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From Peanuts to Zippy: My Ten Favorite Newspaper Cartoon Strips
Newspaper Comics were Art and Entertainment
Occasionally comics appear in the newspapers that are so very brilliant they capture the public’s attention. Scott Adams so perfectly parodied corporate America that eventually Dilbert was in books and cartoons—not to mention taped to office doors or cubicles. Peanuts was routinely mentioned on campuses for its philosophical views of life. And, everyone loved Gary Larson’s Far Side because it was just so weird. Bloom County was the perfect blend of standard cartoon jokes, political satire and comic strip art excellence. Some cartoons were political statements, some took jabs at society, and a few, like Pogo, were odd worlds that originated entirely in the mind of its creator. There were also the soap operas, spinning tales of love and intrigue.
When I was a child, one of my earliest pleasures came from reading the comic strips in the daily newspaper. Each morning I sat at the kitchen table and turned to the comics section to see what Charlie Brown, Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois and the rest were doing. As a pre-teen, I enjoyed these strips as well as Family Circus, Broom Hilda and others. At my young age, the subtleties of strips like Andy Capp, Li’l Abner or Pogo escaped me, but I still scanned them for the odd drawings and wished my newspaper carried them when I grew older (they didn’t). In my teen years, I noticed an odd cartoon centered on college students and a whacky Hunter Thompson impersonator. Once I was hooked on Doonsebury, other strips diminished in importance.
These are my favorite newspaper comic strips—a mixture of features I enjoyed as a child and strips that appealed to me years later. They are well written, nicely illustrated, and usually funny. They combined to provide hours of entertainment, a few seconds at a time. They are a slice of American culture at its best.
Amazing Characters--Right There in Your Newspaper, Every Day
My Favorite Comic Strips of All Time
1. Peanuts (by Charles Schulz): The most lovable cartoon characters of all time reside in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood, with Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Snoopy, and Woodstock. Snoopy is the most unique and clever character in comic page history, and the rest of the group are creative wonders, as well. Snoopy’s adventures as a World War I flying ace, Linus’ security blanket, Pigpen’s dust and dirt, and Schroeder playing his toy piano all scream with originality. Charlie Brown is the everyman, responding to the craziness around him and articulating our own hopes and fears. His best friend Linus is the voice of reason, offering gentle support and advice. More than any other strip, Peanuts touched my heart.
2. Doonesbury (by G.B. Trudeau): It began as a cartoon strip for a campus newspaper and evolved into one of the most significant editorial cartoons of our time. Mike Doonesbury, Mark, B.D., Zonker, Boopsie and Duke headline perhaps the biggest cast of characters in comic strip history, which has included every President since Nixon. It has lost some of its sensitivity over time, as writer Gary Trudeau too often hits us over the head with preachy messages. One unique and welcome aspect of Trudeau’s characters is that they actually age and progress through life. Michael Doonesbury married, had a daughter, divorced and remarried. His daughter is now in college and Michael is drawn with graying temples. It is still one of my favorite strips ever.
3. Calvin and Hobbes (by Bill Watterson): A friendship between a boy and his stuffed tiger is the focus of this tender, endearing comic. Artful in its mixture of adults, a child and a not-quite imaginary friend, this strip is sentimental without being sappy. Aside from Calvin’s sophisticated vocabulary he is a fairly realistic little boy, and it is easy to remember our own frustrations with schoolwork, class bullies, little girls down the block and (yes) parents. I didn’t have a stuffed tiger to talk with as a child, but I escaped into fantastic adventures within my own mind, just as Calvin frequently does. Watterson is a skilled illustrator and his minimalist drawings are often quite beautiful. I still read Calvin and Hobbes cartoons when I need an emotional lift.
4. Dilbert (by Scott Adams): The Dilbert strip mercilessly attacks corporate America and became a symbol of triumph for the working class. Adams hits us over the head with his message, but it is okay because that’s the point. In one sense, his work invokes the spirit of Peanuts in that Dilbert’s pet, “Dogbert” sometimes steals the show as a charming con man (con dog?); the only one smart enough to attack corporate America from the inside and win. Dilbert almost seems at times a grown-up Charlie Brown, observing life from the outside as he still struggles to find his way. The characters in this strip are often mean-spirited, but Scott Adams has made them charming and likable, just the same.
5. Bloom County (by Berke Breathed): Bloom County is similar in its approach to Doonesbury, editorializing on current events through the eyes of Breathed’s cartoon characters. The odd cast of Bloom County are neurotic and vulnerable, and the talking animals just flat-out weird. It is softer in tone than Doonesbury, and jokes made at the expense of political figures seem less hurtful. The artistic style is closer to Calvin and Hobbes, with an odd collection of adults, children and bizarre animals inhabiting this fictional mid-American county. More than any other strip, Bloom County successfully explores the comic as an art form while not abandoning its primary function: entertainment.
6. The Far Side (by Gary Larson): This strip is the weirdest of the weird. Gary Larson treats us to a single panel each day, drawn in a clumsy, almost amateurish style. And the world loved it! He offers the perfect mix of wistful irony, silly puns and odd ideas. Nothing is sacred in the Far Side, and even God and Satan are parodied. This comic strip is unique in not using a regular, recognizable cast of characters—each day shows us another average person, and we realize what we read could be ourselves or the guy next to us in line at the grocery store. Larson’s offerings are sheer genius, and one can only imagine how much pressure it must have been to remain so clever for so long.
7. Hagar the Horrible (by Dik Browne): This comic strip appealed to me at an early age, and I still hold a fondness for the adventures of this soft-hearted Viking. The idea of a supposedly tough warrior coming home every night to his wife and kids is charming and a clever juxtaposition of oddly-matched character traits. Hagar runs off to loot and pillage during the day, but will probably dry the dishes after dinner in the evening (unless he can get out of it). Hagar’s humor is always gentle and the artwork is amazing. At first the drawings seem simple and crude, but within those rough images is a grace and elegance that is truly beautiful—especially in the comics that appear in color.
8. Dark Shadows (by Ken Bald): The only “soap opera” comic on my list, this is no ordinary soap opera but Dark Shadows, based on the classic daytime television series. While it only directly references three characters from the TV show, it features the exploits of Barnabas Collins, a tortured soul cursed to roam the earth as a vampire. It also offers exquisite artwork by Ken Bald, whose amazing illustrations of Jonathan Frid as Barnabas injects life into the strip. Unlike the rest of this list, Dark Shadows only lasted a few short years, but it allowed fans of the television series to happily spend just a little more time in Collinwood with their favorite vampire.
9. Tumbleweeds (by Tom K. Ryan): Like the popular Garfield strip, this cowboys and Indians comic attracted me as a child through the force of its weird artwork. Only occasionally did I find the jokes funny, but the sad faces, slumped shoulders and droopy bodies are graceful and elegant in their own way, and I kept coming back to see what these characters were up to. The strip was funny enough to keep me reading, but its true appeal was in its illustration. The polar opposite of Hagar the Horrible in style, the art is precisely penciled and inked. I wondered at one point if the minimalist images were used simply because of the time it must take to draw in such a tight, distinctive style.
10. Zippy the Pinhead (by Bill Griffith): Zippy is second to none when it comes to the bizarre, and it took me a long time to warm up to this cartoon because I originally believed it was mocking the mentally handicapped, and later thought it was an “insiders only” look at the drug culture. An extremely complex strip, Zippy looks at multifaceted issues in a simple, straightforward way—not an easy thing to do, if you think about it. The artwork is as unique as its premise, with tightly rendered illustrations and backgrounds. Intricate in their execution, the complex cartoon panels show very little movement, relying on words and facial expressions to carry the story and tell the “joke”. Zippy is not in my daily newspaper, but I try to follow his exploits online or in the larger papers.
My honorable mention list (the second ten): Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, Garfield, Spider-Man, Howard the Duck, Dick Tracy, Cathy, For Better or For Worse, Broom Hilda, and Shoe.
The worst cartoon strip of all time (that last more than a short while): Marmaduke. My apologies to anyone who likes this strip, but I find it simply awful.
Which were your favorite strips?