12 Memorable newspaper comic-strip deaths
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1. Farley (For Better Or For Worse)
Most newspapers comics are frozen in time; Beetle Bailey never gets older, Hagar The Horrible never gets bored with the same old Viking raids, and Blondie and Dagwood haven't changed much physically since their 1930 debut. A few comic strips tell generational stories, letting their characters grow up over time, but even the ones that tackle real-world issues and serious topics usually keep their stable of characters intact, to preserve the dynamic that made the strip popular in the first place. It's rare for a comic strip to permit a permanent change: characters that grow up, significantly alter their lives, or reach a final conclusion. It's rarer still for a comic strip to tackle the grim subject of death. Which is why Lynn Johnston's "For Better Or For Worse" sparked an uproar when it killed off Farley, a sheepdog who'd grown up alongside the strip's human cast. Fans had long enthused over the way Johnston's characters matured over time, going from slobbery infants to children to teenagers to married adults with their own slobbery infants. But few were ready for the dramatic plotline where Farley heroically saved the young April from drowning in a flooded river, then died of shock and cold. Johnston has noted that chronologically, Farley had become improbably old, and it was necessary for him to go. Actually, the same can be said for an awful lot of newspaper comic strips.
2. Dick Davenport (Doonesbury)
Garry Trudeau has killed off enough characters to fill a cartoon cemetery, but perhaps his most memorable death came in 1986, when Congresswoman Lacey Davenport's husband Dick, an inveterate bird-watcher, suffered a massive coronary while photographing the rare Bachman's Warbler. As Dick falls into a tall clump of grass, the comic's frame shows a camera on a tripod, and a "click" sound effect, indicating that he got the shot he wanted before passing on. A decade later, an Alzheimer's-ridden Lacey succumbed as well, being welcomed into heaven by her husband, who warned her not to comment on the curtains in paradise, because "Mrs. God picked them out."
3. Dead bird (Calvin & Hobbes)
Bill Watterson's philosophically inclined 6-year-old dealt directly with death twice during the run of the series. The first occurrence came in a nine-strip cycle where Calvin finds an injured raccoon and his parents unsuccessfully try to nurse it back to health. But frankly, while those strips are touching—they feature Calvin dismissing the whole "getting attached to living things that inevitably die" phenomenon by grumbling, "What a stupid world"—the overall tone is more bluntly sentimental than Watterson at his best. He handled mortality much more artfully in a late-period Sunday strip in which Calvin and his tiger pal find a dead bird, and Calvin muses on the connection between life and death, saying, "You realize that nature is ruthless and that our existence is very fragile, temporary, and precious. But to go on with your daily affairs, you can't really think about that." Even more than the text, what lingers about that strip is the first-panel drawing of the dead bird itself. Mention it to most Calvin & Hobbes fans, and they'll likely picture the animal, so realistically rendered, yet so chillingly stiff.
4. Grandpa (The Family Circus)
The Family Circus isn't what anyone would call a "continuity strip"—otherwise, those oval-faced moppets would be in their late 40s by now. So if creator Bil Keane ever directly addressed the death of the children's paternal grandfather, those panels have long been forgotten. Nevertheless, Grandpa maintains a presence, hovering spectrally over his former family, and sometimes helping the kids avert trouble. It's meant to be reassuring that after we die, we can still hang around and watch our loved ones live out their malapropism-filled lives, but how pleasant is it really to contemplate spending eternity in a robe, looking every bit as old and saggy as you were when you kicked it?
5. Anonymous corpse (Kudzu)
Poking gentle fun at the clergy? Standard practice demands a steady diet of wedding and funeral jokes, which is what Doug Marlette gave us in the Reverend Will B. Dunn strips that had just about taken over Kudzu by the late '90s. A side effect of the preacher's frequent eulogies is that the strip has probably featured more dead people in coffins—and even open-casket views—than any other comic in history. Good ol' Anonymous Corpse lies insensate while Rev. Dunn tries to find something nice to say about him or her; usually, he's unable to avoid the topic of the deceased's plastic surgery, womanizing, or other vices. In the wake of the cartoonist's fatal automobile accident on July 10, 2007, the strip was officially cancelled, but the backlog of completed strips will continue to run until early August—including, unfortunately, a July 24 entry featuring an anonymous corpse who crashed his car while talking on a cell phone.
6. Daddy Warbucks (Little Orphan Annie)
Harold Gray "killed" Daddy Warbucks more than once; one of the strip's recurring adventure tropes was the disappearance and apparent death of Annie's benefactor, followed by his inevitable return from captivity for a joyous reunion. But in August 1944, the cartoonist attempted to score a point against Roosevelt's New Deal policies by holding a Warbucks deathwatch. Annie's protector succumbed due to the governmentally orchestrated decline of his brand of bootstrap individualism. How could such a man survive in an era that criminalized success? One year later, Warbucks was hale and hearty again in a world made safe for rich people by Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945. Readers who asked Gray about the resurrection were told, "The situation changed last April."
7. John Darling (Funky Winkerbean/John Darling)
Funky Winkerbean creator Tom Batiuk introduced egotistical talk-show host John Darling into his strip in the late '70s, then spun him off into his own series, drawn by future Marvin creator Tom Armstrong. When the feature started waning in popularity, Batiuk decided to pull the plug, but first, he had Darling murdered, so his syndicate couldn't claim and re-use the character. Later, back in Funky Winkerbean, Batiuk had high-school teacher Les Moore research and write a book about Darling's death, solving the crime. And he's continued to develop storylines around Darling's daughter Jennifer, who just had sex with Darin, the biological son of Les' wife Lisa, whom Batiuk is preparing to kill off later this year when her cancer metastasizes. It's always a barrel of laughs in the increasingly tightly knit Winkerbean universe.
8. Phyllis Blossom (Gasoline Alley)
For those whose first real introduction to Frank King's cartoon masterpiece Gasoline Alley has been through Drawn & Quarterly's magnificent recent hardcover collections of the early years, a spoiler warning may be in order: Walt Wallet eventually marries the mysterious Mrs. Blossom, and the two of them live a long and happy life together, eventually having kids of their own to accompany Walt's adopted son Skeezix. In 2004, the 100-plus-year-old Phyllis Wallet became the first Gasoline Alley character to die, outliving her creator by 35 years, and carrying the strip's "real-time aging" conceit to its logical conclusion. Can Walt be far behind?
9. Mort (Rudy Park)
On January 12, 2007, Darrin Bell and Theron Heir killed off Mort, the loudspeaker-wielding octogenarian uncle of the strip's eponymous barista. Mort's heart attack came with plenty of warning—Bell and Heir ran all-text strips during the weeks leading up to the event, promising that "a regular and beloved character will suffer an untimely, tragic death" and cheerily pointing worried readers to The Family Circus for solace. True to their word, Mort expired during one of his shouting matches with fellow retiree Donald Rumsfeld. But perhaps the death certificate should read "January 14, 2007," since that day's strip features a typically well-paced text-messaging gag rendered from the nearly blacked-out perspective of the dying Mort. A textbook example of how to do comic-strip mortality well: Make it funny, don't toy with your readers, and follow through.
10. Mary Gold (The Gumps)
Beginning in 1917, The Gumps chronicled the domestic mishaps of an undereducated middle-class family. But Sidney Smith, its writer-artist, began introducing continuity and suspense into the strip in its 1920s heyday, culminating in the 1929 death of major, beloved character Mary Gold, after a pathetic illness that dragged on for six years. Most accounts credit Smith with the invention of death on the funny pages, since the only previous examples were nameless henchpeople in adventure or crime strips, who for the most part breathed their unlamented last breaths offscreen. The Chicago Tribune, where The Gumps originated, was reportedly deluged with reader complaints demanding Mary Gold's return on penalty of canceled subscriptions; the Trib had to hire extra help just to sort the mail and answer the phones. But karma caught up with the cartoonist; after inking a syndicate contract for $150,000 a year in 1935, he crashed his new Rolls-Royce on the way home and gave up the ghost himself.
11. Bill The Cat (Bloom County)
Created as a satirical dig at Garfield back when the surly feline first became an insane marketing phenomenon, Bill The Cat was introduced to readers by some of Bloom County's characters, who suggested that everyone should run right out and buy some adorable Bill The Cat merchandise. Naturally, creator Berkeley Breathed made him as unmarketable as possible, a grotesque, hairball-spitting, bug-eyed, straggly thing that looked something like a Garfield plush toy after a trip through a food processor. Shortly after introducing him, the strip killed him off, claiming alternately that he died of acne and that he crashed his Ferrari into a cactus at 143 mph after months of drug abuse and rock-star-style excess. But his tongue was salvaged from the wreck and delivered to the series' resident genius. Oliver Wendell Jones, who cloned him and restored him to the strip—and subsequently to Breathed's follow-up strips, Outland and Opus.
12. Garfield (Garfield)
Of course, some people claim that Garfield himself died back in the late 1980s, when the strip ran an eerie, inexplicable weeklong storyline in which Garfield wakes up to the realization that his home is an abandoned, disintegrating part of a barren landscape. Running from room to room in a panic, he realizes he's alone. (Weird inset narration panel: "You have no idea how alone you are, Garfield.") Briefly, he encounters Jon and Odie, and reaches to accept the food Jon offers, but the entire thing turns out to be a mirage. The weird narration continues, over creepy images of a sweaty, squinting eye and a screaming Garfield: "Locked fast within a time when he no longer exists, Garfield grapples with his greatest fear loneliness. He has only one weapon denial." Whereupon Jon and Odie reappear, and the storyline abruptly ends with some blather about the power of imagination. Some fans have suggested that this all means Garfield is either dead, or dying of hunger in an abandoned house, and that the rest of the strip is his fevered attempt to imagine a better life for himself. Doesn't that make the strip's saccharine repetitions a lot more interesting?