(In the time I had to write this installment, it was impossible for me to fully research continuity strips from Europe. In fact, I’m not even sure if some of them ever appeared as strips in the first place. I might have been able to work some of the Belgian and English strips in, but what of the rest of Europe? And I’m sure the Asian countries have worthy strips as well. The other entries in this series have concentrated primarily on Americancreations, with a nod to the work done in other countries, so I decided to stick to what I knew for this one as well. But that in no way is meant to diminish Tintin, Asterix, Modesty Blaze, Jane, Barbarella or even the Smurfs. Perhaps that can be a future article,-LL)
Of all the various permutations of the serial story, the comic strip may be the most distinguished, unique in almost every particular. While embracing the conventions and traditions of its predecessors, it has expanded the depth and breadth of the concept farther than any other medium, including television. And, ironically,in many ways it has pandered less to juvenile audiences than it’s cousins.
These strengths were the result of the medium’s restrictions. A comic strip, whether of the gag-a-day variety or a long continuity, had to be family friendly, convey its point in short, daily intervals for years on end, in an inflexible format. Additionally, a continuity had to be repetitive enough so that someone who missed a day or two could still follow along while at thesame time sustaining interest for regular readers. Only the strong and the clever could survive for long.
Not surprisingly, one of the first strips to tell a continued story was a humor strip. Sidney Smith’s The Gumps began February 12, 1917 with an odd transition from Smith’s previous strip, Old Doc Yak, a gag-a-day, talking animal comic. The Old Doc Yak strip of February 11 showed Doc and his family moving out of their house; the next day, same house, Andy Gump and family moved in, no explanations offered or, apparently, necessary. More than a decade before the advent of the classic adventure strips, The Gumps storylines were long and convoluted…..and extremely popular. And being about an ostensibly ordinary family, Smith had to confront the issue of time in ways that Winsor McKay and Richard Outcault had never dreamed of. Not only did the characters age at a fairly realistic rate, they occasionally got involved in real world events; Andy Gump ran for president in 1924, possibly the first fictional character to do so.
Keep in mind that the family storypapers of the 19th century had something for everyone, from soaps to the various sub-genres that make up adventure stories, and even crude, largely ethnic comic serials. I haven’t examined enough of the earliest pulps, but by the Depression, the comic story, at least in serial form, had all but disappeared. Argosy occasionally ran some lighthearted adventure fare — Lester Dent’s Genius Jones (Argosy,1937)) was billed as a ‘million dollar laugh riot’, but it was a far cry from the days of the Shorty Kids and the Teaser Twins.
Film serials put the emphasis on adventure, though taking on some of the trappings of the soap opera while reducing the comic story to that most dreadful of all notions, the comic sidekick. Vitagraph and Keystone both produced spoofs of the genre, and later serials, as their audience became younger, were sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but a serial by a Chaplin or a Keaton is only the stuff of dreams.
But the funnies were, in the post-war years, meant to be funny; the advent of the classic adventure strip was more than a decade away. Gasoline Alley, a single panel gag strip by Frank King, switched to a continuity strip on August 24, 1919. Like The Gumps, the strip was about ‘regular folks’ who grew up, got married, had kids, grew old, and died.
Gasoline Alley celebrated it’s 90th anniversary on November 24, 2008, and is still running.
Late 1919 saw the birth of Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre, a comedic proto-adventure strip featuring Castor Oyl and his pal, Ham Gravy. Oh yeah, and Castor’s sister, Olive. Gasoline Alley and The Gumps bordered on soap operas, following the comic trials and tribulations of “regular” families (though it was highly unlikely that the sister-in-law’s uncle’s mother would be making a play for Andy or Walt); Thimble Theatre, on the other hand, made no pretenses to normalcy. Castor was greedy, selfish and manipulative, and Ham wasn’t any saint either; the stories were twisted adventures involving masked mystery figures, magic hens and hidden fortunes.
On August 5, 1924, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie made her appearance on the world stage. The strip was a near-instant success, though I wonder if the contemporary readers of that era were aware of just how radical a change it represented. The art style, on the surface, used the conventions of the era; the human figures were simple, not all that far removed from Gasoline Alley. Annie and Sandy sported their famous button eyes. The story of a poor orphan girl who survives on her own pluck, while unusual in the gender choice, was almost a cliché even then.
But from the first, there is a grittiness, a darkness that shadows the story. Humor, when it appears, is low-key. It’s very clear that this is NOT Gasoline Alley. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that Little Orphan Annie was The Dark Knight Returns of its era.
Rather than poking fun at human foibles like his competitors, Gray took on social issues, and he took sides in those issues, going far beyond the politics involved in Andy Gump running for President. Conservative, sometimes bordering on the fascistic -we have to assume Annie was speaking for Gray when she advocated citizens taking the law into their own hands on occasion- Gray called things as he saw them, and the strip prospered.
Gray also turned time on its head. Each Annie strip told the events of a single day, and current events were often worked into the storyline, yet over the course of fifty-three, none of the main characters ever aged. When the strip finally ended in 1977, not a single wrinkle had been added to Annie, Sandy or Daddy W. It’s not that every other strip suddenly followed Gray’s lead; in fact, no one would even be aware of the issue for years, and it’s likely that Gray didn’t work it out as an intentional distortion. But prior to this strip, if time was dealt with at all, it was in a ‘real’ way. The idea of manipulating time, an idea that was just starting to find expression in film, was new.
Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, another comedy-adventure strip, joined the gallery the same year. Cartoony in style, Wash split the difference between Gasoline Alley and Thimble Theatre in tone.
In the wake of Lindbergh’s aviation triumph on May 20-21,1927, flying became the rage, with small, individually owned air fields popping up all over the country. Cartoonist Hal Forrest went to work and exactly one year later, May 21, 1928,
Tailspin Tommy appeared in the ‘funny’papers. It was a big step forward for adventure strips in that it was more realistic in story and characterization, closer to the stories appearing in the pulps of the day. But anybody involved in the creative process will tell you that original concepts exist out in the ether somewhere, and are often discovered by different people at approximately the same time. Tim Tyler’s Luck began in August of 1928, and at first it seemed to be a transgenedred rip-off of Little Orphan Annie. Tim was raised in an orphanage, then ran away to seek ‘adventure’ in the wide world. But the stories quickly evolved into pulp-style, globe trotting adventures, eventually centering on Africa.
The success of these two strips can probably best be gauged by what followed. Given that a comic strip needs to have five to six months backlog available before it first appears in the paper, it’s likely that two of the most influential comic strips of the Golden Age went into production within a a few weeks of Tailspin Tommy’s first appearance.
On January 7, 1929, readers were introduced to two new daily strips, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. by Phil Nowlan and Lt. Dick Calkins, and Tarzan of the Apes by Hal Foster. Tarzan, of course, had long been a hot property; his success in the pulps, in hardcover and in films had made him one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world. One wonders if the powers that be had ever considered the idea of a Tarzan comic strip before, or whether the ‘funnies’, at least in terms of the continued story, had to evolve to a certain point before someone recognized this new market.
Buck Rogers was Tarzan’s opposite in almost every way. Rather than a throwback to the primitive, Rogers was a throw forward, bringing science fiction to the newspaper audience for the first time. The character, Anthony Rogers, had appeared in only a single story, “Armageddon 2419 A.D.”, in the August, 1928 Amazing Stories. His only other pulp appearance would be in the March 1929 Amazing Stories. With his new nickname, Buck Rogers introduced rayguns, flying belts, spaceships and other such science fiction tropes to the point his name became a synonym for almost any science fiction gimmick right up until he was forced to share that honor with Star Trek, people who have never seen the comic strip will still know what you’re talking about if you refer to “that Buck Rogers stuff.”
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. and Tarzan of the Apes were daily strips. A Buck Rogers Sunday strip started March 30, 1930, and Tarzan followed suit March 15, 1931,drawn by Rex Maxon. At this early date, daily and Sunday strips, even Gasoline Alley, featured different continuities, thus adding a further weight to the workload of the writers and artists.There were plenty of Tarzan stories in print for the Foster and Maxon to draw upon. Phil Nowlan found his way around the
challenge by featuring a different character, Buddy Deering, younger brother of Buck’s girlfriend and co-warrior, Wilma Deering; Frank King took another approach with Gasoline Alley, using the Sunday strips to relate Walt’s inner life while experimenting with composition and light fantasy elements in the large format.
The horse, as they say, was out of the barn. To be truthful, there was more than one horse/
Popeye made his first appearance on January 17, 1929, as a bit player hired by Castor Oyl in a Thimble Theare adventure. On May 26, Capt. Easy also appeared as a bit character in Wash Tubbs. No one had any idea that these two throwaway characters would take over their respective strips within a year, not to mention setting new standards for art, characterization and story.
Next up, in January, 1930, was another already world-famous character, Mickey Mouse. The first stories were written by Walt Disney, drawn by Ub Iwerks and inked by Win Smith. But in april of the same year, Floyd Gottfredson, took on the ‘temporary’ assignment of writing and drawing the strip. He stayed on until 1976. Along with various co-writers, Gottfredson pulled off the seemingly impossible task of pulse-pounding adventure stories centered around a cartoon mouse. The best of his work can stand with anything by Caniff or Gould, or with the similarly amazing duck comics of Carl Barks.
Scorchy Smith was just another realistic aviation strip at first, but when Noel Sickles took over the art chores in 1934, he advanced the idea of “realistic” art with his use of strong shadows and compositions inspired by films. Joe Palooka, a strip about a heavyweight fighter, exercised his muscle in that middle-ground between the serious and the comic, similar to Roy Crane’s work on Capt. Easy. But talk about pushing the envelope: for the first seven years of the strip, Joe’s appearance changed to look like whoever was the current reigning heavyweight champ. It smacks of the surreal, as in Luis Bunuel’s film, That Obscure Object of Desire, wherein the same role is played by two very different actresses who change places randomly throughout the film. In 1937, when Joe Louis gained the heavyweight title, Joe Palooka assumed the blonde, cow-licked look that most people are familiar with.
With the Depression and Prohibition in high gear, the time was right for another one of the iconic American comic strip characters to enter the scene. Dick Tracy arrived on Oct. 4, 1931, as Plainclothes Tracy. The genius of Chester Gould soon transformed what could have been a ho-hum detective into one of the most astonishing graphic statements ever put on paper. As the stories became more complex, taking current events and ramping them up into high-octane thrillers, the art rejected both the cartoony AND realistic styles. Despite their bizarre appearances and names, there is nothing remotely ‘funny’ about Flattop, Pruneface, Mrs. Pruneface and the others. Tracy, his profile more like a hatchet’s than a man’s, is a character of some emotional depth.
Unlike the pulps and the movie serials, the newspaper comic strip never seemed to feel it had to choose between comedy and realism, or even the odd mixture of the two. V. T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop (December 1932) was one such mixture, using realistic if exaggerated relationships between characters (cave men and women!) to drive the stories, but drawn in a style that owes more to Segar than to Tailspin Tommy or Buck Rogers. And in one of the most amazing examples of the flexibility of the comic strip, a time machine was introduced into the strip in 1939, allowing the likable cave man to expand his adventures across time and space.
Capt. Easy got his own Sunday strip in 1933, and the storylines became a bit more serious. Smiling Jack (aviation), Brick Bradford (science-fiction) and Dickie Dare (fantasy, and Milton Caniff’s first original strip) were added to the mix the same year.
Now we get to 1934. Despite the milestones we’ve already noted, 1934 might just be the genre’s most creatively explosive year, and it started off with bang. On January 7, Flash Gordon debuted with a companion strip, Jungle Jim, running above it in a smaller format; two weeks later, January 22, Secret Agent X-9 began. Dashiell Hammet, already a noted crime author, wrote the latter strip, but a young man named Alex Raymond wrote the first two…and drew all three. Within the year, Raymond established a level of draughtsmanship and storytelling that has never been equaled. His beautiful line work is a standard for illustrators even today, and his romanticized storytelling was several steps above the contemporary pulp fiction of the day. He followed the lead of Hal Foster and Rex Maxon in that he didn’t use dialogue balloons in Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, a technique that gave the strips a certain literary air.
Then, in quick succession, we get Don Winslow of the Navy (March 5), the first comic strip to be conceived as a recruiting tool; Mandrake the Magician (June 11), a fairly straight forward mystery adventure strip written by Lee Falk, with art by Phil Davis; Li’l Abner (August 13), a unique humor strip that would raise political satire to a new level and supply several generations with new slang and archetypes; and Terry & the Pirates (October 22), Milton Caniff’s masterpiece and a contender for the greatest adventure strip of all time.
And keep in mind that along with this embarrassment of riches, every one of the strips previously mentioned was still running.
The Phantom began February 17, 1936, a startling original mixture by Lee Falk of jungle adventure, family heritage and, totally defying all logic (and getting away with it) a hero wearing a purple costume and mask to fight injustice in the jungle. Hal Foster, having left Tarzan, turned his talents to Prince Valiant (February 13, 1937), grounding his stories firmly in medieval history. Leaping a tall building (and a medium) in a single bound, Superman, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster landed in newspapers in 1939, barely a year after his comic book debut. Schuster’s art, a borderline cartoon style similar to Roy Crane’s, augmented rather than detracted the science fiction concepts and character relationships of Siegel’s stories.
By now you may have noticed on glaring omission in this wild west of continued story styles: the soap opera. Though there were elements of soap in Gasoline Alley, the kind of strict realism demanded by the genre style was not embraced the genre 1940, when Mary Worth made her formidable presence known. Whether the strip was an outgrowth of the earlier Apple Mary is contested, but irrelevant here. And if Mary Worth were merely a typical soap opera, there would be no reason to say anymore about it. But I think it’s worth noting that Mary Worth, whether it has had any influence on other strips or not, is one of the most radical rethinkings of the serial story ever made.
Although the titular character, Mary was usually only a secondary character, stepping in occasionally to offer advice. The rest of the cast changed with each story arc. More interesting is that the story arcs were self contained and unrelated to the stories that preceded or followed. In other words, Mary Worth, in its early days, was unstuck in time, unrestricted by the passing of fads and fancies. No thought need be given to what happened “last issue.” Mary never had to age, because each story took place in its own unique time. Although certainly not the intention of the creators, it’s almost a science fiction concept, as if Mary were the Watcher, or one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, able to step into the timestream at any given period, and retreat at will. In recent years this aspect of the strip has been dropped, but if Marvel or DC are looking for new properties…
Comic strips endured a nice, healthy existence through the war years. The next milestone was Walt Kelly’s Pogo, in 1948. If you want to try and describe it, be my guest; for me, it is largely undefinable. With his amazing draughtsmanship and unique ear for dialect and word play, Kelly fashioned a continuity around caricatured animals in a swamp, that satirized and commented on politics to a degree not seen before outside of the editorial page, that expressed a sense of community and common folk, that was funny, moving, ‘real’, and, even noting some of its shotgun wielding characters and frequent brawls, remained gentle at heart.
If soap operas had been given short shrift in the early years, they made up for lost time in the late ‘40s-early ‘50s, even as the creation of more classic-styled continuity strips waned. A psychologist, Dr. Nicholas P. Dallis created three long-running strips: Rex Morgan MD in 1948, Judge Parker in 1952, and Apartment 3-G in 1961, all of which are still running, albeit under different hands. Though the characters age, time is treated more like that in television soaps, where a week in the story continuity might take many months to unfold in print.
But the glory days of the serial story strip were past. The great strips soldiered on, but the gag-a-day strip had regained the upper hand, pushing the giants aside. The division between realism and cartoon became rigid, and the flexibility and diversity that was so fascinating in the older strips vanished; when new continuity strips were introduced, they tended to be based on properties from other mediums, a clear inversion of the original order. The sixties saw strips like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, two medical soap operas based on hit tv shows (though it should be noted that Dr. Kildare had originally appeared in the pulps) Tales of the Green Berets, inspired by Robin Cook’s best-selling book on the subject as well as the popularity of Barry Sadler’s song, “Ballad of the Green Berets.” In the wake of the campy Batman TV show, a Batman strip was inevitable; The World’s Greatest Superheroes, essentially a pared down the Justice League of America, had a modest success; The Amazing Spider-man has been running since 1977. None of the strips broke new ground.
Still, new strips do occasionally appear and carry on the tradition. Doonesbury (1971), heir to Pogo’s legacy, has a light continuity and has all but eliminated the boundary between comic strip and editorial cartoon. For Better or Worse (1979) is a lighthearted soap opera about a Canadian family.
Many of the great strips –Dick Tracy, Alley Oop, Gasoline Alley, Prince Valiant– are still running, though in far fewer papers and only as shadows of their former selves; Little Orphan Annie. Steve Canyon and Li’l Abner ceased with the death or retirement of their creators; Pogo held on for a little while after Kelly’s death, written by Kelly’s wife and drawn by Kelly assistant Don Morgan, but the magic was gone.
Comic strips, once a cornerstone of newspaper circulation strength, are now treated with less respect than a disgraced politician. One of our state newspapers, for many reasons regarded as the worst daily paper in America, fuels that opinion by stretching and squeezing the strips that they run to make space for advertising. I’m not talking about resizing the strip; I mean they literally elongate the strip, or squeeze it down, noticeably distorting the artwork. Readers don’t seem to care. One assumes that creators and syndicates no longer have the clout to object.
(All characters and art used in this article are the property of their respective Copyright holders.)