The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips

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The comic strip has been an essential part of the American newspaper since the first one appeared 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, and others became celebrities in their own right, entertaining generations of people young and old. 

Before Newspapers

Satirical illustrations, often with a political bent, and caricatures of famous people became popular in Europe in the early 1700s.

Printers would sell 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 the medium.

Comics and illustrations also played an important role in the colonial 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 had the printed words "Join, or Die." The cartoon was intended to goad the different colonies into joining what was to become the United States.

Mass-circulation magazines like Punch in Great Britain, which was founded in 1841, and Harper's Weekly in the U.S., founded in 1857, became famous for their elaborate illustrations and political cartoons. The American illustrator Thomas Nast became famous for his caricatures of politicians and satirical illustrations of contemporary issues like slavery 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 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, allowing publishers to print in large quantities and sell their publications 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. 

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. First published in 1895 in the 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.

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" 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), as well as classics like "Peanuts," continue to entertain newspaper readers. But newspaper circulations have declined precipitously since their peak in 1990, and comic sections have shrunken considerably or disappeared altogether. But while papers have declined, the internet has become a vibrant alternative for cartoons such as "Dinosaur Comics" and "xkcd," introducing a whole new generation to the joys of comics.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips." ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2018, thoughtco.com/history-of-comic-books-1991480. Bellis, Mary. (2018, April 16). The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-comic-books-1991480 Bellis, Mary. "The Colorful History of Comic Books and Newspaper Cartoon Strips." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-comic-books-1991480 (accessed May 23, 2018).