Comic strips have always been an integral feature of American culture and first arrived in the United States during the late 19th century when newspapers were the best source of news and entertainment. As newspapers battled for readership, the most famous competition was the one between Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, owner of New York Journal. In 1895, Pulitzer’s New York World launched a comic in color called “At the Circus in Hogan’s Alley” and introduced the Yellow Kid, designed by Richard Outcault.
The comic featured a young boy dressed in a yellow nightshirt, and quite often, the boy’s thoughts and dialogues were printed on the nightshirt instead of a speech bubble. It went on to become the first comic strip of the United States. Such was the popularity of Yellow Kid that Hearst convinced Outcault to shift from World to the New York Journal. Despite this, Pulitzer retained the copyright of “Hogan’s Alley”, and soon both newspapers featured the same comic character, raising the stakes once more.
Another worthwhile comic strip is the Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolf Dirks and published in the New York Journal in 1897. Inspired by Max and Moritz, a children’s story by German author Wilhelm Busch; Katzenjammer Kids revolved around the lives of two German twins, Hans and Fritz, and their daily antics. Soon, other comic strips began arriving on the scene as other newspapers adopted them into their Sunday supplements.
Some of the most famous comic strip characters include “Phantom” (1936), “Peanuts” (1950), “Beetle Bailey” (1950), Dennis the Menace (1951), Garfield (1978), “Calvin and Hobbes” (1985), “Dilbert” (1989), and countless others. Each week, these beloved characters would appear in the newspaper and provided a sort of respite to readers from the usual news. Many readers also began cutting and pasting the strips together to make a complete book. One can say that comic books emerged from this comic strip collection. In fact, iconic comic book character Superman, conceptualized by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, was a result of a failed comic strip that was later compiled into a 13-page story and debuted in Action Comics #1.
Comic strips have come a long way since then. It paved the way for comic books which opened a gateway to a whole new universe. As it continued to gain trajectory, so did the merchandise and commercial value of the characters. Today, store shelves are lined with video games, bottles, backpacks, and even plush toys of characters such as Garfield, Snoopy the Dog, Calvin from “Calvin and Hobbes”, etc. It’s indeed staggering to imagine how a tiny panel with line drawings and thought bubbles expanded into full-length books, tv shows, and even landed on the silver screen!