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What Happened to Comic Strips?

Did you read that Garfield comic on Thursday? Of course you didn’t. You didn’t even know Garfield was still running did you?
What ever happened to comic strips? Cartoons running in newspapers in what used to be called the “funny pages” while once a fairly popular art form, are now struggling to be acknowledged as even still existing.
In some form or other comic strips have been around for over a century. The form hit its stride in the 40s and 50s when entertainment innovations like television were in their earliest years. Comedy wasn’t as accessible on a regular basis and cartoons even less. So newspapers carrying little episodic and sometimes serialized cartoons daily was a big deal and large numbers of people would read and enjoy them. But damn artistic and technological innovations!
Who’d want to read the funnies when they can get their laughs from film, television, and other mediums? People weren’t talking about comic strips anymore so some just ended their run, a number continued without as much effort, and some new ones vainly tried to make an impression. Now in the age of smartphones and the internet, once funny strips like Beetle Bailey are no longer entertaining and even the art quality has gone down. Hagar the Horrible I doubt was ever funny. Because cartoonists know they aren’t being read anymore. It also doesn’t help that so many comic strips outstay their welcome for decades more than even The Simpsons. Even when the original cartoonist dies, a number of strips are picked up by a relative or writing partner. Most of them should really just end! There’s not much of a serialization factor anymore with the end of more serious strips like Dick Tracy, and we can all be entertained better through movies, TV, and the internet.
Then why are comic strips still running? Well something needs to fill up an extra page of newspaper. But there is also a possibility for creativity and even success. There have been a couple examples in the history of the art that have really had an effect on the reception of comic strips as well as the opportunities of the three to four panel form. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts captured the America of the time with a wholesome innocence that despite being irritable at times, created a world and characters with a charm and relatability that’s instantly and strangely timeless. It invigorated comic strips and was the only one to successfully make the transition to other forms of media with a series of television holiday specials. Their Christmas and Halloween ones for example have become classics, which is more than can be said for any other comic strip that’s tried to tackle the small screen (or big screen. Remember that godawful Garfield movie?).
And then in the 80s when Peanuts had worn its popularity in print and many others were in a rut, a new strip breathed life into the funny pages: Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. Calvin & Hobbes did everything right: more than any other strip it combined great comedy and great artwork flawlessly, it created and nurtured a sense of wonder and imagination, Watterson kept creative control without selling rights off avoiding any cheapening of his work, and he only ran the strip for ten years not overstaying his welcome and going out with the strip as good as ever! Not surprisingly every cartoonist’s wanted to be Watterson and have their own Calvin & Hobbes since the 90s. As the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson shows, many were even inspired by just this particular strip. It gave rise to a focus on creativity rather than just stock characters, bad jokes, and simplistic artwork.
And it hasn’t had an entirely negative effect. Not all of them work, certainly not the mere Calvin & Hobbes imitators, but newer strips do have some pretty good artwork and the jokes aren’t always terrible either. Some like Sherman’s Lagoon and Pearls Before Swine are even kind of impressively edgy for publicly published cartoons. And despite what I’ve been saying about older strips being unfunny and out of touch, Blondie still manages to be entertaining every so often. And maybe syndicates are thinking the same thing, and that’s why comics are still running in papers despite not having a large readership. But that’s just speculation. What I do know is that for every tired old strip that should just die and every effortless new one (which do make you question how someone is getting paid to write them), there are a few good ones out there even worth checking out online. And if that doesn’t work, there are still plenty of Calvin & Hobbes collections out there to peruse.

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