A Brief History
On January 3, 2000, the final new comic strip of the Peanuts (Charlie Brown, et al) series was published in the nation’s newspapers, ending a 50 year run as an iconic funny papers staple. Less than a month later, the strip’s creator, Charles M. Schulz, died of colon cancer at the age of 77. We still see “reruns” of Peanuts comic strips, but the days of getting new strips are long gone, as are the days of many other bygone comic strips that were once something for Americans to look forward to in the comics section of their daily newspaper. Today we list 10 of those late, great comic strips.
1. Peanuts, Charles Schulz, 1950-2000.
The cultural impact of this iconic comic is almost incalculable. Besides the television specials that get played over and over every holiday, the merchandising is so pervasive it is hard to escape! The characters have been used as shills for commercial products and are as familiar to Americans as family members. We even had “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” pop-rock song, and 2 sequels to that one! Peanuts is the most popular comic strip of all time, and had a run of over 17,000 original strips. It peaked at a readership of 355 million people in at least 75 countries during the 1960’s! The strip also spawned a stage musical, and in 2015 a feature film, The Peanuts Movie, that grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Charles Schulz earned over a billion dollars from his strip and its characters.
2. Steve Canyon, Milton Caniff, 1947-1988.
Caniff started this new strip shortly after ending Terry and the Pirates comic strip. The title character was a pilot/adventurer, called back to military service for the Korean War, and then remained an Air Force pilot throughout the rest of the life of the comic strip. The story lines included espionage, intrigue, and of course, femme fatales. The strip was adapted as a 1958-1959 television series, comic books and into several books. The influence of the cartoon spread to real war when the US CIA/US Air Force covert air operations over Laos were called ‘Steve Canyon Operations.’
3. Li’l Abner, Al Capp, 1933-1977, 1988.
Al Capp died in 1979, so anything after that featuring our favorite comic strip hillbillies is only an homage. This was the first comic strip based in the South, and reached over 60 million readers in over 900 newspapers, plus another hundred papers in foreign countries, forever influencing the image of Southern Americans across the world! Probably the most important cultural take away from this iconic comic is Sadie Hawkins Day, a day Capp made up for the strip that has caught on all across America, where each year on Sadie Hawkins Day the girls chase the boys, getting to keep the one they catch! This “holiday” was first written about in 1939, and by 1952 40,000 places were holding a Sadie Hawkins Day (usually a dance, sometimes with or without the race). The day is celebrated on or around November 15. Check your local listings for the 2018 event in your town.
4. The Far Side, Gary Larson, 1980-1995.
You can characterize this late, great comic strip in one word: cows! (He also apparently liked wiener dogs…) Larson managed to frequently use the bovines to make his humorous point, and was not afraid to delve into other anthropomorphic animals as well. Of course, not all his cartoons featured critters, and he found humor in just about every human situation possible, sometimes on the bizarre side, virtually surreal. Born in 1950, Larson retired from his ultra-successful comic at the age of 45, but with all the calendars, books, greeting cards and other merchandising we think he must be financially pretty well set. The single (usually) panel cartoon was carried by 1900 newspapers in 17 languages. Some of Larson’s compilation books included irate letters from newspaper readers demanding their local paper discontinue running The Far Side. All 23 Far Side books became Best Sellers. Larson continues to live in Washington State, the state of his birth, and is environmentally conscious.
5. Pogo, Walt Kelly, 1948-1975, 1989-1993.
Kelly was born in Pennsylvania, but the comic strip is set in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, featuring anthropomorphic critters as the characters (Pogo is a ‘possum.) The biting satire poked fun at politics and politicians, and oddly enough has appeal for both serious adults and young children. The strip featured perhaps the greatest comic strip quote of all time, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Although the creator died in 1973, the strip was revived from 1989-1993.
6. Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson, 1985-1995.
A boy and his stuffed animal tiger, that in the boy’s mind is alive and interacts with him may not sound like much, but this author thinks the strip was actually the funniest of all those listed here. The strip somehow manages to flow back and forth from reality to fantasy and cover a wide range of social topics while doing so. The strip received much popular acclaim and was featured in over 2400 newspapers. A resurrection of the strip in 2010 appeared in 50+ countries. Over 45 million of the book compilations of the strips have been sold. The creator, Bill Watterson, was from Chagrin Falls, Ohio (since moved) and quit drawing the strip at the young age of 37 (!), abruptly informing editors he had achieved all he could with the comic strip. Watterson has won numerous awards for the strip, but now paints and dabbles in other, not so public activities. He has refused offers to merchandise his characters, but unfortunately knock-off versions of Calvin and Hobbes are out there anyway.
7. The Katzenjammer Kids, Rudolph Dirks and Harold Knerr, 1897-2006.
To be honest, we never read this strip, but it is significant as the longest running comic strip in US history. Like many other long running strips, the original artist/writers are replaced over time. Not surprisingly, Dirks and Knerr (creator and artist respectively) were German-Americans. This strip is ground breaking in that it is the first ever to use “word balloons” to carry dialogue between characters. Featuring 2 brothers that were forever giving their Mama fits, the strip also featured an Black character, King Bongo, that ruled a tropical island. (The King Bongo character was surprisingly sophisticated.) The strip was adapted for a play and for animated cartoons, and appeared on US postage stamps. The Kids first appeared on film in 1898 and again in 1900! Playboy Magazine featured a spoof of the comic strip called The Krautzenbummer Kids.
8. Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, 1939-1966.
Shuster was a Dutch/Ukrainian-American Jew born in Canada that moved to Cleveland at the age of 10 where he met Cleveland born Siegel, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The 2 buddies created the Superman comic strip that grew quickly to grace 300 daily newspapers and 90 Sunday papers, reaching a readership of 20 million fans. Of course, you may be more familiar with the television, movie, and comic book adaptations of the Superman story. We are pretty confident you already know the background story of Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent.
9. Tarzan, Hal Foster, 1929-2002.
The familiar character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, becomes an orphan in the jungles of Africa and is raised by anthropoid apes. He becomes some sort of animal savant and pretty much king of the jungle, often having to fight bad people and/or bad animals. This character also appeared on a television series as well as in books and movies, and of course, in comic books.
10. Buz Sawyer, Roy Crane, 1943-1989.
The title character started out during World War II as a Navy pilot, and became an oil company trouble shooter after the war, a job that took him around the world and to many adventures. During the 1950’s, Buz rejoined the Navy (kind of like Steve Canyon?), and later flew in combat during the Vietnam War. Crane died in 1977, and the last strip to originate from him was run in 1979. The strip ended only a year after the Steve Canyon strip ended, perhaps because the macho, world traveling adventurer became a male stereotype that did not fit modern political correctness. I miss my he-man heroes, do you?
Question for students (and subscribers): Which bygone strips would you include on the list? (We do not get into the soap opera type cartoons/comic strips, but feel free to mention those that you think are significant, but are no longer featured.) Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Pond, Neil. “History of Comic Strips.” American Profile. http://americanprofile.com/articles/history-of-comic-strips/ (accessed 31 December 2017).
Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.