There’s nothing in comics of any kind that I love more or regard more highly than two very old newspaper strips.

a Krazy Kat panelKrazy Kat

This strip started in 1914 and ran for thirty years, until the death of its creator George Herriman. The Sunday strips started in 1916, and I think they are as good as comics has ever got. The setup is odd but kind of simple: the Kat loves a mouse, Ignatz. Ignatz hates Krazy and throws bricks at him/her, which Krazy interprets as tokens of love. Offissa Pupp loves Krazy and tries to protect her/him from Ignatz. Krazy’s sex was indeterminate – often unclear, sometimes explicitly stated one way or the other. The setting, a town of shifting scenery in mesa country in SW America, is one of countless strangenesses in the strip, as is the lyrical language. This was back when comics were sometimes taken seriously – fans of this included F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Chaplin, Joyce and Picasso. In my more flippant moods I have claimed it resembles Tom & Jerry as depicted by Joyce and Picasso.

Available in collections that you can find in many libraries.
Popeye’s first appearance

One of the most successful creations of all time – you may know the wonderful Fleischer Brothers cartoons, among countless other manifestations. He first appeared in a strip called Thimble Theatre in 1929 (the very first appearance is shown above), and took it over. Creator E.C. Segar died in 1938, but the nine years he wrote and drew are the best daily strips I’ve ever seen. Popeye is a magnificent character, gruff and dumb and moral, fearless and tough. The strips are extended comedic adventures, packed with delights and great moments throughout, and full of memorable creations. He was also one of the most influentual of cartoonists – his storytelling genius was a source for many of the greats of succeeding generations.

The whole Segar run was collected years ago, but that’s hard to find. There are a couple of volumes of a new series of reprints, which libraries may have.

Li’l Abner

I won’t claim this is as great as the two above, but it’s among my next five or so favourite strips ever. Abner Yoakum is hillbilly, big and strong, totally uneducated and emotionally immature. The Beverly Hillbillies was largely taken from this, though that turned his girlfriend (who he later married, in the worst misstep I’ve ever known a great cartoonist to make) into his cousin, and his mother, the great Mammy Yoakum, into his granny. Al Capp was a superb cartoonist, drawing stunning women, with a great gift for likeable, funny characters.

This one may be hard to find cheaply anywhere, or even at all, sadly. I’d mention Polly And Her Pals too, which I think is even better than Li’l Abner, and full of highly inventive art, but that’s even harder to find – I’ve not read that much of it myself.