Like jazz, the newspaper comic strip became a uniquely American art form. Comic strips initially were placed in a series of panels with a story told by dialogue "balloons," thus presenting both a visual and a narrative story.
Comic strips have always been different things to different people. Although promoted for children, the "funnies" were often drawn for adults. Often, they were the first English literature read by immigrants.Soon the comic strip became the new democratic art, enjoyed by all facets and age groups of society. Within a few years, virtually every newspaper, with the exception of the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, had to have its own comics.
Before 1910, cartoonists experimented, but afterward a standardization of formats occurred, largely due to syndication. In the 1920s, standard themes materialized, such as suburban-life strips and working-woman strips. The 1930s brought a renaissance, with most strips going for continuity episodes as opposed to simple gags. And there were a number of adventure strips.
In the 1950s, as a result of television, strips changed again, many of them reverting to humor, especially the gag-a-day mode, and stories were shortened or eliminated. New brands of satire and sarcasm also emerged.
Although many people criticize the comics, or even scorn them, they have thrived for nearly a century. Millions read them every day. Undoubtedly there are many readers who read only the comics in the newspaper - or only the comics and the sports. But the comics give a mysterious lift to those who read them, and most people tend to identify with one or a few comic strips. (The Deseret News recently discovered how faithful the readership is for "Prince Valiant" when the strip was omitted for a few Sundays.)
The comic strips that interested me the most when I was growing up were "Blondie" and "Li'l Abner" because they were clever and not heavily based in reality.
I hated action comics like "Terry and the Pirates" or "Dick Tracy," even though Chester Gould often inserted some wry humor into his strips. I preferred Al Capp's heavy satire of Gould in "Li'l Abner." Capp occasionally got carried away with Li'l Abner's favorite comic-book hero, Fearless Fosdick, who was a dead ringer for Dick Tracy, but dumber.
I even preferred my brother Tom's own comic strip creation, which he drew at home for our local "Neighborhood Chronicle," called "Richard Trackemdown." Since I was the little brother, my comic strip, "Detective James Gordon," never got its deserved publicity. Both Trackemdown and Gordon wore hats and sported enormous hook noses.
I'm disappointed that Warren Beatty's portrayal of Dick Tracy on the screen does not include the hook nose. How can we be sure it's Tracy?
But most of all it seemed to me that the "funnies" should be funny.
When I lived in New Zealand, I developed a taste for the British shenanigans of "Andy Capp," but you have to live in a British culture for a while to understand it. More recently, I took a liking to "Doonesbury" for its sly political commentary, and the single-panel, goofy "Far Side." Yet some people think the "Far Side" is just stupid.
The comics we read open a revealing window on our personalities. Political satire, while amusing, also has a lot more depth than "Hi and Lois." I've talked to people who swear that "Calvin and Hobbes" makes an important social or political statement almost every day. I haven't been able to see it.
I don't understand those who prefer serious detective stories in the comic pages. Maybe these are people who would love to read a novel but think they don't have time. Then there are those pseudo-sophisticated types who refuse to read the comic pages at all because, they say, it is beneath them.
I have a friend who always uses dialogue or situational examples from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" to punch up all of his serious speeches and articles. He loves to quote Linus and Lucy about all of life's major problems.
Let's be honest. The comics are the best part of the paper.