Bill Blackbeard has envisioned a scene from the late 1920’s-
“Ducking back into the house with the St. Paul Sunday paper, Charles Schulz shucked out the sports section and comics, and padded to the moonlit kitchen icebox for a glass of milk before he switched on the light over the breakfast table and sat down to turn the crisp, fresh pages of the comics to ‘Barney Google’ and the current antics of Barney’s race horse, Sparky, for which Charles had been nicknamed only a few short years before – looking, as he read, for all the world like his own Charlie Brown in ‘Peanuts,’ the world-famous comic strip he was to create just two decades later.” (1)
“Comic strips have been called the ‘teasers’ of the newspapers,” says William Cline. “Whether or not the reader cared particularly about current news or other regular features of the paper that were complete in themselves – articles, specialty write-ups, columns, editorials, etc. - he was provoked into buying a paper each day in order to keep up with the comics...No other feature is more durable than the comics, including the sports page and the women’s section.” (2)
The Comics Entertain Us
Entertainment, like information, relies on the “surprise value” of its content. To the extent that a message is predictable, it conveys no (new) information. The characters are a recurring set, but their situations change from day to day.
The adventure strips are an unfolding story. We tune in each morning to see what will happen next to our favorite characters-
Will Dick Tracy escape from under the ice? Who will be tossed into Mr. Crime’s pool of piranhas?
How will Smilin’ Jack get off the island? Where will the underground river take him?
And so we return day after day.
Even the gag comics have an element of suspense-
Will Lucy pull the football away today? Will Charlie Brown’s team ever win a game?
Will Smitty and Mr. Bailey finally catch the giant fish of the North Woods?
“Cartooning is entertainment,” said Jim (“Garfield”) Davis, “If I can make someone laugh, smile, or just think a nice thought, then I’ve accomplished my purpose.”
The Comics Reflect Us
The cartoonist finds humor in the mundane events of life - grocery shopping, taking out the trash, sorting the laundry, doing the dishes, losing the tv remote. The funnies reflect our lives, our interests, our values, our foibles, and our culture.
I wonder how many office workers and engineers read the morning dose of “Dilbert” and exclaim, “Yes! That’s us! That’s my boss and my office in that cartoon!”
“It has been belatedly acknowledged,” wrote Horn, “that the comics – the American comics uppermost – are not an incoherent series of pictures, but the most authentic form of the dreams, hopes, splendors, fears, and miseries of our century.” (3)
The Comics Infect Us
“Cartoons,” said Jerry Robinson, “have set styles for whole eras in clothes, coiffure, food, and manners. Our language has been permeated with comic idioms, and some words have become so much a part of our speech that their origins have been forgotten: Hot dog!, jeep, baloney!, a Rube Goldberg contraption, and innumerable other terms. Our language has also been enriched by hundreds of onomatopoeic words, such as Zap!, Plop!, and Voom! Foods popularized in the comics might make a gourmet shudder but not the average American: Wimpy’s hamburgers, Dagwood’s sandwiches, Harold Teen’s sundaes, and Jiggs’ corned beef and cabbage....And let’s not forget the magnificent statue of Popeye erected by Crystal City, Texas, the ‘Spinach Capital of the World.’ ” (4)
The Comics Affect Us
What have the comics meant to you? Some have said:
“The funnies were something special that we read as a family.”
“My grandfather would save me the comics from the morning newspaper (which we didn’t take) and give me a folded week’s collection every weekend.”
“Every Sunday my dad and I would walk to the newsstand, buy the Sunday paper, and read half the comics on the walk home.”
“I learned to read from trying to read the comics page.”
“I taught myself to draw by studying the funny papers.”
“I used to take my little red wagon around the neighborhood, gathering up any comics no longer wanted.”
“I think I learned to read to a great extent by first having the funny papers read to me, and then, when there was no one around to do that, reading them to myself. They were a perfect learning tool ... short word balloons, usually relating to the action that was occurring. Today, the storyboard type form is used to teach reading, in manuals of all sorts, and especially helpful in teaching different languages.”
“Another side affect of studying the art in comics is that I was learning to recognize the different styles of the artists.”
“Reading and collecting the funnies was a hobby and fun experience that expanded our minds and imaginations both painlessly and unconsciously.”
“Many wonderful friendships ensued from my association with the comics and perhaps, in the end, that may be the most important and lasting thing of all.”
The Comics Have Been Produced by Skilled Artists
A few comics have been enjoyed, studied, and collected primarily for the artwork involved. Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Alex Raymond, Austin Briggs, Raeburn Van Buren, and Frank Godwin were comic strip artists who enjoyed reputations as master illustrators. Lyonel Feininger (“The Kin-Der Kids”), George Luks (second artist on “The Yellow Kid”/”Hogan’s Alley”), Duane Bryers (“Cokey”), George Shedd (“Marlin Keel”), and Phil Fisher (ghost on “Brenda Starr”) went on to careers in painting. At least three major “schools” of comic illustration have developed based on the styles of key draftsmen. Most of today’s artists were highly influenced by the techniques of Alex Raymond (“Flash Gordon,” “Rip Kirby”), Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates,” “Steve Canyon”), or Roy Crane (“Wash Tubbs,” “Buz Sawyer”).
“(The late Milton) Caniff typifies the adventure strip cartoonist who performs the film functions of the producer, screenwriter, casting director, costume and set designer, cinematographer, lighting director, special effects man, actor, and film editor.” (5)
“Will Eisner, distinguished for his visual innovations in comic art, has stated that ‘comics are movies on paper.’ Eisner’s work in ‘The Spirit’ has always demonstrated a brilliant use of angle shots, framing, lighting, mood, and detail characteristic of the film medium....(In addition to William Friedkind) Frederico Fellini, Orson Welles, and Alain Resnais are other film makers who have acknowledged their indebtedness to the comics for cinematic concepts and techniques.” (6)
The Comics Have Been Produced by Skilled Writers
Popular comic strips have been produced by some outstanding storytellers. We have enjoyed the sharp satire of Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”), the whimsy of Walt Kelly (“Pogo”), and the drama of Leonard Starr (“On Stage”).
All of the great themes of literature are there in the funnies – the travel-search odyssey, the triumph of good over evil, innocents abroad, love found and fulfilled, betrayal and retribution, fatal character flaws, the comedy of mistaken identity.
“The total work of some cartoonists,” wrote Thomas Inge, “constitutes something like a multi-volumed novel on the pattern of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County cycle. ‘Little Orphan Annie’ follows the picaresque pattern of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ and ‘Gasoline Alley’ anatomizes an entire midwestern town in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis’ ‘Main Street’ or Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg, Ohio.’ ” (7)
A number of comic strip producers went on to fame as authors and playwrights-
Herb Gardner wrote and drew “The Nebbishes” before moving into a very successful career as a playwright (“A Thousand Clowns”).
Jack Kent, a popular writer of children’s books, for several years produced a whimsical strip known as “King Aroo.”
Crockett Johnson (David Johnson Leisk), creator of “Harold and the Purple Crayon,”
produced the “Barnaby” strip about a young boy and his egotistical fairy godfather.
Jules Feiffer, cartoonist of the “Feiffer” page, wrote the plays “Little Murders” and “Knock, Knock” and the screenplays for “Popeye” and “Carnal Knowledge.”
Detective writer Dashiell Hammett was selected to write the first few adventures of “Secret Agent X-9.”
Leslie Charteris wrote several storylines for the comic adventures of his character “The Saint.”
Science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote Flash Gordon’s adventures for Dan Barry
in the 1950’s.
The Comics Have Appeared in a Variety of Forms
Today more people are likely familiar with Popeye of the animated cartoons (“I’m strong to the finich ‘cause I eats me spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man –toot, toot”) than with Segar’s early Popeye of the “Thimble Theatre” strip. Many know Flash Gordon primarily from scenes from the Buster Crabbe chapterplay of 1936. Comics have inspired dozens of movies (especially Blondie, Red Ryder, and Jungle Jim) and a few well-known musical comedies, including “Annie” and “Li’l Abner.” Characters from the comics have appeared on radio and television and have been developed as books and toys.
The Comics Give Us Common Ground
Unlike the opera or the wrestling match, the funnies are an area of culture available to, and enjoyed by, virtually every segment of society. (Neither high culture nor low culture, comics, along with movies and television, belong to an area of study known as “Popular Culture.”) People of all ages and educational levels typically find some favorite comics.
“Doonesbury,” for example, appeals to one political bent and “Mallard Filmore” to another.
Unlike comic books, many of which were later marketed to a younger readership, the comic page has always had an appeal to adult readers (“Pogo,” “Dilbert,” “Liberty Meadows”) as well as to kids, yet remain family entertainment.
The funnies have become a common denominator, yielding a common base for communication. (“Did you see Blondie today?” “What did you think of Sunday’s ‘B.C’
cartoon?”) So widespread was the enjoyment of the comics during the mid-1930’s that during the citywide newspaper strike Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia read the Sunday funnies over the radio to the children (and adults) of New York City. When Little Orphan Annie lost her dog Sandy in one depression-era sequence, cartoonist Harold Gray received a particularly interesting telegram: “Please do all you can to help Annie find Sandy – Henry Ford.”
The comics provide for us a kind of “cultural literacy.” Many readers are familiar with characters or slogans that originated in the funnies-
“that ‘Buck Rogers’ stuff” (science fiction, space travel)
“Mutt and Jeff” characters (one very short, one very tall and thin)
“Dagwood sandwiches” (piled high with everything in the kitchen)
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” (from “Pogo”)
“Dick Tracy villains” (grotesque caricatures – Flattop, Flyface)
“Garfield” and lasagna (famous even in towns in India)
“Happiness is a Warm Puppy” (a spin-off book from Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts”)
“Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes”
“Popeye” and his spinach
“Dennis the Menace” on tv and in movies
“Tomorrow,” from the musical version of “Annie”
“Perhaps the big secret of the universal appeal of such strips as ‘Krazy Kat,’ ‘Peanuts,’ and ‘Pogo,’” wrote Bob Rosekranz, “is the fact that each may be read and enjoyed on several levels. One can read them for the pure fun of entering into the lives of key characters acting out their little scenes for one’s enjoyment. Or one can dig beneath the surface for the political and philosophical mother lode hidden there for those diligent enough to mine it.” (8)
The Comics Give Us a Message in Pictures
“From a purely semiotic point of view, ” said Clive Ashwin, “comic strips constitute one of the most complex and sophisticated areas of drawn communication.”
Semiotics is the study of signs, and the comics are replete with signs and symbols.
Considering the interpretation of comics, Rubens examines the writing of W. Born. Rubens (9) notes the following from “The Nature and History of Medical Caricature” (Ciba Symposium 6, November 1944, p. 1910):
“Born suggests that a cartoon’s meaning requires two major elements. First, it requires ‘tabs of identity.’ That is, some reasonable comparison of graphic elements between the deviation and the standard must be possible: an exaggerated nose is still a nose. Second, certain iconic types have to appear. A pictograph of a bell with motion lines around it, for instance, implies the potential of sound without words being present...(This) suggests the need for a cultural context and a sense of communal knowledge. Certain cultural elements must be evoked to inform the viewer’s interpretation of the communication event...The power of analogy, the reliance on cultural knowledge, the recognition of the role of beliefs and values, all mediate for a rhetorical basis for the cartoon.”
Whether enjoyed for a few seconds of humor, studied for their reflection of society, collected for their artwork, or analyzed for their communicative properties, the funnies are a part of our culture and will be valued by Americans for years to come.
1. Blackbeard, B., “The Comics,” Friendly Exchange, 1981.
2. Cline, W. , In the Nick of Time, p.14.
3. Horn, M.., Comics of the American West , p.10.
4. Robinson, J., The Comics, p.8-9.
5. Robinson, J., The Comics, p.140.
6. Inge, M.T., “Studying the Geniuses of Comic Strips,” Greater Buffalo Press, 1976.
8. Rosekranz, Bob, “The Funnies are 75.”
9. Rubens, P., “The Cartoon and Ethics”, IEEE-T-PC 30(3):197, 1987.
Prepared by Paul Leiffer and Hames Ware.