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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
- 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.