derived from bewildered reactions to common phenomena. (Boy, people sure do like their cell phones these days, huh? And what’s with the kids and their videogames?) But it wasn’t always this way. Bud Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff became one of the first nationwide comic-strip hits when it went into syndication in 1908, and samples of its glory years remain genuinely amusing today, with Fisher’s scratchy art and rapid-fire rhythms propelling the adventures of a lanky grifter and his diminutive, oft-beaten-up partner. In the era of classic silent-movie comedy, Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff supplemented ace slapstick with charmingly slangy dialogue, setting the standard for the broadly comic comic.
Post-Mutt And Jeff, gag-oriented strips largely competed with increasingly complex and gorgeously drawn adventure comics. But the tide began to turn decisively toward humor on the funny pages after World War II. Many of the new breed of cartoonists drew their inspiration from Percy Crosby’s kid-oriented Skippy, a soft, sweet strip about a young boy with an alternately mature and limited understanding of our wonderful, woeful world. When Ernie Bushmiller took over Larry Whittington’s flapper comic Fritzi Ritz, he added a niece character who became the strip’s star, and throughout the ’30s and ’40s refined Nancy into a minimalist masterpiece that both sanctified kid culture and explored the comic possibilities of simplified design. And bestselling children’s book author/illustrator Crockett Johnson set new standards in gentle whimsy with Barnaby, a strip about a kind-hearted 5-year-old boy and his cigar-chomping, trouble-stirring fairy godfather.
But all these strips about children were just laying the groundwork for Peanuts, Charles Schulz’s sensational explication of childhood angst. Peanuts began as a jokey strip about the mischievous Charlie Brown and his tiny-bodied, giant-headed friends. Then Schulz gradually began to deepen his characters, giving them distinctively adult traits: depression, insecurity, crabbiness, fear, etc. He allowed Peanuts to get weirder as well, following Charlie Brown’s arrogant dog Snoopy into wild fantasies. Schulz made jokes about the fads of the day, and like Bushmiller, he developed a style that was deceptively simple. But what’s made Peanuts resonate with so many people over the years is how astutely—and unflinchingly—Schulz described feeling unlovable. In the strip’s ’60s and ’70s heyday, life was always like eating a peanut-butter sandwich alone on an uncomfortable school playground park bench.
Along with Peanuts, Walt Kelly’s Pogo helped reinvigorate the funny pages when it debuted as a daily in 1948. A former Disney animator and stalwart of funny-animal comic books, Kelly transitioned to newspapers in his mid-’30s, and brought with him a more sophisticated level of draftsmanship than the Schulz/Bushmiller school, along with a love of language to rival the late, great George Herriman. Ostensibly a strip about the colorful denizens of Okefenokee Swamp, Pogo expanded over time into a potent satire of contemporary political issues, tackling everything from McCarthyism to pollution. And Kelly played with the form of the comic strip as well, tinkering with everything from typography to the strictures of the panels.
Where Kelly used allegory and allusion to go after politicians, Garry Trudeau’s incendiary Doonesbury named names. Originating as a strip in the Yale student newspaper in the late ’60s, Doonesbury entered syndication in 1970, at a time when the guardians of popular culture were turning to scruffy youngsters to reclaim an audience that the mainstream had lost. Trudeau had the good fortune to launch a political strip in thick of Vietnam and the Nixon administration, and over the course of the ensuing decades—right up to now—Doonesbury would comment on changing social mores, the rigidity of some American institutions, and the frequently broken promises of the men and women who capture the nation’s imagination every few years. What’s set Doonesbury apart from the other blunt political comics that came in its wake is that Trudeau filtered his scrutiny of public figures through the eyes of a rich, varied, and a likable cast of characters. He may become disgusted with the rich and powerful, but Trudeau has always maintained a spirit of generosity toward the people he’s created, be they liberal or conservative.
Like Doonesbury, Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County started in a college paper and was overtly political, but while Breathed’s drawing (and lettering) style resembled Trudeau’s, his strip was closer in spirit to Pogo, taking place in a small community populated by talking animals and eccentric humans. Also unlike Doonesbury, Bloom County sometimes used cultural references as an end in themselves, telling jokes that were funny but not especially resonant. Still, the strip was beautifully drawn and energetic, and became hugely popular in the ’80s, when biting social satire was in shorter supply. Breathed pulled the plug in 1989 and went on to other things, but for a while, he and a handful of other young cartoonists brought a star quality to the comics page that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of Frank King and Harold Gray.
One of those stars was Gary Larson, whose single-panel comic The Far Side combined the whimsy of magazine cartooning, the sick wit of B. Kliban, and an appealing retro-’50s nerdiness. Post-Larson, there was a spike in absurdist single-panels, none of which were in Larson’s league in terms of clarity or imagination.
The biggest talent to emerge in the ’80s was Bill Watterson, whose Calvin And Hobbes took the “kids have it rough” premises of Skippy and Peanuts and narrowed the focus to one cranky grade-schooler and his eternally optimistic stuffed tiger. Few works of popular art have ever been as successful at capturing how a child’s imagination can be so vivid that the intrusion of school and chores is like a crime against nature. But Watterson didn’t let his hero off the hook either; Calvin And Hobbes skillfully satirized the shallowness of the kid-oriented popular culture Calvin loved, as well as the hero’s unearned sense of entitlement.
Like Breathed, Larson and Watterson ended their comics after short runs (1980-95 for The Far Side; 1985-95 for Calvin And Hobbes), and Breathed and Watterson also used their time at the top to advocate for a return to the days of larger, more art-oriented comics in the newspaper. But they didn’t change many editors’ minds. Instead, the next wave of popular cartoonists learned to make do with less, by utilizing drawing styles so stripped-down that even Schulz and Bushmiller would’ve found them spare. But what they lack in illustrative chops, Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, Scott Adams’ Dilbert, and Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine make up in wit, as all three cartoons use their small spaces and tiny (but cleanly drawn) figures to make jokes about modern family life, modern office life, and even the modern comic-strip format itself. Increasingly in the ’90s and ’00s, the comics page became overwhelmed by legacy strips and comics targeted to specific demographics. While FoxTrot, Dilbert, and Pearls Before Swine are gag-a-days designed to be clipped and posted on office bulletin boards or family refrigerators, they have the advantage of actually being funny a good portion of the time.
That said, fans of this dying medium should be grateful that Richard Thompson’s Cul De Sac is around to see the comic strip out with grace and dignity. A fine heir to Peanuts and Calvin And Hobbes, Cul De Sac follows bossy pre-schooler Alice Otterloop and her picky, painfully shy brother Petey as they navigate school and suburban life. On the surface, Cul De Sac seems like another of the glut of demographically desirable newspaper comics, all about children and families and middle-class neighborhoods. But Thompson has an appealingly loose line that he’s carried over from his career in magazine illustration, and a sense of humor that recognizes the innate weirdness in everything from compact cars to children’s entertainers. Cul De Sac serves up gentle satire, because Thompson seems delighted by the world even at its peskiest. And unlike so many modern strips populated by interchangeable stereotypes, each character in Cul De Sac is idiosyncratic and essential, enhancing a comic world that grows richer every year.
Intermediate Work: The Adventures
Early-20th-century newspapers offered a mix of political cartoons, ornate children’s fantasies, and corny jokes, but a few clever artists found ways to expand the capabilities of the format—and win the kind of loyal readership that editors love—by introducing serialized storytelling. Sidney Smith’s The Gumps started out in 1917 as an overtly humorous comic strip, about the perpetual woes of a middle-class family. But in the ’20s, Smith began developing narratives that would run on for weeks and even months, keeping readers anxious for the next day’s installment. He even killed off a character in 1929, prompting a flood of mail from distraught readers. Before long, other cartoonists started aping what Smith was doing, and strips like Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google, George McManus’ Bringing Up Father, and Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse began mixing short comic storylines and gag-a-day strips with long-form stories—sometimes laced with high melodrama, and sometimes more low-key.
The master of this new hybrid of domestic comedy and cliffhanger action was Frank King, whose Gasoline Alley started as an observational humor strip about tubby bachelor Walt Wallet and the oddball automobile enthusiasts with whom he hung out. Then Walt found a baby on his doorstep in 1921, and King began spinning long stories about Walt raising “Skeezix,” while fighting off spurious claims from people who claimed to be the boy’s parents. He’d also send Walt and Skeezix out on long car trips across America that lasted for months and contained a wealth of regional detail and gentle jokes. Gasoline Alley’s biggest claim to fame was that its characters aged in real time; Skeezix grew up and had kids, while Walt got married and grew old. But the strip was also remarkable for its artistry, as King played around with page and panel design, and strove to replicate the “this too shall pass” rhythms of everyday life.
Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie wasn’t a hybrid; it was pure melodrama, and one of the most thrilling (and successful) strips ever to grace the funnies. Gray may have used his rollercoaster narratives to advance his conservative political views—pro-American business, pro-heartland, anti-collectivism, anti-crime—but that didn’t make the stunning turns of fortune of industrialist Daddy Warbucks and his plucky ward Annie any less exciting to follow, because in the strip’s early years at least, Gray made sure that Little Orphan Annie was emotionally involving, not just some tract. (The best years of Annie compare to Doonesbury in that way, even though the two strips’ politics and style are very different.) As much as any other adventure strip of the ’20s and ’30s, Little Orphan Annie is a page-turner, with Annie enduring one injustice after another while using her wits and courage to overcome adversity and even thrive—until the next crisis comes along, that is. No wonder the comic was so popular during the Depression.
Both E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre and V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop treated wild adventure with levity and variety. The former debuted in 1919 but really found its voice in 1929, when Segar introduced a pugnacious sailor named Popeye. The latter began in 1932 as a strip about a domesticated caveman, but hit its stride in 1939, when Hamlin gave the title character access to a time machine. Both Thimble Theatre and Alley Oop kept the action moving, sprinkling in slapstick and satire when needed. Then there were the straight-up adventure strips, like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, Captain Easy and Buz Sawyer; Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, Jungle Jim and Rip Kirby; and Milton Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates and Steve Canyon. No high concepts, no real wackiness, no radical formal experimentation—just well-crafted long-form pulp narratives, with striking art far superior to just about anything that artists for the then-burgeoning comic-book medium were up to at the time. Conversely, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy told gritty crime stories with an art style that was often overtly exaggerated and cartoony—even grotesque. These strips and others like them dominated the comics page in the ’40s and ’50s, offering a wide range of hard-boiled action.
And in the spirit of hybrid humor/adventure strips, Al Capp’s Li’l Abner started in the mid-’30s as a repository for cornpone hillbilly jokes, but developed a dense universe of characters and concepts, all representing Capp’s cockeyed take on American culture. Capp parodied Dick Tracy and made fun of gender roles, teenage fads, and the venality of big business, in storylines that kept the country enthralled and turned Capp into a celebrity in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. In fact, Capp’s off-the-page antics were at times as entertaining as Li’l Abner, as he feuded with other public figures and baited hippies during campus lectures. None of this diminished the work itself, which remained inspired and fearless until Capp’s health declined and he was forced to retire.
Advanced Studies: The Experiments
It took a while for comic strips to divide neatly into humor, adventure, and soap opera. In the early years, with more space on the page and fewer hard-and-fast rules, artists were free to play around and see what the form could be. Winsor McCay continues to be an inspiration to cartoonists and art directors alike thanks to strips like Dream Of The Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo In Slumberland, in which McCay explored the world of the subconscious in elaborately drawn fantasies spread across impeccably designed pages. Around the same time, Rube Goldberg was cranking out a variety of different humor strips, the most famous of which was The Inventions Of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, where he introduced the elaborate contraptions that came to be known as “Rube Goldberg machines.”
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is one of the best-known and beloved comic strips of all time, even though it only ran in a handful of papers between 1913 and 1944, and even though the strip itself isn’t what most folks would call “accessible.” In essence, Krazy Kat was a repetitive, slapstick strip about a mouse who abuses a cat, who in turn interprets the abuse as a sign of affection. But what made Krazy Kat stand out was Herriman’s half-poetic, half-slangy language, and the way he set these little mini-dramas in a surreal, shifting Southwestern landscape. Even now, after nearly a century of cartoonists paying homage to Herriman’s page design and dialogue, Krazy Kat still isn’t an easy strip just to pick up, read, and understand. But for those willing to make the effort, Krazy Kat is a bottomless treasure chest, mixing the best of literature, visual art, and even choreography as Herriman’s tiny figures dance violently around each other.
Cliff Sterrett’s Polly And Her Pals is similarly inventive, taking simple domestic comedy and putting it across with wild Jazz Age style. Other artists who successfully pushed the boundaries of the form in the first half of the 20th century include Hal Foster, whose Tarzan and Prince Valiant strips had the quality of illustrated novels (albeit ones in which the pictures had rebelled and squashed down the text); and Will Eisner, who created a comic-book-sized supplement for Sunday newspapers and filled the bulk of that supplement with his original creation The Spirit, a masked-detective series that Eisner used to explore different ways to tell comic stories and convey basic visual information.
Eisner employed a staff of young artists to assist on The Spirit and fill out the supplement. One of those youngsters was Jules Feiffer, whose one-page strip Clifford beat Peanuts to the starting line by a couple of years with its clever look at kid culture. Then in 1956, Feiffer started drawing a strip for The Village Voice—first called Sick, Sick, Sick, later called Feiffer—that used a loose, flowing line and Feiffer’s incisive eye on modern life to document common anxieties and pleasures. Doonesbury was clearly Feiffer-inspired in its look and subject matter, but more importantly, the success of Feiffer paved the way for the alt-weekly cartoonists to come, with their offbeat styles and interest in the minutiae of everyday life. In the ’80s, strips like Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek and Matt Groening’s Life In Hell made the alt-weekly market look more cutting-edge and relevant than 98 percent of what was running in the dailies. Making use of the freedom forged by artists like Feiffer, Barry, and Groening, Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library harkened back to the days of McCay and Herriman, with Ware filling pages with detailed drawings and elaborately structured panel designs, even as his subject matter, in essence, remained about pain and humiliation, not whimsical fantasy.
Though Bill Griffith’s Zippy The Pinhead is a daily strip, Griffith first made his name in the underground comics movement of the ’60s and ’70s, which means Zippy is more like an alt-weekly newspaper feature smuggled into the dailies. Mixing scathing social commentary with personal observations and wild flights of Dadaism, Zippy is one of the strangest strips ever to get a syndication deal. Griffith has taken advantage of the uniqueness of his position to go even further out with his work—dedicating weeks on end to appreciations of roadside attractions, for example—rather than trying to make it more palatable.
There are a few other honest-to-goodness artists toiling in daily papers today, though not always with the happy obscurity of Griffith. Brooke McEldowney’s 9 Chickweed Lane is a domestic comedy distinguished by McEldowney’s sometimes-inspired experiments with layouts and his willingness to explore the secret passions of ordinary people. Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts gets dismissed by some as a lightweight funny-animal strip for soft-hearted pet owners, but for over 15 years now, McDonnell has quietly been keeping the spirit of George Herriman alive via his character design and use of space. And Mark Tatulli’s Lio isn’t just a charmingly macabre strip about a creepy little boy who dabbles in the occult; it’s also a daily demonstration of how a skilled artist can express sometimes-complicated comedic ideas without any dialogue. Lio is cartooning at its purest.
Also Historically Significant
In reducing the study of newspaper comics to its most essential titles, some significant artists and strips inevitably end up as outliers, even though they may be worth considering from either an aesthetic or historical point of view. For example, newspaper comics might never have caught on the way they did without R.F. Outcault, whose Hogan’s Alley, The Yellow Kid, and Buster Brown became so popular at the turn of the century that Outcault was allowed the freedom to try out new techniques—sequential panels, word balloons—that would become common. Cartoonist Rudolph Dirks picked up on what Outcault was doing and applied it to his The Katzenjammer Kids, a riotous slapstick strip that helped establish the comic pacing and pastoral milieu that pertained in comic strips for decades to come.
Robert Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (which collected odd facts) and Jimmy Hatlo’s They’ll Do It Every Time (which invited readers to share their common annoyances) became popular features in the ’20s, demonstrating the medium’s ability to do more than just tell jokes and stories. Lee Falk’s The Phantom has been continuously running since 1936, when Falk established the “masked and costumed crimefighter” style that comic books would soon seize upon. And Mary Worth (created by Martha Orr in 1932 then given a major revamp a few years later by writer Allen Saunders and artist Dale Conner) helped pave the way for a slew of “soap opera” strips, many of which have outlasted the humor and adventure strips that once ruled the page.
Though it’s been running on fumes for roughly the last 40 years, Bil Keane’s The Family Circus was at one point one of one of the funniest and most innovative of the post-Peanuts kid-comics, combining pithy observations on family life with simple, magazine-style illustration. In fact, almost all of the “legacy strips” still running in newspapers—Chic Young’s Blondie, Hank Ketcham’s Dennis The Menace, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, Johnny Hart’s B.C., Dik Browne’s Hägar The Horrible—were at one time clever and entertaining, until they ossified into a series of easily repeatable gag ideas, rendered by assistants and/or replacements.
Jim Davis’ tubby tabby comic Garfield too became a massive hit soon after it debuted in 1978, spawning books and merchandise that raked it so much money that Davis seemed to pull back on the strip’s early acerbic qualities over the years, making Garfield cuter and more predictable. On the flipside, Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston was able to keep her For Better Or For Worse fairly lively during its nearly 30-year run (from 1979 to 2008) by having her characters grow up, have children, and confront life at its harshest and most magical.
The ’70s were a fertile time for new comic strips: Tom Wilson’s Ziggy, Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy, and Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean all became popular in the ’70s and remained popular long afterward, spreading the sensibility of a touchy-feely decade into the 21st century. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals debuted in 1965, though its politicized, integrationist spin on Peanuts didn’t pick up momentum until the ’70s, when message-oriented strips were more accepted.
Finally, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks looked like it had the potential to be one of the great strips of all time when it debuted in 1999, and during its brief run (which ended in 2006), The Boondocks applied refreshing bluntness to subjects like race relations, racial identity, political malfeasance, and the banality of most popular culture, all as seen through the eyes of two African-American brothers and the crotchety grandfather who moved them from the city to the suburbs. McGruder ended the strip to concentrate more on the animated series, which is a shame. Had he kept The Boondocks going, McGruder could’ve left behind a Doonesbury (or at least a Bloom County) for the ’00s and beyond.
- Peanuts. At once accessible enough to be widely popular and personal enough to be poignant, Charles Schulz’s long-running, still-funny strip is what just about any newspaper cartoonist would love to have as a legacy.
- Calvin & Hobbes. Too short-lived by half, Bill Watterson’s beautifully drawn journey into a oft-bratty child’s imagination made comic-strip fans out of people who rarely pick up a newspaper.
- Gasoline Alley. Tip a cap to Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly and to notable Frank King fans Joe Matt and Chris Ware for reintroducing the lovely, novelistic Gasoline Alley to a generation that had never seen the strip in its heyday. Exciting, funny, and moving, the King run of Gasoline Alley is top-tier entertainment, regardless of the medium.
- Krazy Kat. Like the best art, Krazy Kat defies easy analysis or explanation; it just emerges from its own peculiar space and proceeds to be.
- Doonesbury. The longevity of Garry Trudeau’s sprawling, politically astute strip may have worked against its reputation some, as even comic-strip fans have come to take it for granted. But the longevity is also Doonesbury’s strength. Its characters have grown and changed with the world they live in, and there’s scarcely any major event of the past 40 years that hasn’t been dealt with by Trudeau in his strip. It remains as fresh—and important—as today’s news.