Stripped down: In praise of the humble newspaper comic

I love comic books, but I also love comic strips. And man, I miss them.

The ritual of paging through a newspaper and basking in the glory of an entire page or two of comic strips has been something I loved most of my life. One of the first things I remember reading were battered paperbacks of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” the Citizen Kane of strips. I remember clipping out old strips from The Union newspaper when I was growing up and making makeshift albums of them. 

One of my first jobs in real life was as a newspaper boy delivering that same Union, and so I got to read “Peanuts” and the rest before anybody else. Years later at a small town paper in Mississippi in my first job after college, one of my wage-slave gigs in a less computerised era was pasting up the newspaper’s comics pages by hand, clipping them out from the glossy sheets the syndicates sent and gluing “Shoe”, “Luann” and the like onto the page. Finally, I was making the comic strip pages! 

As I grew older, I moved on from “Garfield” and “Peanuts” to “Bloom County” and “Doonesbury” (where I learned more about US politics than I ever did in school) and finally the surreal charms of “Red Meat” and “Zippy The Pinhead.” I even achieved the ultimate dream when I drew my own comic strip “Jip” for a little more than a year for my college newspaper, where I unashamedly pilfered from all my favourite comic strips for inspiration. 

Comic books are huge intellectual property now and fodder for countless blockbuster movies and TV shows, but the comic strip feels somewhat cast aside, quaint, an echo of the past. Yet at its peak through most of the 20th century, the newspaper comic strip was probably far more influential on popular culture than comic books, an eclectic mix of cornball, adventure and gags that showcased how diverse the medium could be. 

Newspapers have been shrinking for years now and the comics page is one of the casualties. A lot of strips that have been going for a long time have ended this year, and it’s hard not to imagine even more will follow as papers fold and comic sections, where there are any left, shrink further. 

The immortal “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Bloom County” and “The Far Side” in the 1980s and 1990s might’ve been the last big gasps of the comic strip as pop culture giants. The death of Charles Schulz in 2000 seemed the end of more than just his era. It was a portent of the end of comics pages as a cultural touchstone. 

When I moved to New Zealand in 2006, it was a bummer to find out that the country’s biggest newspaper didn’t have a comics page at all. Pal Bob assures me that wasn’t always the case, and NZ newspapers once had robust comics sections too (including great Kiwi comic strips like the classic “Footrot Flats” by Murray Ball). But by the time I arrived down here, nuthin’. Somehow, a newspaper feels like it’s missing something irreplaceable without a page full of goofy comic strips. 

And yeah, I’ll admit, many comic strips have been pretty mediocre or gone on for literally decades longer than they should’ve. It’s hard to believe relics like “Andy Capp” or “Snuffy Smith” (mining that ever-topical hillbilly humour 90 years past its peak) are still going. When I do see the comic strip pages in America on visits now, they’re a pretty dusty lot. Given the ageing demographics of print media and their fetish for snorefests like “Mark Trail” and “The Lockhorns”, fresh new talent finds it hard to break in. There are a lot of “zombie comic strips” out there that take up the space that new talent might have. 

(As an example of comic strip inertia, that newspaper I worked for in Mississippi back in the mid-1990s still ran “Bringing Up Father,” surely one of the last papers anywhere to run a strip that began in 1913 and finally keeled over in 2000.)

The comic art form hasn’t gone anywhere of course, and endless legions of great, diverse creative folk are doing amazing comics online and elsewhere. But there’s a part of me that will always miss the humble newspaper comics page, where Garfield, Snoopy, Doonesbury and many more leapt out from the ink every single day.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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