The last ten years have been eventful ones for the world of the comics. A movie based on a grown man who runs around dressed like a bat while fighting another man wearing clown make-up became the fourth highest grossing film of all time. Another film about adults in flamboyant costume caused a resurgence of interest in the idea of the graphic novel. And the advent of the internet has allowed anyone with a computer and a scanner to become a comic creator. The triumphant return of the story told in sequential still frames has even attracted the attention of the powers that be and aroused them enough to make serious ventures into the industry.But beneath the showers of money and olive wreath crown of victory a forgotten but vitally important form of the comic is limping towards an ignominious death; the newspaper strip.
Born in 1895 with the arrival of Hogan's Alley as drawn by Richard F. Outcault, the newspaper strip was the progeny of the single panel political cartoons that had been pioneered in America since the late 1700s (while images had been imbued with political messages before, Franklin's "Join or Die" was the first that carried one with the frankness and simplicity recognized in the form today). Like it's parent, Hogan's Alley initially maintained a single panel format albeit enlarged to a size larger than anything published by papers today. As a result, early Hogan's Alley drawings (not yet strips) had a tendency to break down into smaller but somehow interconnected scenes. One might depict a snapshot of the opening of the "New Hogan's Alley Athletic Club" while another would show a parade in the streets. Characters were persistent but, like everything else in Hogan's Alley, they were shaped as a satire of conditions and politics of the time. Not all of the humor translates to the modern age; the bald head of a character by the name of "Yellow Kid" (for the color of the nightshirt he wore everywhere) might easily conjure up a comparison to a cancer patient in a hospital gown for today's reader. This of course, was not the case at all; Yellow Kid was a parody of city children who would often have their hair shaved by their mothers after catching lice.
Yellow Kid, coincidentally, would also be the first character to star in a "true" comic strip. On October 26th, 1897 Outcault drew up a self-mocking piece involving dialogue between the Yellow Kid and a phonograph that, while lacking frames, moved from picture to picture in a logical sequence. This set the stage for further experiments by Outcault in drawing sequential vaudeville strips, all starring the Yellow Kid. Among the more notable ones are "The Yellow Kid Takes A Hand At Golf" and "The Yellow Kid Loses Some Of His Yellow", which would play important roles in establishing the basic form of a multistage joke in later comics.
While early comic strips were inventive, amusing, and sometimes insightful, they were largely looked down upon. Published initially within William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, comics were accused of being tainted by the sensationalistic nature of the paper and shaped by Hearst's personal political opinions. While it was true that Hearst's papers were often hugely sensationalistic and Hogan's Alley did comment on politics from time to time, the two were never really linked in the way that intellectuals of the time assumed they were. Despite this, rival papers accused the New York Journal of "Yellow Kid journalism", a term that would later be simplified simply as "yellow journalism". The association between comics and poor journalistic practices, despite it's general baselessness, would continue to take hold among publishers of the time, causing more "sophisticated" newspapers (notably the New York Times) to refuse to run the strips for the sake of their image as a responsible paper. The condemnation would only be renewed in 1941 when a journalist named Frank Luther Mott decried Sunday comics as one the five defining characteristics of a yellow-tainted publication.
Confined to the tabloids, many comics relied on simple slapstick coupled with amusing, recognizable tropes to please their audience in the early 1900's. Notable comics of the time include Mutt and Jeff (gambling partners who would often break into violence to get revenge on one another for unpaid debts, their names are more often invoked today to refer to any pair of individuals with unusual differences in size, particularly height) and the Katzenjammer Kids(probably the epitome of physical humor in comics as a whole). The detailed art of Outcault's Hogan's Alley began to devolve into cruder, more cartoonish figures that are instantly recognizable as the forbears of the ultra-simplistic style employed by many newspaper comics today. These comics remained the norm well into the 1920s before being somewhat(but not completely) displaced by parodies and caricatures of the upper class which, while largely boring and tasteless, did introduce the idea of a family as the "stars" of a comic.
An interesting exception to the zeitgeist of physical comedy and parody of the rich was Little Nemo In Slumberland by Winsor McCay. The strip ran twice: first from 1905 to 1914 and then from 1924 to 1927. Little Nemo took place in the dreams of a boy by the name of, well, Nemo and, at first glance, might seem little more than a typical child's comic. But, looking closer, it becomes obvious that Nemo's dreams are really closer to nightmares. Winsor's surrealistic and experimental style was appropriately bizarre and could render a landscapes that simultaneously recall both M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali. My personal favorite among the Nemo comics (as an example) involves a character named Doctor Pill making a visit to a city of ant-sized midgets of his own creation, only to have his mischievous, cigar chomping companion, "Flip" enter the city uninvited. While attempting to extract Flip, the Doctor manages to antagonize him to the point that they begin to fight. The final panels conclude with Flip pitching skyscrapers at Doctor Pill whilst the city's denizens proclaim the tragedy of the situation as worse than any "hurricane or tornado" and ask how such a thing could have ever been allowed to happen. Then of course, Nemo wakes up, wishing he might have a few less nightmares. The non-sequitur in the final panel - Nemo waking up in one state or another - was a constant unique to the Little Nemo comics, possibly to relieve children that might have been frightened by the content of the page with the promise that everything would be just fine in the end.
Nemo's popularity was surprising. It's unique style inspired several lower quality knock-offs, such as the Kin-Der-Kids
and impacted the art of several other comics of the time, notably certain Gasoline Alley
strips and Krazy Kat.
Krazy Kat in particular, by George Herriman, is entirely deserving of its own node. Now recognized as one of the most brilliant comic strips of all time, it essentially invented the surreal wastelands and locations that would populate Chuck Jones cartoons later on. It had an extremely simple premise; Ignatz the mouse hits Krazy Kat in the head with a brick. The twist however, was that Krazy Kat actually loved Ignatz and treated his perpetual concussions as acts of love. This fascinating allegory for an unrequited relationship is interfered with by Officer Pup, who perpetually attempts to arrest Ignatz for his assaults.
These comics, having by now achieved some significant artistic merit, also exploded in popularity during the thirties. More and more strips were picked up by papers and colorful, full pages of artwork became more or less the Saturday day morning cartoons of the Depression. They remained childish but steadily grew grimmer as poverty and prohibition ground onwards; hobos and police officers are ubiquitous characters. And handful also parodied the lives of the opulent and out of touch but are sometimes inaccessible to the modern reader due to the extensive use of stylized speech and antiquated slang. Notable emergents of this time period included Dick Tracy, who hunted down caricatured villains of the time period and E.C. Segar's remarkably complex Popeye, whose adventures became a mainstay of the time.
Midway through the 1930s, as the United States geared up for WW2, action comics became a mainstay. Pre-dating the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 were the translations of classic Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories to the Sunday page, including Tarzan. Similarly, Buck Rogers, Prince Valiant, and Flash Gordon all appeared on the scene in this era. These comics fueled the imaginations of young men, indulging in utterly whimsical journeys that were almost totally unbound by conventional restraints, reflecting the optimistic views of futurists looking forward and the nostalgia of classicalists looking backwards. Even Dr. Seuss had a running strip during this period.
After WW2, Disney appears on the scene and a number of Disney comics appear on the scene, largely following Mickey and Donald. Like the adventure stories of the 1930s, these have long, persistent plots and are surprisingly (to the modern reader, perhaps) unabashed in their use of violence and racial stereotypes. They are somehow more aggressive and adult than the comics that came before, replete with villains and bullies that Mickey and co. must defeat. Donald Duck is, in retrospect, particularly tempestous.
In the 1950s and 60s, newspaper comics finally begin to assume a form more familiar to those of us born in the last 4 decades. Consistently shorter and shorter strips like Peanuts, B.C., Dennis the Menace, and Marmaduke appear and adults begin to vanish as characters, slowly being replaced by children and animals. Those comics that do feature adults feature them as extreme caricatures, as in the Wizard of Id and Hagar the Horrible. Rare exceptions are comics that have run for a long period of time like Blondie or Gasoline Alley, as well as later additions including Doonesbury in 1970.
At this point, the comic strip is finally beginning to be supplanted by television and there is a mass death of many adventure and serial comics that previously ran unopposed. Those that do still run tend to be "re-runs" of old series, like Prince Valiant. Comic strips are rapidly becoming a mere side-destination on the way to the sports section rather and even single panels re-emerge, a sure sign of regression.
As we climb towards the modern era, there are less and less bright spots in newspaper comics. There are rare moments of the soulful surrealism of old, as in Calvin and Hobbes and on point satire but the medium is largely dominated by four panel gag strips like Garfield and company. This shortness is legacy of Peanuts that has failed to evaporate as the transfer of hegemony from full comics to "funnies" has become complete. But the clever, innovative legacy of the newspaper comic strip lives on elsewhere, in animation, comic books and most importantly in webcomics, where new and exciting artists now ply their trade.