Comic strip

From New World Encyclopedia

Example of a proto-comic strip from a thirteenth century Catalan manuscript.

A comic strip is a drawing or sequence of drawings that tells a story. Written and drawn by a cartoonist, such strips are published on a recurring basis (usually daily or weekly) in newspapers and on the Internet. In the UK and Europe they are also serialized in comic magazines, with a strip's story sometimes continuing over three pages or more. Comic strips have also appeared in US magazines, such as Boy's Life.

Storytelling using pictures, often combined with words, has existed at least since the ancient Egyptians, and examples exist in nineteenth century Germany and England. The American comic strip adapted this format for the twentieth century, introducing such devices as the "word balloon" for speech, the hat flying off to indicate surprise, and random typographical symbols to represent cursing. As the name implies, comic strips can be humorous (for example, "gag-a-day" strips such as Blondie, Pearls Before Swine, or the British Andy Capp). Starting circa 1930, comic strips began to include adventure stories, Buck Rogers and Tarzan being two of the first. Soap-opera continuity strips such as Judge Parker and Mary Worth gained popularity in the 1940s. However, comic strips are not necessarily humorous. There exist many dramatic and plot-driven strips, as well as some which present social commentary; the name is merely the legacy of the medium's tradition of satire and humor.


Comic strips have existed in some form for centuries, sometimes called "proto-comic strips," examples include medieval manuscript illuminations and English caricatures. Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer is considered by many to be the father of the modern comic. He was the son of an artist who wished to pursue the fine arts like his father, but had poor eyesight, which forced him to work in the written word instead. Later in life he combined the two interests into panel drawings with text.[1]

The 1865 German strip Max and Moritz, about two trouble-making boys, was created by Wilhelm Busch, who was influenced by Töpffer. 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 inspiration for German immigrant Rudolph Dirks, who created the Katzenjammer Kids in 1897. Familiar comic-strip iconography such as stars for pain, speech and thought balloons, and sawing logs for snoring originated in Dirks' strip.

"Yellow Kid" cartoon, Sunday, November 8, 1896, by Richard Felton Outcault.

In America, the great popularity of comics sprang from the newspaper war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The Little Bears was the first American comic with recurring characters; The Yellow Kid, created by Richard Felton Outcault and the first color comic, was part of the first Sunday comic section in 1896 and the source of the term "yellow journalism"); Mutt and Jeff was the first daily comic strip, first appearing in 1907.

Hugely popular, Katzenjammer Kids was responsible for one of the first comic-strip copyright ownership suits in the history of the medium. When Dirks left Hearst for the promise of a better salary under Pulitzer (which was unusual since cartoonists regularly deserted Pulitzer for Hearst) Hearst, in a highly unusual court decision, retained the rights to the name "Katzenjammer Kids," while creator Dirks retained the rights to the characters. Hearst promptly hired a cartoonist named 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 comic pages for decades. Dirks' version, eventually distributed by United Feature Syndicate, ran until 1979.

Hundreds of comic strips followed, with many running for decades.

Conventions and genres

Most comic strip characters do not age throughout the strip's life. There are exceptions, such as Lynn Johnston's award-winning For Better or For Worse, in which the characters age in real time. 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 (which is the most successful dramatic strip of all time), Prince Valiant, Dick Tracy, Mary Worth, Modesty Blaise, and Tarzan. Sometimes these are spin-offs from comic books, for example Superman, Batman, and The Amazing Spider-Man. The French/Belgian Tintin is another such example. The strip follows the continued adventures of the journalist and traveler Tintin. Tintin showcases the possible success of dramatic comics, as its collections have been translated into over 40 languages and sold over 120 million copies.[2]

A number of strips have featured animals as main characters. Some are non-verbal (Marmaduke, The Angriest Dog in the World), some have verbal thoughts but aren't understood by humans, (Garfield, Snoopy in Peanuts), and some can converse with humans (Bloom County, Get Fuzzy, Calvin And Hobbes, and Pooch Cafe). Other strips are centered entirely on animals, as in Pogo and Donald Duck. Gary Larson's The Far Side was unique, 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. Wiley Miller not only mixed human, animal, and fantasy characters, he has produced several different comic strip continuities under one umbrella title, Non Sequitur. Bob Thaves' 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.

The world's longest comic strip is 88.9m long and on display at Trafalgar Square as part of the London Comedy Festival. The record was previously 81m and held in Florida. The London Cartoon Strip was created by fifteen of Britain's best known cartoonists and depicts the history of London.[3]

Comics come in different forms and with different levels of acceptance in society. While in America comics are considered by general society to be the fare of the young (or young at heart), in other countries comics are considered to be a higher art. In France, comics did not develop in the same children's medium as in the US, rather they have their roots in the tradition of French satire.[4] The French often use comics to lampoon current political leaders.[5] One famous French comic is Asterix, which follows the adventures of a village of ancient Gauls fighting against Roman occupation. The series humorously satirizes almost every civilization in Europe, from the British to the Spanish to the Germans. Japanese manga also had its origins in satirical single panels. Following World War II, manga began to be more story focused and were afforded a level of respect due to the involvement of Osamu Tezuka, a medical doctor and comic book artist.[6]

All are called, generically, "comic strips," though cartoonist Will Eisner has suggested that "sequential art" would be a better name for them.[7]

Comic strip creators

A comic strip creator, Ed Dodd at work on the Sunday edition of the comic strip Mark Trail.

A comic strip creator, also known as a newspaper strip creator or cartoonist, is an artist who produces work in the medium of the comic strip. The term can also be applied to those who produce comic books, anime, manga, and editorial cartoons, as well as those working in animation.

In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, The Scottish Cartoonists published by the Glasgow Print Studio Gallery (1979), Calum MacKenzie defined the selection criteria as being, "The difference between a cartoonist and an illustrator was the same as the difference between a comedian and a comedy actor—the former both deliver their own lines and take full responsibility for them, the latter could always hide behind the fact that it was not his entire creation."

Today's comic-strip artists enthusiastically promote the medium, which is considered to be in decline due to fewer markets and ever-shrinking newspaper space. One particularly humorous example of such promotional efforts is the Great Comic Strip Switcheroonie, held on April Fool's Day, 1997. For that day, dozens of prominent comic-strip 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.[8]

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 decades-spanning longevity of some of the genre's most popular strips. Examples include Little Orphan Annie (drawn and plotted by Harold Gray from 1924-1944 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 a string of successors, most notably George Wunder.)

A business-driven variation on the "switch" 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 (AP) by doubling the cartoonist's salary, and renamed the feature Glamor Girls to avoid legal action by the AP. The AP continued to publish Modest Maidens as drawn by Jay Allen.

The Reuben Award, named for cartoonist Rube Goldberg, is the most prestigious award for U.S. comic strip artists. Reuben awards are presented annually by the National Cartoonists' Society (NCS).

Newspaper Comic Strip

Newspaper comic strips are comic strips that are first published in newspapers, instead of, for example, in comic books or magazines. The first newspaper comic strips appeared in America in the early years of the twentieth century. The Yellow Kid is usually credited as being the very first newspaper comic strip, but the art form, mixing words and pictures, evolved gradually, and there are many examples of proto-comic strips. Newspaper comic strips are divided into daily strips and Sunday strips.

The majority of traditional newspaper comic strips now have some internet presence. Syndicates often provide archives of recent strips on their websites. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, started a trend by including his e-mail address in each strip.

Daily Strips

Buster Brown newspaper cartoon by Richard Felton Outcault, 1903

A daily strip is a newspaper comic strip that appears in newspapers Monday through Saturday, as contrasted with a Sunday strip which appears on Sunday. Daily strips are usually in black and white, though a few newspapers, beginning in the later part of the twentieth century, published them in color. The major formats are strips, which are wider than they are tall, and panels, which 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. Panels usually, but not always, are not broken up and lack continuity. The daily Peanuts was a strip, and the daily Dennis the Menace a panel.

Early daily strips were large, often running the entire width of the newspaper, and were sometimes three or more inches in height. At first, one newspaper page only included one 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. Over the years, the size of daily strips became smaller and smaller, until by 2000 four standard daily strips could fit in the area once occupied by a single daily strip.

Sunday strips

Sunday strips appear in Sunday newspapers, usually in 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." Later strips, such as The Phantom and Terry and the Pirates, were usually only half that size, with 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 Daily News.

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, to save the expense of printing so many color pages. The last full page comic strip was the Prince Valiant strip for April 11, 1971. Today, most Sunday strips are smaller than the daily strips of the 1930s.

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. College newspapers also began to carry their own strips. Bloom County and Doonesbury began as strips in college papers, 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'Neil, and Gilbert Sheldon went on to draw comic strips for magazines such as Playboy and The National Lampoon.

Comics and Society

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 ranges from the staunch conservative values 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.

Some comic strips, such as Doonesbury and The Boondocks, are often printed on the editorial or op-ed page rather than the comics page, because of their regular political commentary.[9] Conservatives have long warred against Doonesbury, and were recently successful in convincing a major printer of Sunday comics sections to refuse to print the strip. In another case, Dilbert is sometimes found in the business section of a newspaper instead of the comics page because of the strip's commentary on office politics.

Though seemingly innocuous, comics are representative of important issues in society. Comic strip artists are often on the vanguard of political movements. The short turnaround time for publishing daily strips gives those who wish to address current events a constant forum for focusing the attention of the public on a certain issue. While not all artists take advantage of this opportunity, many, such as Doonesbury's Gary Trudeau or The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, have used the comics as their personal soapboxes to deliver powerful messages to the public. Comics are an effective medium for spreading sometimes controversial messages in a humorous package, making the delivery softer. Unfortunately, the often controversial topics addressed in the two aforementioned strips led to their relegation to the editorial pages in many newspapers, which illustrates the fact that many newspapers can be affected by the political agenda of their editorial boards, ownership, or sponsors. Like other forms of satire, comics can be either dangerous or useful for the spread of ideas, which is central to a well-functioning democracy.


  1. Comic Creator: Rodolphe Töpffer. Retrieved February 11, 2007.
  2. Tintinophile. Tintin historian.
  3. BBC News. Trafalgar Square cartoonists draw a crowd Retrieved January 28, 2007.
  4. Embassy of France. History of the French and Francophone Comics Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  5. The Economist Comic Wars Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  6. Comic Creator Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  7. Eisner, Will. 1985. Comics and Sequential Art. Poorhouse Press ISBN 0961472812
  8. April Fools R Us. Great Cartoon Switcheroonie Retrieved January 28, 2007.
  9. The Gaurdian. Doonesbury at War Retrieved January 28, 2007.

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