The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips

Young Boys Reading In Book Shop

Cavan Images / Taxi / Getty Images

The comic strip has been an essential part of the American newspaper since its first appearance more than 125 years ago. Newspaper comics—often called the "funnies" or the "funny pages"—quickly became a popular form of entertainment. Characters like Charlie Brown, Garfield, Blondie, and Dagwood became celebrities in their own right, entertaining generations of people young and old. 

Before Newspapers

Comics did exist before the strips in newspapers that may first come to mind when you think of the medium. Satirical illustrations (often with a political bent) and caricatures of famous people became popular in Europe in the early 1700s. Printers sold inexpensive color prints lampooning politicians and issues of the day, and exhibitions of these prints were popular attractions in Great Britain and France. British artists William Hogarth (1697–1764) and George Townshend (1724–1807) were two pioneers of these types of comics.

The First Comics

As political caricatures and standalone illustrations became popular in early 18th-century Europe, artists sought new ways to satisfy demand. The Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer is credited with creating the first multi-panel comic in 1827 and the first illustrated book, "The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck," a decade later. Each of the book's 40 pages contained several picture panels with accompanying text underneath. It was a big hit in Europe, and in 1842, a version was printed in the U.S. as a newspaper supplement in New York.

As printing technology evolved and allowed publishers to print in large quantities and sell for a nominal cost, humorous illustrations changed as well. In 1859, German poet and artist Wilhelm Busch published caricatures in the newspaper Fliegende Blätter. In 1865, he published a famous comic called "Max und Moritz," which chronicled the escapades of two young boys. In the U.S, the first comic with a regular cast of characters, "The Little Bears" created by Jimmy Swinnerton, appeared in 1892 in the San Francisco Examiner. It was printed in color and appeared alongside the weather forecast.

Comics in American Politics

Comics and illustrations also played an important role in the history of the U.S. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin created the first editorial cartoon published in an American newspaper. Franklin's cartoon was an illustration of a snake with a severed head and the printed words "Join, or Die." The cartoon was intended to goad the different colonies into joining what was to become the United States.

By the mid-19th century, mass-circulation magazines became famous for their elaborate illustrations and political cartoons. The American illustrator Thomas Nast was known for his caricatures of politicians and satirical illustrations of contemporary issues like enslavement and corruption in New York City. Nast is also credited with inventing the donkey and elephant symbols that represent the Democratic and Republican parties.

'The Yellow Kid'

Although several cartoon characters appeared in American newspapers in the early 1890s, the strip "The Yellow Kid," created by Richard Outcault, is often cited as the first true comic strip. Initially published in 1895 in New York World, the color strip was the first to use speech bubbles and a defined series of panels to create comic narratives. Outcault's creation, which followed the antics of a bald, jug-eared street urchin dressed in a yellow gown, quickly became a hit with readers.

The success of "The Yellow Kid" quickly spawned numerous imitators, including "The Katzenjammer Kids." In 1912, the New York Evening Journal became the first newspaper to dedicate a whole page to comic strips and single-panel cartoons. Within a decade, long-running cartoons like "Gasoline Alley," "Popeye," and "Little Orphan Annie" were appearing in newspapers across the country. By the 1930s, full-color standalone sections dedicated to comics were common in newspapers.

The Golden Age and Beyond

The middle part of the 20th century is considered the golden age of newspaper comics as strips proliferated and papers flourished. Detective "Dick Tracy" debuted in 1931; "Brenda Starr"—the first cartoon strip written by a woman—was first published in 1940; "Peanuts" and "Beetle Bailey" each arrived in 1950. Other popular comics include "Doonesbury" (1970), "Garfield" (1978), "Bloom County" (1980), and "Calvin and Hobbes" (1985).

Today, strips like "Zits" (1997) and "Non Sequitur" (2000) entertain readers, as well as ongoing classics like "Peanuts." However, newspaper circulations have declined precipitously since their peak in 1990, and comic sections have shrunken considerably or disappeared altogether as a result. Thankfully, the internet has become a vibrant alternative for cartoons, giving a platform to creations like "Dinosaur Comics" and "xkcd" and introducing a whole new generation to the joys of comics.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).