What the Mind Can Imagine: Newspaper Comic Strips As Media
“Comics are capable of being anything the mind can imagine.”
—Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist
As a child, what I most looked forward to on Sundays was my father’s reading me the Sunday comic strips. They were my payoff for sitting through a tedious church service and then suffering through an even more tedious shopping trip for weekly groceries. As soon as my parents parked the car, I would dash up the hill to our newspaper box, snatch the thick Sunday newspaper, run inside, and demand to be read the latest Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts strip.
Now, when I think about the simple pleasure of unfolding a newspaper and looking at the brightly colored drawings of an orange tiger or a beagle with a red collar, I feel old. I imagine that, if I ever have children, they will not even know what a newspaper is, let alone understand the weekly joy of seeing beloved characters in large, brightly colored panels. As newspaper sales are declining, one of the first things that editors cut is space, and the first page that is downsized is the funnies page. Cartoonists are forced to fit their strips and storylines into increasingly shrinking panels that limit their artistry and creativity. Newspapers will also often cut strips entirely to make more room for other, more serious articles. As newspapers slowly become extinct, comic strips become the first casualty in a move away from print and towards the internet.
Ironically, comic strips first appeared at the beginning of the 20th Century in American newspapers as a way to attract readers to the newspapers. At the time there were many newspapers in every large city, and they were all competing for readers. Comic strips were a way to distinguish them from their competition. Instead of being restricted to just one page, comic strips had their own sections of the daily newspaper, a single strip would often be given its own page, and strips were always printed in color. Instead of seeming to resent the space that comic strips took up in their papers, publishers welcomed them as an advertising technique.
Because comic strips are often amusing, they are rarely taken seriously as an art form, perhaps another reason why newspapers have few qualms about restricting their space. Though some comic strips seem to be nothing more than a daily gag, other strips create their human from the satirical social and political commentary that they present. In the 1920s and ‘30s, one of the earliest comic strips, Little Orphan Annie, promoted capitalist ideals and conservative politics through the character of Daddy Warbucks, who was born poor but, though hard work, eventually became a millionaire. Pogo, a strip that ran in the ‘50s, used its cast of animal characters to lampoon McCarthyism, which was censoring comic books and creating fear that newspaper comic strips would be censored as well. Perhaps one of the most well-known comic strips with a political bent is liberal Doonesbury, which received a Pulitzer Prize for its commentary on the Watergate Scandal. Bloom County, another strip with heavy political and social commentary, has also earned a Pulitzer. Obviously, comic strips can be much more than a series of daily illustrated jokes.
Despite the important watchdog roles that comic strips have played in our society, in many respects they seem to be another casualty of the Internet age. Cartoonists are having an increasingly difficult time keeping the interest of current readers as well as attracting new audiences. Many cartoonists are turning to book collections of their strips in hopes of making money.
Other cartoonists are leaving the medium of print altogether and turning instead to webcomics, which are comic strips published on the internet, usually independently. They free cartoonists from the restrictions of censorship and conforming to a limited panel size. Comic strip syndicates, which used to sell strips to newspapers, are picking up on this new trend and publishing their own strips online.
Unfortunately, while webcomics might reach a wider audience, they are not as profitable as newspaper comics once were, and cartoonists can rarely support themselves purely through their strips. Though some cartoonists have become successful enough to advertise on their sites, as well as sell book collections and merchandise of their work, they usually must always find other means of income to support their cartooning.
Though webcomics may not be a good way to make money, they are a means of keeping the comic strip alive for future generations. This generation’s artists will have to face the challenge of translating a vital but overlooked form of media into a new medium that can draw in new audiences. Though print newspapers are in decline, comic strips are proving themselves able to evolve to changing technologies, which can bring about new directions in the comic strip media. Far from being forgotten, like newspapers, comic strips are proving themselves flexible enough to live beyond their original medium. Truly, comic strips are as unlimited as the creativity and dedication of their cartoonists.