A comic strip is a sequence of cartoons that tells a story, often humorous, though action-adventure. science fiction and soap opera-like dramas are also prevalent. While one or several panels can complete a "gag-a-day" strip, the continuity strips can feature a narrative serialized over weeks, months or years. Strips are written and drawn by a comics artist or cartoonist, and many are published on a recurring basis (usually daily or weekly) in newspapers and on the Internet.
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, as was the case with the Flossy Frills series on The American Weekly Sunday newspaper supplement. There were more than 200 different comic strips and daily cartoon panels in American newspapers each day of the 20th century for a total of at least 7,300,000 episodes.
As the name implies, comic strips can be humorous (for example, "gag-a-day" strips such as Blondie, Bringing Up Father and Pearls Before Swine). Starting in the early 1930s, comic strips expanded to feature adventure stories, as seen in 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 name for them.
Storytelling using a sequence of pictures has existed through history. One medieval European example in textile form is the Bayeux Tapestry. Examples in print form exist 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 English cartoons from the 18th century include both "single panel" work and also narrative sequences, such as A Rake's Progress.
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 America in the late 19th century. The Yellow Kid is usually credited as the first. However, the artform combining words and pictures evolved gradually, and there are many examples of proto-comic strips.
The Swiss teacher, author and caricature artist Rodolphe Toepffer (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) are believed to have inspired subsequent generations of German and American comic artists. In 1865, the 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, speech and thought balloons, and sawing logs for snoring 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 Hearst for the promise of a better salary under Pulitzer (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 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 America, the great popularity of comics sprang from the newspaper war (1887 onwards) between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The Little Bears (1893-1896) was the first American comic with recurring characters, while the first color comic supplement was published by the Chicago Inter-Ocean sometime in the latter half of 1892.
Beginning in 1907, Mutt and Jeff was the firstsuccessful daily comic strip. The American comic strip developed this format in the course of the 20th century. It introduced such devices as the word balloon for speech, the hat flying off to indicate surprise and specific typographical symbols to represent cursing. The first comic books were anthologies featuring reprints of newspaper comic strips.
Newspaper comic strips come in two varieties: daily strips and Sunday strips. Most newspaper comic strips are syndicated; that is, a syndicate hires people to write and draw the 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 appear on Sundays. Daily strips usually use black and white and Sunday strips are usually in color, but a few newspapers have published daily strips in color, and a few newspapers have published Sunday strips in black and white. The major formats are strips, which are wider than they are tall, and single 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. During the 1930s, the original art for a daily strip could be drawn as large as 25 inches wide by six inches high.
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 in height. 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 the year 2000, four standard daily strips could fit in an area once occupied by a single daily strip.
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. This made it possible for an artist to include a smaller strip, known as a topper, such as The Squirrel Cage which ran along with Room and Board, both drawn by Gene Ahern. 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 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 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.
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, while some are published in print but maintain a web archive for either commercial or artistic reasons. Two of the most popular are Penny Arcade, focused primarily on video gaming, and User Friendly, which bases its humor on the Internet and other computer-user issues. 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.
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 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 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, 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, he 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.
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 right-wing views 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, 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.
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 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 1924-44 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, notably 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.
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As newspapers change, the changes have affected 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. Bill Watterson has written extensively on the issue, claiming that size reduction and dropped panels reduce both the potential and freedom of a cartoonist. When Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes grew to fame, he insisted that his Sunday strip be published without cropping and at a half-page size, a move criticized by newspaper editors and a few cartoonists. One newspaper, the Reading Eagle, continues to run many strips in the largest available size.
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.
Many older strips are no longer drawn by the original cartoonist, who has either died or retired. 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 and Lynn Johnston's For Better or for Worse.
This act is commonly criticized by, primarily modern, cartoonists including Watterson and Pearls Before Swine's Stephan Pastis. The issue was in fact addressed in six consecutive Pearls strips in 2005. Charles Schulz, of Peanuts fame, requested that his strip not be continued by another cartoonist upon his retirement. Schulz also rejected the idea of hiring an inker or letterer, comparing it to a golfer hiring a man to make his putts.
The problems cited with attaining a second cartoonist state that the second cartoonist is generally less funny or compelling than the creator, and also the cartoonist is not as familiar with the characters. Also, some claim that continuing such strips stops newer cartoonists from breaking through.
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 around 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."
Stephan Pastis has said 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 a few exceptions. Naked back sides and shooting guns cannot be shown, according to Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams (Although Pearls Before Swine has gotten away with both).
Many issues such as sex, drugs 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 seen 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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