Comics History

Early US Newspaper Comics

Newspaper comic strips developed in America around the beginning of the twentieth century. These strips were inspired by comic magazines from the Old Country, mostly Germany, sent to relatives who had emigrated to the United States. Early newspaper strips such as 'The Katzenjammer Kids' (1897-2006) by Rudolph Dirks were directly derived from German strips, in this case from 'Max und Moritz' (1866) by Wilhelm Busch.

The Katzenjammer Kids, by Rudolph DirksThe Katzenjammer Kids, by Rudolph Dirks

Unlike today, when strips have very restricted space in newspapers, the early comics were often a full page and in brilliant colors. There were a lot more newspapers back then, often several in a city, and they all competed for readers. Especially newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst played an unequaled role in the development of newspaper strips. Big colorful comics supplements attracted crowds of devoted fans, and comic strips really became the "face" of specific newspapers. Comic artists who contributed strips considered themselves more like newspapermen, and their creations were owned by the newspaper.

This sometimes led to conflict. When Rudolph Dirks wanted to leave his strip to travel in Europe, The New York Journal assigned Harold Knerr to continue it in 1914. Only after a fierce court battle did Dirks regain the right to draw his own characters - but the title stayed with the newspaper. Dirks continued the strip in The New York World, but now he named it 'The Captain and the Kids'.

The Katzenjammer Kids, by Harold Knerr 1935The Katzenjammer Kids, by Harold Knerr, 1935

This famous battle became a precedent for many conflicts to come between comic strip artists and their newspaper or syndicate. Even as recently as 1988, Bill Watterson fought his syndicate not only over the licensing rights to his popular strip 'Calvin & Hobbes' (1985-1995), but also over the restrictive format of the Sunday page strip. Watterson won both fights, which is why 'Calvin & Hobbes' has never been merchandised, and readers have been able to enjoy the lusciously drawn Sunday pages again, instead of the prescribed 6-panel format (which allowed newspapers to cut it if they wanted).

Even so, newspaper comics will never again be the way they were in the early twentieth century. The artistic freedom as well as liberal space in the papers resulted in many beautiful comic strips. Some of them are still widely known and appreciated, such as the famous 'Little Nemo in Slumberland' (1905-1927) by Winsor McCay, 'Bringing Up Father' (1913-2000) by George McManus, 'Krazy Kat' (1913-1944) by George Herriman, 'Gasoline Alley' (1918- still running as of 2017!) by Frank King, 'Buster Brown' (1902-1921) and 'The Yellow Kid' (1895-1898) by R.F. Outcault, and many others which are only starting to fade from memory.

examples of Buster Brown merchandise in this 1905 stripExamples of Buster Brown merchandise in this 1905 strip

To preserve some of these early gems drawn for such a transient medium, we have started to display some of the newspaper strips from that period. Some ran only for a short while, or were over-shadowed by more popular strips in the same newspaper, but many still conjure up vivid memories for the older generations. Young viewers should also appreciate this nostalgic look back to an earlier era of comics, and we recommend it for all ages.

If you have information or a scan of something unique, amusing or historic from a local newspaper strip, please send it to us.