May 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Comedy Newspaper Strips

The Brown Wedge12 comments • 4,973 views

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.


  1. 1
    Tom on 27 May 2008 #

    One of my, I guess you could say, ‘guilty displeasures’ is that I find Krazy Kat really really hard going taken more than maybe a strip at a time. Every time I ever read anything about it I think “yes this is genius”, and even when I read it I think “yes this is genius”, but it’s the kind of genius I find weirdly hard to lose myself in, despite its boundless creativity.

    The one Popeye sequence I’ve read – introducing Alice the Goon – is unabashedly marvellous so I must try and track down the reprints.

    My favourite early strips are the Winsor McCay dream sequence strips – Rarebit Fiend and obviously Little Nemo, though Rarebit Fiend is funnier and odder in many ways even if it doesn’t have the outbreaks of incredible visual joy the colour Nemo does.

  2. 2
    Dan M. on 28 May 2008 #

    I believe Rarebit Fiend was printed in color just as Nemo was, though I’ve never seen a color reproduction of one. But it seems reasonable to assume that the use of color couldn’t have been as glorious as in Nemo.

    I understand what you say about Krazy Kat being hard to take in larger doses — for me, though, that’s an effect of the strip’s strangeness that doesn’t diminish its greatness, after all they were designed to be read one a week. I think that Herriman’s mindscape is just too weird and, somehow, dense (as well as repetitious, though probably no more so than most strips) to encourage reading the strips as though it were either a) a continuous story, or b) a bunch of gags.

    On the other hand, if I’m looking at the strips — particularly the Sundays — for their visual/layout creativeness (ie. not so much reading as — what, viewing?), I can appreciate a whole lot of them in one sitting… except that it gets a little overwhelming.

    I love the phrase “guilty displeasure,” though!

  3. 3
    The Dirty Vicar on 28 May 2008 #

    I’ve never really got Krazy Kat either (though in fairness I have only ever tried to read a page or two). I have this suspicion that no one really likes it, but when people become Serious Comics Fans they sign a covenant in which they promise to pretend to like it.

  4. 4
    The Dirty Vicar on 28 May 2008 #

    mind you, this is what I think about all things I do not like.

  5. 5
    Martin Skidmore on 28 May 2008 #

    The KK Sundays are genuinely the comics I love most ever, of any kind. Those daily Segar Popeyes are the only things that come close to it, for me. I love the visual and verbal poetry of Krazy Kat enormously.

  6. 6
    james on 28 May 2008 #

    On the difficulty of enjoying “Krazy Kat” — Agreed, “Kat” is brilliant, but also pretty inaccessible and dense and not particularly humourous.

    If you’ve always wanted to like it, but don’t, then you might do well to check out Herriman’s earlier daily strip “Baron Bean,” which has less rule-breaking genius in it, but benefits significantly from actually being FUNNY, which “KK” almost never is. “Baron Bean” often makes me laugh out loud more than once per page.

    Unfortunately, it’s hopelessly impossible to find, and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in reprinting it. I discovered it through the few strips that are reprinted in the legendary Smithsonian Anthology of American Newspaper Comics, which is also very difficult to find, but which is basically the Best Book Ever.


  7. 7
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 28 May 2008 #

    i love krazy kat but i am not remotely a “serious comics fan” as all kno

  8. 8
    aldo on 29 May 2008 #

    I used to think I kind of agreed with Tom, and could only do small bursts of Krazy Kat, but I have raced through 1937-1940 which are fantastically readable. 1940, in particular, seems more about prevention than punishment with Offisa Pupp more concerned with stopping Ignatz getting hold of bricks or keeping him from Krazy than locking him up. OH NOES, CURRENT SOCIAL COMMENTARY.

    My heart belongs to Popeye though, the current Fanta reprints are the comics thing I would recommend to absolutely anyone. Two years in and it’s still as much about Castor as it is about Popeye, although the sequence where Popeye opens the reverse bank is one of my favourite things ever.

    I will reserve my opinions on Dick Tracy and Gasoline Alley till/if they come up.

  9. 9
    Dan M. on 29 May 2008 #

    Does Ignatz HATE Krazy? I never thought of it that way, even though the mouse seems to live solely for throwing a ‘brick’ at the cat. Which would, I admit, in most cases, be evidence enough of hatred. But here, I am not so sure.I may be ignorant, because I haven’t read all of Krazy Kat, especially the dailies.

  10. 10

    better to say ignatz is monomaniacally obsessed with krazy — he is TROLLING him

  11. 11
    DV on 30 May 2008 #

    I might give KK another go now that I realise that many people like it but do not find it funny.

  12. 12
    vollstix on 22 Jul 2015 #

    No mention of Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google?!?! For shame, for shame!

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