As the newspaper industry dies a slow, painful death, we should take time to celebrate the part of the paper that can’t quite be replaced by the Internet – the comic strip. Yes, you can go to gocomics.com or a few other comic strip sites, but the days of spreading the newspaper out on the kitchen table and sharing the funny pages with your family are long since gone.
With that in mind, we bring you the top 10 comic strips of all-time, from each decade.
10. 1920: The Katzenjammer Kids
Hans and Fritz were mischievous twins who caused Momma Katzenjammer and the Captain all sorts of grief. First appearing in the Sunday comics way back in 1897, the Katzenjammers are still kicking around in syndication today, making them the longest-running comic strip in history.
That is the short version of the story, for the longer version is a bit more complicated. Created by Rudolph Dirks, the artist was the caretaker of the twins until 1912. Requesting a sabbatical long before the eras in which they were granted, William Randolph Hearst decided to continue running the popular strip in his New York Journal under the steady hand of Dirks’ assistant, H. H. Kerr.
Miffed at each other, Dirks and Hearst locked horns in a series of court battles to see who ultimately controlled the twins. In a confusing set of rulings, the courts awarded Dirks the right to continue his strip in a competing newspaper, but he had to rename it first. The Captain and the Kids started in 1918 and quickly equaled the popularity of the Katzenjammer Kids. Because the battle took place during the height of the newspaper wars, and the two were so similar in style, many readers were unaware that there were two versions of the same strip out there.
The Katzenjammers found their way into cartoons, comic books, musical theater, and merchandising throughout the 20’s and 30’s. Dirks passed the Captain and the Kids to his son shortly before his death, and that version of the strip ended in 1979. Knerr drew the Katzenjammer Kids until his death in 1949, then a series of other cartoonists took the helm of the franchise. During the 1950’s, Hy Eisman took over the reins and continues to draw the strip in a handful of newspapers today. As Eisman approaches 90 years of age, the future of the Kids is dim, which brings us to …
9. 1930: Popeye
Also currently drawn by Hy Eisman, the heyday of Popeye was back in the 30’s. First appearing in the comic strip Thimble Theatre in 1929, the talented Elzie Crisler Segar changed the name of the strip to Popeye shortly after his appearance. Popeye had become so popular, so quickly, that by 1933 he was the star of his own cartoon series, that turned out to be one of the most popular cartoons of the decade.
By the end of the decade, Segar had passed away, and a team of rotating artists ran the strip for the syndicate. Popeye had become such a ground-breaking money maker for King Features Syndicate that they licensed him for anything. Comic books, movies, cartoons, merchandising, radio shows, and (generations later,) multiple video games across multiple formats.
8. 1940: Little Orphan Annie
Launched back in 1924 by Harold Gray, Little Orphan Annie was one of the most popular comics in the 1930’s, with the story focused on the soap opera of Annie, her dog, and millionaire “Daddy” Warbucks. But as war and rumors of war began to surface in the late 30’s, the strip began to get more and more political. By the 1940’s, the storyline was fully submerged in the real-life story line of World War II. Depending on your politics at the time, Gray was praised or criticized for having Annie involved in war efforts. Multiple story lines involving Daddy Warbucks paralleled Gray’s distaste for US President Franklin Roosevelt.
Little Orphan Annie was the first comic strip adapted to a radio show, and later her adventures were adapted to films and Broadway. Then the Broadway show was re-adapted to film. Annie and the gang survived the war in the comic strip, but the story line continued to be rooted in current events until Gray’s death in 1968. Annie staggered along for 40 more years under multiple cartoonists, until the strip was cancelled in 2010 with, of all things, a cliffhanger ending.
7. 1950: Dennis the Menace
Started in 1951 by Hank Ketcham in only 16 newspapers, Dennis the Menace followed the misadventures of 5-year-old Dennis Mitchell, his nuclear family, and his foil, Mr. Wilson. Within a decade, Dennis’ popularity soared to over a thousand newspapers, a live action TV show, and comic books. As with most popular strips, Dennis then found himself in cartoon form and a merchandising titan, becoming the licensed mascot of Dairy Queen for thirty years.
In 1994, Hank Ketcham retired and passed the torch to some of his assistants, who continue the Dennis the Menace storyline to this day. The latest live-action Dennis movie was 2007’s A Dennis the Menace Christmas, starring Robert Wagner and Louise Fletcher.
6. 1960: Peanuts
The Peanuts gang had an original run of 50 years, from 1950 to 2000. Following Charlie Brown and his friends through the 50’s, creator Charles Schulz continued to add characters, tweak storylines, and really find his footing as a cartoonist. By the early 60’s, Peanuts had hit its stride and was considered one of the greatest comic strips of all time, even landing on the cover of Time Magazine in 1965. Crossing over to cartoons, Peanuts specials, made 50 years ago, are still considered holiday classics today. Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and Peppermint Patty are all universal icons, known even to the most casual of pop culture observers.
Schulz was also a shrewd businessman, for besides the cartoon and film specials, theatrical productions, sound recordings, amusement parks, and video games, Charlie Brown was a celebrity pitchman for companies as diverse as MetLife, Hallmark Cards, Coca-Cola, and Dolly Madison snack cakes.
Schulz was concerned about the strip’s legacy after he was gone, and thus he ended its original run just a month prior to his death. “Classic Peanuts,” strips that rerun from its golden era, can still be read today.
5. 1970: Doonesbury
Springing forth from Yale newspaper’s Bull Tales, Doonesbury started where the former left off in 1970. Not quite a comic strip, not quite a political cartoon, Doonesbury started off focusing on twenty-somethings Mike Doonesbury and BD as roommates. Quickly, the strip evolved into the lives of even the most remote associates of Mike and BD, as the strip was as funny as it was scathing in its political commentary.
In 1975, Doonesbury’s creator, Gary Trudeau, won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning for his work with the strip, but other than one animated special and a Broadway musical of the strip, Doonesbury simply presses the hot button too often to effectively cross over into other realms of media. As a matter of fact, controversy dodges the strip to this day. Newspapers opt not to publish some strips, some move it out of the comic section and into the editorial section, and yet others have cancelled it altogether. The latest such episode occurred in 2012, when Trudeau lampooned multiple states for their changes in abortion laws.
4. 1980: Bloom County
Following the exploits of the talking penguin Opus, the putrid Bill the Cat, and their human companions, Bloom County practically defined the eighties, running from 1980 to 1989 with its pulse kept keenly on current events, winning creator Berkeley Breathed the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning in 1987. Like a shooting star, Bloom County burned bright, but only for a relatively short time. Bloom County spun off to Sunday-only offshoots Outland (1989-1995) and Opus (2003-2008). Both then were well-drawn and moderately funny, but the cutting-edge wit was replaced with a broader, preachier version of Bloom County, with many of the characters left out of the Sunday-only forays.
3. 1990: Far Side / Calvin & Hobbes
In 1994, two of the best movies of the year were Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, but both were very, very different movies. In the same way, two great comic strips ended in 1995 — the Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, and the debate rages over which comic strip was better, because they were both awesome in very, very different ways. Your opinion probably says more about you than the quality of work done by Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, honestly.
The Far Side started in 1980 and was simply a one-panel comic showing a unique perspective on the absurdities of life. There were no recurring characters, only recurring types of characters. The star of the strip was the subversiveness that was layered upon the truth. Penned by Gary Larson, the strip was shown in nearly 2,000 newspapers around the world when production ended. From 1989 to strip’s end in 1995, Larson took home major awards yearly. Each one of Larson’s 23 compilation Far Side books reached the New York Times best seller list, but other than a few stabs at animation and selling a ton of calendars and greeting cards, Larson has been fairly quiet since the strip’s cession.
And talking about being quiet, Bill Watterson started the wonderful strip Calvin and Hobbes in 1985, centering on 6-year-old Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes. The beauty of the concept is that Hobbes is only alive in Calvin’s imagination. Watterson took 10 years, minus two hiatuses, to flesh out the exuberance of youth, mostly unaffected by the outside world. Like Larson, by 1990 Watterson had begun to accumulate awards, including winning Syndicated Comic Strip of the Year every single year of the 1990’s until the strip’s completion.
Watterson himself was fiercely protective of the comic strip as an art form, allowing practically no merchandising or alternate formats for Calvin to be licensed. Other than compilation books of the strips, which have sold 45 million units worldwide, anything else with Calvin’s image is a blatant circumvention of copyright law. So legendary is Watterson’s reclusiveness that it inspired a 2013 documentary called Dear Mr. Watterson.
2. 2000: Dilbert
Launched in 1989, it took a few years for Scott Adams’ crude drawings to take hold with the comic strip-loving public. Spot-on observations pertaining to the business world, along with a razor-sharp wit, carried it until the cartooning caught up with the writing. Since then, Adams has won numerous awards for his strip, which centers around socially awkward engineer Dilbert and the characters that rotate around him in his corporate universe.
Dilbert is currently in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, is licensed to over a hundred products, and was briefly a cartoon in 1999-2000, but perhaps the most awesome thing associated with Dilbert’s image is the Dilberito, a healthy microwavable burrito that briefly invaded the market back in 2000.
1. 2010: Pearls Before Swine
Helped along at its origin by a seal of approval from Scott Adams, Pearls Before Swine entered syndication in 2001 and has slowly gained steam since. Stephan Pastis pens the strip, starring a cast of generically named animals such as Rat, Pig, Goat, and the Crocodile Family. Every so often, Pastis makes a guest appearance in the strip as himself. Still in its infancy as far as comic strips go, most of Pearls’ outside income come from compilation books of the strip, as well as stuffed animals.
Pastis has been nominated as Cartoonist of the Year each of the past five years and, even though his work has been animated in a few places on the Internet, look for a network like Adult Swim or Fox to eventually make a hard sell for animating the strip for the masses.