Comic strips are the great brothers of modern comic books and the original modern form of reading about sequential art. Comic strips, mostly published in news papers and on Web sites, is the way most people read about this art form, and one of the most popular section of most news papers.
Comic strips are the original American visual art contemporary to jazz in the fin de siècle era before the First World War. Comic strips were a staple of the mass-produced newspaper whose mandate was to sell and civilize the unruly crowds in the burgeoning American metropolises. Comic strips were thus part of the mass communications that evolved with the second Western industrialization where communication made the world closer.
Unlike jazz, the comic strip was not an art form adapted from black culture. It was a gentile cultural product that was promoted as cheap entertainment by the new industrial moguls that controlled the vibrant American economy. Yet, the comic strip’s artists were often not much more educated than the average Joe that they entertained. Their art was crude and often inferior to the etched illustrations used to sell all kinds of wares in neighbouring ads in newspapers. Still, the comic strip could not be ignored. This popular art form, sponsored by the corporate elites of America appealed to readers.
Each newspaper had its selection of comic strips. They developed their own following and soon, the Sunday and nightly editions became special events in the mass age of communications. The comic strip was a medium hosted within another medium, the newspaper. It did not exist independently, unlike its younger cousin, the comic book. Comic strips were like permanent renters whose popularity paid the rent in the pages they occupied. Once they fell out of favour, they lost their place in the minds and gaze of the readers they entertained.
Comic strips were at home in the newspaper and suffered every illness of their landlords. Once film, radio, and much later, television started to compete with the newspaper for the public’s attention, the comic strip felt the pressure too. Adventure features with long running storylines were introduced to compete with radio serials, offering quick and instantaneous entertainment to listeners. Yes, comic strips had serials before, but it is really the radio that promoted the great adventurers such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. In fact, the popularity of the comic strip adventurers was such that soon, they too would become the content of another medium by appearing in radio.
When Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message, this is what he was saying. Newer media’s contents are always older forms of media. The comic strip too borrowed from the lore of the past. Many of its early characters were based on literary figures from novels but also the popular caricatures sold in broadsheets since the 16th century. The comic strip adopted these older media in its core and further elaborated the concept of sequential storytelling.
The effervescence of comic strip before the First World War reflected the modern age around it. But it was a typically American type of modernism that existed and that was popularized elsewhere. The comic strip was contained in well-defined panels. Their grid-like structure reflected the straight lines of Le Corbusier’s architectural designs and landscape prescriptions. As a late modernist art form, the comic strip does not fare well in the postmodern age. Just like the newspaper who owns its parcel of land, the comic strip is searching for itself in a world where the multiplicity of roles and contexts exist.
The comic strip has an opportunity to reinvent itself as a new media and overtake the Web and digital platforms. But is exchanging one landlord for another a good idea? The paradox that complicates the existence of the comic strips, is that unlike the comic book, it appears to need to rent space from another medium to sustain itself. It doesn’t have to be this way. Comic strips are posted on the walls of countless offices. They were originally drawn in caves. Better than comics, they can appear in street art, sidewalks, and anywhere else.
But comic strips as we think about them seem continually tied to another mass medium. First, their perceptions as being newspaper-based only has to end. They can exist anywhere. But for such a new perception of comics to exist, cartoonists and their readers must be willing to take risks and burn the newspaper boat they have been sailing and only look ahead.
Bringing Up FatherJun 18, 2010 - 8:06
The first two years of George McManus' famous comic strip finally collected in this first volume.
Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain EasyJan 24, 2010 - 16:11
Crane did understand that with a limited amount of panel and space he had to pack a punch in order for an adventure based story with some slapstick action had to be decipherable easily by readers