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. Traditionally, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, these have been published in newspapers and magazines, with horizontal strips printed in black-and-white in daily newspapers, while Sunday newspapers offered longer sequences in special color comics sections. With the development of the internet, they began to appear online as web comics.
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, Bringing Up Father, Marmaduke, and Pearls Before Swine).
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 genre-neutral name.
In the UK and the rest of Europe, comic strips are also serialized in comic book magazines, with a strip's story sometimes continuing over three pages or more. Comic strips have appeared in American magazines such as Liberty and Boys' Life and also on the front covers of magazines, such as the Flossy Frills series on The American Weekly Sunday newspaper supplement.
Storytelling using a sequence of pictures has existed through history. One medieval European example in textile form is the Bayeux 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. William Hogarth's 18th century English cartoons include both narrative sequences, such as A Rake's Progress, and single panels.
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.
The first newspaper comic strips appeared in North America in the late 19th century. The Yellow Kid is usually credited as one of the first newspaper strips. However, the art form combining words and pictures developed gradually and there are many examples which led up to the comic strip.
Swiss author and caricature artist Rodolphe Töpffer (Geneva, 1799–1846) 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, 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 the United States, 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 strip 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. On January 31, 1912, Hearst introduced the nation's first full daily comic page in his New York Evening Journal. The history of this newspaper rivalry and the rapid appearance of comic strips in most major American newspapers is discussed by Ian Gordon. Numerous events in newspaper comic strips have 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.
The longest running American comic strips are:
- 1. Katzenjammer Kids (1897-present)
- 2. Gasoline Alley (1918-present)
- 3. Ripley's Believe It or Not! (1918-present)
- 4. Barney Google and Snuffy Smith (1919-present)
- 5. Thimble Theater/Popeye (1919-present)
- 6. Little Orphan Annie (1924-2010)
- 7. Blondie (1930-present)
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.
In the United States, a daily strip appears in newspapers on weekdays, Monday through Saturday, as contrasted with a Sunday strip, which typically only appears on Sundays. Daily strips usually are printed in black and white, and Sunday strips are usually in color. However, a few newspapers have published daily strips in color, and some newspapers have published Sunday strips in black and white. 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.
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 2000, four standard daily strips could fit in an area once occupied by a single daily strip.
NEA Syndicate experimented briefly with a two-tier daily strip, Star Hawks, but after a few years, Star Hawks dropped down to a single tier.
In Flanders, the two-tier strip is the standard publication style of most daily strips like Spike and Suzy and Nero. They appear Monday through Saturday; until 2003 there were no Sunday papers in Flanders. In the last decades, they have switched from black and white to color.
Sunday newspapers traditionally included a special color section. 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 the Prince Valiant strip for 11 April 1971.
Comic strips have also been published in Sunday newspaper magazines. Russell Patterson and Carolyn Wells' New Adventures of Flossy Frills was a continuing strip series seen on Sunday magazine covers. Beginning January 26, 1941, it ran on the front covers of Hearst's American Weekly newspaper magazine supplement, continuing until March 30 of that year. Between 1939 and 1943, four different stories featuring Flossy appeared on American Weekly covers.
Sunday comics sections employed offset color printing with multiple print runs imitating a wide range of colors. Printing plates were created with four or more colors—traditionally, the CMYK color model: cyan, magenta, yellow and "K" for black. With a screen of tiny dots on each printing plate, the dots allowed an image to be printed in a halftone that appears to the eye in different gradations. The semi-opaque property of ink allows halftone dots of different colors to create an optical effect of full-color imagery.
Underground comic strips
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, but 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.
Conventions and genres
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 age as the years pass. The first strip to feature aging characters was Gasoline Alley.
The history of comic strips also includes series that are not humorous, but tell an ongoing dramatic story. Examples include The Phantom, Prince Valiant, Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, Modesty Blaise, Little Orphan Annie, "Flash Gordon", and Tarzan. Sometimes these are spin-offs from comic books, for example Superman, Batman, and The Amazing Spider-Man.
A number of strips have featured animals ('funny animals') as main characters. Some are non-verbal (Marmaduke, The Angriest Dog in the World), some have verbal thoughts but are not understood by humans, (Garfield, Snoopy in Peanuts), and some can converse with humans (Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Mutts, Citizen Dog, Buckles, Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, and Pooch Cafe). 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. Instead The Far Side used a wide variety of characters including humans, monsters, aliens, chickens, cows, worms, amoebas, and more. 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.
Social and political influence
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, 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. Hearst did occasionally work with or pitch ideas to cartoonists, most notably his continued support of George Herriman's Krazy Kat. An inspiration for 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 awarded 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. 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.
Publicity and recognition
The world's longest comic strip is 88.9-metre (292 ft) long and on display at Trafalgar Square as part of the London Comedy Festival. The London Cartoon Strip was created by 15 of Britain's best known cartoonists and depicts the history of London.
Today's strip artists, with the help of the NCS, enthusiastically promote the medium, which is considered to be in decline due to fewer markets (today few strips are published in newspapers outside the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, mainly because of the smaller interest there, with translated versions of popular strips - particularly in Spanish - are primarily read over the internet) and ever-shrinking newspaper space. One particularly humorous example of such promotional efforts is the Great Comic Strip Switcheroonie, held in 1997 on April Fool's Day, 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.
A business-driven variation has sometimes led to the same feature continuing under a different name. In one case, in the early 1940s, Don Flowers' Modest Maidens was so admired by William Randolph Hearst that he lured Flowers away from the Associated Press and to King Features Syndicate by doubling the cartoonist's salary, and renamed the feature Glamor Girls to avoid legal action by the AP. The latter continued to publish Modest Maidens, drawn by Jay Allen in Flowers' style.
Issues in U.S. newspaper comic strips
In the early decades of the 20th century, all Sunday comics received a full page, and daily strips were generally the width of the page. 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 those would have half of the space a 1910 daily strip had, and by 1998 most strips would have three panels only (with a few exceptions), or even two or one on an occasional basis, apart from strips being smaller, as most papers became slightly narrower. While most cartoonist decided to follow the tide, some cartoonists have complained about this, with Pogo ending in 1975 as a form of protest from its creators against the practice. Since then Calvin and Hobbes creator 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 Hägar the Horrible in the front page of the Reading Eagle Sunday comics section. Actually Universal Uclick and United Media practically have no half-page comics, with the remaining strips from both syndicates in this format are published only as "thirds", "fourths", and "sixths" (also called "third tabs").
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 storylines being used mainly on adventure-based and dramatic strips. Strips begun during the mid-1980s or after (such as Get Fuzzy, Over the Hedge, Monty, 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 Watterson and Pearls Before Swine's Stephan Pastis. The issue was addressed in six consecutive Pearls strips in 2005. Charles Schulz, of Peanuts fame, 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.
Since the consolidation of newspaper comics by the first quarter of the 20th century, most cartoonists have used a group of assistants (with usually one of them credited). However, quite a few cartoonists (e.g.: George Herriman and Charles Schulz, among others) have done their strips almost completely by themselves; often criticizing the use of assistants for the same reasons most have about their editors hiring anyone else to continue their work after their retirement.
Rights to the strips
Since the dawn of comic strips, the ownership of them has been a recurrent issue. Traditionally, the syndicate owned the rights to the strips. However, throughout history there have been exceptions, with Mutt and Jeff being an early (if not the earliest) case in which the creator owned his works. However this was later limited to adaptations of animated properties. When it started in 1970, the Universal Press Syndicate gave cartoonists a 50-percent share on the ownership of their works, while the Creators Syndicate (founded in 1987) granted artists full rights to the strips, something that Universal Press did in 1990. followed by King Features in 1995, while before 1999 both the Tribune and United Feature services began granting rights to creators over their works; however the latter three syndicates only applied this to new strips, or to ones popular enough.
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."
As comics are easier for children to access compared to other types of media, 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", although there have been exceptions such as the September 22, 2010 Mother Goose and Grimm in which an elderly man says, "This nursing home food sucks," and a pair of Pearls Before Swine comics from January 11, 2011 with a character named Ned using the word "crappy". Naked backsides and shooting guns cannot be shown, according to Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. Such comic strip taboos were detailed in Dave Breger's book But That's Unprintable (Bantam, 1955).
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. Some of the taboo words and topics are mentioned daily on television and other forms of visual media. Web comics and comics distributed primarily to college newspapers are much freer in this respect.
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