Almost everyone loves the funnies, but did you ever
wonder how they got started, and why they have stayed a favorite part of
the daily paper for over a hundred years? Mainly because people like to
start their day with something funny. It was a free for all in getting
ideas and characters, which sometimes ended in lawsuits. The Katzenjammer
Kids were probably in the center of most of the controversies. Lots of
changes have occurred over the years since Olive Oyl's first boyfriend
(in 1919) was Harold Hamgravy .
On Feb. 17, 1895, Richard F. Outcualt created a continuing series of cartoons that led to the establishment of the funnies. Strangely enough, he was a protégé of Thomas Edison, but very versatile. He got a job in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York newspaper, The World, which had just acquired a color press and wanted to reprint fine paintings and fashions in color. Apparently cartoons had a bigger draw, and so Outcualt kept developing a strip called Hogan’s Alley about a neighborhood of poor kids.
The main character was named Mickey Dougan, a bald-headed, small urchin in a dirty yellow nightgown. He caught the public’s fancy and the strip eventually became named after him, The Yellow Kid. A cartoon landmark had evolved, as well as a marketing symbol, although he was a most unappealing character in contrast to the characters of today. He didn’t look like Charlie Brown or any kid you’ve ever seen. He was mischievous, and never changed his yellow nightgown, upon which was printed his thoughts. If you were to look at some of the Yellow Kid strips, I’ll bet you won’t thing they’re very funny, but remember, this was over 100 years ago, and what seemed funny then may not be funny now.
Cartoonist Rudolph Dirks was hired by publisher William Randolph Hearst to compete with the Yellow Kid. So the Katzenjammer Kids were born, starring Fritz and Hans, Momma, the Captain and the Inspector. The kids protested almost everything that went on officially, and regular spankings never seemed to deter them. The battle for comic strip ratings was on.
In addition to having given us the Katzenjammer Kids, we have Rudolph Dirks to thank for the comic strip as we know it today, with all its cartoon language and signs -- -- the dialogue balloons, speed lines, dust clouds, things which have not changed.
Comics back then were mostly violent and vulgar. The Chicago Tribune is credited with innovating less slapstick cartoons with derogatory dialogue. Out of this climate a cartoonist named Harold T. Webster emerged. He reflected people’s feelings into his strips, like one called the “Timid Soul.” The lead character was named Casper Milquetoast, who was afraid to climb into his own window when he got locked out. The name has remained in the dictionary, meaning an “extremely mild or ineffectual” man.
Outcault's next strip was about Buster Brown and his dog Tige (who was able to converse with Buster). Although Buster was dressed in a “Lord Fauntelroy” suit (fancy English attire), and seemed to be a sissy, he was far from it. In character he was one and the same with the Yellow Kid, and became even more popular. The marketplace was flooded with every conceivable type of Buster Brown item -- books, clothes, food, candy, coffee, games, and cards, but the longest lasting items were Buster Brown and Maryjane shoes. (Maryjane was Buster’s girlfriend).
The technique of cartooning has changed over the years. Cluttered, busy drawings have become more defined. Many strips keep it simple by repeating the cartoon in the first box with just a few small changes. Many entirely omit backgrounds and draw characters only up to the waist.
This has made life easier for the cartoonist. Some cartoonists even forget that a gag is still the mainstay of a cartoon. Enough remember though, to still keep the funnies funny. A lot of cartoon strips have wandered far afield and contemplate serious problems. For the most part, characters of the past, such as Smoky Stover, Moon Mullins, Mutt and Jeff, and Barney Google have been replaced by family characters and the problems of family life -- a trend that started some time back with Blondie.
Often cartoon characters go off into other ventures. Some, like Annie (formally known as Little Orphan Annie), and Charlie Brown, have been featured in long-running musicals. Others like Dick Tracy and Popeye have starred in feature movies.
Comic strips are a wonderful place to laugh at common emotions, errors in judgment and silly assessments.
If you were to go back and review comics from the turn of the last century through the mid '50s, you would get a good glimpse into what American life was like then. For example, Toonerville Trolley, by Dwig, came from the era of the trolley car, leading to Gasoline Alley, which evolved around the growing popularity of the automobile.
Comic strips have also lost out when cartoonists lose touch with their audiences. Li'l Abner, after many years of popularity depicting hillbillies, disappeared after cartoonist Al Capp began using the strip to criticize political and social trends of the '60s. The power of comic strips to evoke strong public indignation has also been seen when cartoonists have made significant changes, like killing off a character that is popular. At such times, readers can really get involved.
Many of the old comic strips have been the forerunner of popular ones today. Somebody's Stenog, led to Cathy, Krazy Kat, to Garfield, Alley Oop to B.C., Toots and Casper to Baby Blues, and all those assorted kids in Peanuts have replaced the Kids in Hogan’s Alley.