Big Deals: Comics’ Highest-Profile Moments
A woman dies. A baby is born. A man and a woman wed. Everyday events occurring everywhere and therefore unremarkable. Or so you might think: These are some of the events in comic strips that once held the national attention as few other cartooning moments have. OK, we admit it: In 1999, we got caught up in the millennium-ending listmaking that became a societal obsession. But what to list? Listmaking is no fun when the items are self-evident. The Top Cartoonists would consist of the Usual Suspects. Same with the top strips. In the desperate wee hours we briefly flirted with compiling a List of Our Favorite Lists. Then we got to wondering: What were the comics events that most gripped the public’s imagination, the ones that had family members grabbing the newspaper out of each other’s hands? Which strips caused the creators to receive an avalanche of outraged or appreciative mail? This resulted in the exclusion of a number of comics’ most revered touchstones: R.F. Outcault’s experiment with a certain bald, gap-toothed kid in a garish nightshirt; the first appearance of a spinach-chomping seaman in Thimble Theater; the debut of a brick-hurling mouse and an androgynous cat in a strip beneath The Dingbat Family; the introduction of that round-headed kid and his pet beagle . . . all excluded from consideration because readers weren’t expecting them; they are landmarks only in hindsight.
Upon viewing our selections, readers may be struck by the preponderance of continuity strips. This is not coincidence. In the decades that were the glory years of story strips (that is, the years preceding television’s entertainment hegemony and the cannibalization of newspaper markets), story strips provided people with characters they had come to know over many years, and they were more emotionally invested in them than gag-a-day strips allow. Their plights became ours; their joys, ours too. Even the gag strips exerted a firmer hold on their readership’s collective imagination then. When Blondie Bumstead became a working woman by launching her own catering business in the 1990s, the event was treated as a noteworthy but minor footnote in the news of the day. Contrast that with the public’s reaction to two events in the same strip’s early days: Dagwood’s hunger strike or the birth of Baby Dumpling (a.k.a. Alexander). Both of these episodes were enthusiastically followed by millions of readers, many of whom wrote creator Chic Young to offer their opinions and baby names. (Had e-mail existed then, no doubt a server or two would have crashed.)
None of this implies that today’s strips are incapable of eliciting impassioned reactions from their readerships. Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse exemplify current strips whose creators have crafted characters about whom people care deeply. And modern strips still occasionally manage to defy all odds and become genuine popular-culture phenomena: Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Cathy, Dilbert and The Far Side qualify. But even within those strips, most readers would be challenged to name a Major Event that had them eagerly anticipating the next day’s installment. More likely, reading them was simply an enjoyable part of the daily routine, and that’s as it should be. But for now, let’s celebrate the moments when Americans took special notice of their comic strips. Looking back, getting swept off our feet was never more fun.
DAGWOOD’S HUNGER STRIKE AND MARRIAGE TO BLONDIE
Chic Young’s Blondie would ultimately become the most popular comic strip in the world. But when it was launched on September 8, 1930, it was pretty much just another flapper strip common at the time, one of many “screwball comedies” that helped ease the painful malaise of the Depression. Blondie Boopadoop chased Dagwood Bumstead, the son of locomotive tycoon J. Bolling Bumstead. Their madcap romantic antics persisted for months. But with the deepening Depression, the humor of the rich-versus-poor set-up soon ran dry, and Blondie began to pursue other boyfriends. It didn’t work; the unique quality of the strip was lost. And so were some of the major papers carrying the strip. Something had to be done, and fast. Young decided to bring back Dagwood–Blondie’s most popular beau. Time after time Dagwood’s snooty parents had turned down his request for permission to marry Blondie. So, beginning on January 3, 1933, Dagwood began a hunger strike to force their assent. (For the record, the hunger strike was Blondie’s strategem, suggested to Dagwood in a letter she mailed to him.) For days he refused food (although the January 14 strip implied that a delirious Dagwood gobbled some live goldfish), yet the Bumsteads held firm. Because of the resultant publicity, the strip was picked up by numerous newspapers that covered the hunger strike as a major story. Before long the episode had become a national event, with thousands of letters and telegrams expressing sympathy, medical bulletins throughout the media on Dagwood’s condition and real-life copycat suitors. In an art-imitates-life instance, the media hound Dagwood in the strip. Finally, after 28 days, 7 hours, 8 minutes and 22 seconds (each daily installment included the duration of the hunger strike), the Bumsteads relented. Even so, Dagwood lost his inheritance and would be forced to become a common working man. Yet he couldn’t have been happier; as Blondie vowed, “We’ll live on love!” On Friday, February 17, 1933, with millions of readers in the audience, the two were wed–and America heaved a sigh of contented relief. Blondie and Dagwood, stronger for their experiences, soon became part of everybody’s “family,” friends next door who face the same fears, frustrations, and farces of life we all do.—Peter Wallace
BABY DUMPLING IS BORN
Chic Young’s experience with short-lived strips such as The Affairs of Jane, Beautiful Babs and Dumb Dora made him anxious to do whatever was necessary to keep his new Blondie from fizzling out. Working with the King Features publicity machine and the syndicate’s general manager, Joe Connolly, Blondie was promoted with an assortment of gimmicks from its very first days in 1930. To launch the strip, King sent suitcases of lingerie to every newspaper editor in America followed by a telegram from Blondie herself, who was initially a golddigging flapper. When Depression-era Americans began to tire of flapper strips, Young knew he needed another gimmick to stir interest, so in 1933 he married off Blondie and Dagwood. Response to the wedding was incredible, and Young knew he had captured his readers’ hearts. So a little over a year later, a son–Baby Dumpling–was born to the couple on April 15, 1934. (Baby Dumpling later came to be called Alexander, Young’s nod to the great Alex Raymond, who had at times helped Young produce Blondie.) What was merely a gimmick to Young was much more to his legions of readers. By 1935, Blondie had not yet attained its peak popularity, but it was growing fast. Sacks of telegrams and letters inundated newspaper offices from coast to coast, along with extensive radio and newspaper coverage. Blondie was not the first family strip, nor was it the first strip to have a character give birth, but nobody had ever previously managed to grip the public imagination with a comic-strip birth. Seven years later, Young pulled in more than 430,000 letters from readers coining names for the Bumsteads’ second child, Cookie. Readers delighted in watching the children of the couple they cared so much about grow up, but by the 1950s, Chic Young stopped the clock and left both kids and their parents frozen in time.—Ron Evry
JIGGS ACROSS AMERICA
The transcontinental trip that Jiggs and Maggie took lasted almost a year, from September 1939 until the following summer. George McManus, the creator of Bringing Up Father, had taken his cast on trips before: They’d gone to the coronation ceremonies in London in 1937, and some years prior to that they’d visited France and Italy. But the transcontinental trip was a domestic venture, and it came fraught with tasks that sprouted like mushrooms. The idea of the trip was hatched at San Simeon, the fabled mountaintop castle of William R. Hearst, while McManus and his long-time assistant (and then collaborator) Zeke Zekley were there as houseguests. Nora, the daughter of Jiggs and Maggie, had just married a British duke named Nevere Worthnotten, and the family thought that he should have some idea of what America was like, so they arranged a cross-country tour. The notion was unabashedly promotional: Taking the characters to various cities in which the strip ran would raise the strip’s visibility and help stimulate sales for the client newspapers, too. The project promptly took on unanticipated dimensions. Said McManus: “When it was announced that Jiggs and family were to make the tour, there were demands from everywhere, it seemed, that they visit this or that town. Since it was excellent promotion, I acceded to the demands. The result was the weirdest trip on record: Jiggs and Maggie and Nora and [the monocled Duke] went from New York to California via practically every state in the Union and through the Dominion of Canada as well. And each stop had to be shown accurately, lest the strip offend somebody. That was probably the toughest job of my career.” Zekley performed the research, consulting scores of travel books to find the notable landmarks of each city they visited. Jiggs spends Sunday, December 31, 1939, on Times Square, and the architectural features of the locale are depicted with painstaking accuracy in the establishing shot of a large panel. McManus once claimed he spent two weeks on the drawing, but Zekley says he actually did it. The artboard for the page lay on a table in the studio for several weeks, and Zekley, referring to photographs, would take it up at intervals, drawing bits and pieces of the picture between stints at other art chores. “When we sent that one in,” Zekley told me, “we thought we’d hear something, but the only thing we heard was about the Claridge Hotel. I had it there. I didn’t identify it as the Claridge, but it was there, and some reader wrote in to say that it had been torn down! That was the only response we got. Someone over in France owns the original now; paid $30,000 for it.” The original art was in immediate demand in the cities being depicted. And for getting publicity for Bringing Up Father, the stunt was a resounding success.—R.C. Harvey
SPARKLE PLENTY IS BORN IN ‘DICK TRACY’
It was one of Chester Gould’s more inspired strokes of genius to begin with: Rehabilitating the ratty farmer B.O. Plenty and the vile old crone Gravel Gertie into honest souls, then marrying them to one another in all the pastoral bliss of McHenry County and rewarding them with life anew at Sunny Dell Acres. Did Dick Tracy readers really think this was the end of them? Just about nine decent-interval months later, they were back—issuing a little Plenty, for God’s sake, the prospect of which was as mildly unsettling to the strip’s own inhabitants as it was to its millions of fans. To be kind about it: How revoltingly ugly was this child possibly going to be? La, but she was beautiful, a glorious little golden-tressed girl named Sparkle, and her birth on May 30, 1947, brightened up the funny papers’ whole summer season. Cannily working the press both inside and outside his strip, Gould saw to it that his recent creation, the Life-like Glance magazine, devoted much of its premiere issue to Exclusive Sparkle Photos and sold more than five million copies; at the same time, national magazines and Tracy client papers were full of Sparkle features, and readers fairly showered Gould’s studio with gifts for the kid. Little Sparkle was an instant marketing triumph as well: Toystore shelves were fast swept clean of Ideal’s famous foot-tall Sparkle dolly and the Sparkle dollhouses and various other trinkets and doodads that followed. She was just a flat-out sensation. And so she remained for several years, one of America’s best-loved babies, and one of Dick Tracy’s major supporting players. She receded from prominence after 1950—by which time she had her own (in-strip) television show, as talented a three-year-old ukelelist as you ever heard–but she remained a permanent member of the strip cast for decades yet, eventually growing up to marry, um, Vera Alldid. Baby-wise, Gould sought to reprise the excitement in 1951 with the birth of Dick Tracy’s daughter Bonny Braids, and again in 1965, with the arrival of his granddaughter Honey Moon, but neither of these lasses proved nearly so popularly magical as Sparkle Plenty. —Jay Maeder
‘DOONESBURY’ FINDS MITCHELL ‘GUILTY’
It’s May 29, 1973, a Tuesday. President Richard Nixon is in his second term, but it’s becoming clear that he may not see the end of it. Doonesbury‘s radio host Mark Slackmeyer notes that the Watergate-related evidence about John Mitchell could lead one to conclude the former attorney general was guilty. It’s a lot more cautiously phrased than accusations that today’s audiences hear frequently on talk-radio shows and Sunday morning television, but for the funny pages of the day, it was aggressive. This wasn’t the first time that the young Doonesbury got under the skin of some folk, but it did raise the stakes. A number of papers chose not to run that day’s installment, falling in the midst of a two-week run of dailies about the Watergate scandal. The Washington Post published an editorial that criticized the rashness of the cartoon. (Cartoonist Garry B. Trudeau would later joke about all this reaction as an “Eastern liberal media conspiracy.”) When Trudeau’s characters speak, readers often presume that they are speaking for him. (Such accusations, however, tend to focus on the more liberal characters. Has anyone ever accused Trudeau of supporting B.D.’s hawkish, pro-war stance?) In the case of Slackmeyer’s judgment, Trudeau maintains that his true target was Mark himself, not Mitchell (or, for that matter, Nixon, whom many people incorrectly recall as the topic of that day’s strip). Mark’s wild-eyed appearance reflects on all those commentators who grow shark-like when the blood of the powerful is in the water. Trudeau would return to the “Guilty! Guilty, guilty, guilty!” accusation in each subsequent decade. On January 11, 1987, Mark aims those words toward Ronald Reagan, John Poindexter and Oliver North, all then mired in the Iran-contra scandal. Again, Trudeau couched his words according to what the evidence suggested. Years later, when Nixon died and many commentators were trying to put a polite and respectful spin on his presidency, Trudeau ran a series reworking old Doonesbury strips to bring them into line with this new political point of view. In the very first of this series (May 9, 1994), he represents the final scene of the 1973 strip, with the Guilties crossed out and replaced with “Flawed, flawed, flawed, flawed!” There is undoubtedly a secondary and more subtle level of satire in this; while commenting on the rewriting of history that others were undertaking, Trudeau was rewriting history himself, making it look as though the Mitchell strips were actually about Nixon, as many believed.—Nat Gertler
MARY MEETS HER MAKER
The Gumps was always a damn funny strip. Well, almost always. There’s that matter of the first cartoon death, that of Mary Gold. A principal sympathetic character in the strip, Mary Gold, bit the Gold dust. In 1929, without Mary, the merry, merry month of May wasn’t so merry. Creator Sidney Smith had abandoned a joke-a-day approach to The Gumpsand in the early 1920s began incorporating a narrative more reliant on
suspense and daily continuity. By the end of the decade, when Mary became deathly ill, readers had become very emotionally invested in the characters. (By this time, Smith had become adept at commanding his readership’s attention: In 1923, the Board of Trade in Minneapolis, Minn., called for a brief cessation of daily business so traders could catch up on a particularly engaging continuity.) After Smith had wrung every drop of pathos out of Mary’s lingering illness (including the too-late arrival of the love of her life, for whom she had been pining), she passed away quietly and discreetly out of the readers’ view. Upon her demise, the strip’s millions of readers across the country mourned—nothing like this had happened in a comic strip before! In their grief, they lashed out at the strip’s flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, wailing, “How can she die?” Perhaps even more chilling for a cold-hearted editor (as if they had anything to do with it), readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions if Mary didn’t return. If Captain Patterson & Co. had any questions about the loyalty of Gumps readers (a strip whose popularity practically single-handedly built the Tribune-News Syndicate), they were soon amply and quantifiably answered. The Tribunewas forced to hire help just to wade through the mountains of mournful mail and to field the cavalcade of caustic calls. But unlike the comics characters who die only to return again later—victims of nothing more than marketing ploys, really—Mary Gold never returned. I’ve sometimes wondered if Smith jinxed himself by penning the comics’ first death. Smith was, after all, the first comic-strip creator to sign a million-dollar contract (for the car buff Smith, the deal was sweetened with a brand-new Rolls-Royce), and Mary Gold’s death—plotted and executed by Smith—contributed to The Gumps‘ unprecedented popularity and the cartoonist’s fame and fortune. Six years after Mary’s death, Smith left a party he was throwing to celebrate his lavish new contract and was killed when his Rolls smashed head-on into another speeding vehicle. Once again, millions of Gumps readers mourned, but this time it was for a real person.—Craig Yoe
LI’L ABNER AND DAISY MAE WED
For 18 years, Abner Yokum cagily (and barely) retained his bachelorhood. But on March 29, 1952, Dogpatch’s most eligible bachelor was married to Daisy Mae Scraggs in a ceremony that the strip’s participants rushed through, but which had been masterfully choreographed by the comic strip’s master promoter, Li’l Abner creator Al Capp. Capp had for years teased readers with the prospect of a wedded Abner. (A few times Abner was nearly wedded to Daisy Mae, but he always escaped on a technicality.) In 1937, Capp introduced Sadie Hawkins Day, 24 hours each year during which a woman was permitted to ask a man for his hand in marriage (conditioned upon her catching her quarry), and he was powerless to refuse. The new holiday, which was in itself something of a national sensation, was the perfect tool with which Daisy Mae could snag her confirmed-bachelor boyfriend, who always took pains to secret himself away each Sadie Hawkins Day. (In a typically degrading farce, Abner once was nearly forced to marry a jackass when the beast accidentally dragged Abner across the finish line on Sadie Hawkins Day. Since the animal could only say “neigh,” no wedding took place.) But after 18 years and all those head-fakes, Capp was ready to get down to the real thing. The trigger he pulled was Fearless Fosdick, the strip-within-a-strip whose hero was Abner’s idol, and whose every action Abner had sworn to emulate. Daisy Mae tearfully convinced Fosdick’s creator, Lester Gooch (a thinly veiled satire of Dick Tracy‘s Chester Gould, whose strip Fosdick satirized), that Fosdick was an unwholesome example because of his aversion to marriage. As a result, Fosdick reluctantly took a wife, and Abner was obligated to follow suit, for he was a man-child of his word (and more important to him, he didn’t want to lose his membership in the Fearless Fosdick Fan Club). The yearnings of Daisy Mae Scraggs, Abner’s long-suffering inamorata, were finally requited in a ceremony officiated by Marryin’ Sam, who had tied more knots than a Persian rugmaker. Li’l Abner was then at its peak popularity, and Capp’s carefully staged event enjoyed the sort of media coverage normally reserved for the marriages of movie stars and royalty. —Tom Heintjes
THE NEW DEAL KILLS DADDY WARBUCKS
Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray probably holds the world’s record for the most frequent killings of his protagonist; he punched “Daddy” Warbucks’ ticket many times. One of the enlightened industrialist’s most celebrated untimely demises occurred in May 1937, when the palindromically named Boris Sirob and his gang fatally shot and stabbed “Daddy” and the Asp. As if to prove that you can’t keep a good capitalist down, Gray trotted out Mr. Am, his brilliant deus ex machina, who resurrected them. However, the strangest death of Daddy–and perhaps the most philosophically compelling–was during the spring and summer of 1945. For years, Gray had preached the virtues of self-reliance and diligent industry. All along, he had despised FDR’s politics in general and his New Deal specifically, and through Annie he zealously—quixotically, some said—skewered its liberal underpinnings. But in 1945, Gray decided that the world was no longer big enough for both “Daddy” and FDR; one of them had to go. Since Gray controlled the fate of only his cast of characters, he decided that “Daddy” would go the way of all flesh. Warbucks died in 1945, but not before Gray staged an extended death scene that plucked the heartstrings of millions of Americans. Readers contacted Gray to express their hopes that “Daddy” would somehow pull through . . . but it was not to be, and Annie was once again forced to fend for herself, relying on the initiative and pluck that Gray so valued (and that he thought the New Deal was destroying). Until August, when “Daddy” showed up hale and hearty. Only then did he reveal to his young charge that when he was taken to the hospital, Punjab had administered a pill that made him “look dead.” Punjab and the Asp later revived him, whereupon he undertook a secret mission on behalf of the war effort. It’s noteworthy that Gray brought “Daddy” back to life after FDR’s death on April 12, 1945. On August 28 of the same year, “Daddy” explained to Annie his newfound salubriousness: “Somehow I feel that the climate here has changed since I went away.” Indeed it had.—Stu Liss
POGO’S FIRST PRESIDENTIAL RUN
In 1952, the whole country went Pogo. Pogo’s first national candidacy in 1952 came after he’d mastered local Okefenokee politics. A stunt that creator Walt Kelly frankly said was contrived to boost book and strip sales, the possum possibility quickly assumed a life of its own. Buttons bearing the slogan “I Go Pogo” rivaled “I Like Ike” buttons in their ubiquity, and the buttons were even the same size. Bill Mauldin’s larger “I Like Stevenson” button placed a very poor third. Playing it to the hilt, Kelly stumped the country (in more ways than one), urging people to get out the vote. If they happened to buy copies of his books Pogo and I Go Pogo, so much the better. The ploy succeeded on all levels: Papers gave away over 2 million Pogo buttons, and cash registers across the country chimed out as bookstores hosting Kelly signings sold more than 100,000 Pogo books. Since a large number of college newspapers carried Pogo, Kelly made many appearances on or near campuses. Often, Pogo’s candidacy got these first-time voters interested in something more than football and sock hops. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all skittles and beer. A campaign rally at Harvard degenerated into chaos sufficient to be officially termed a riot, and police responded. The Pogo Riot was a significant event for the class of ’52; for its 25th reunion, Pogo was the official mascot. In 1952 and in campaigns thereafter, the candidate is a steadfastly reluctant one. Whenever campaign organizing committees meet, one naysayer is always present: the little gray possum with the soft blue eyes. In fact, to set the record straight: Pogo Possum has never run for president—he has been run, kicking and screaming all the way. Don’t tell Churchy, but the next campaign will be his thirteenth one. With the campaign of 2000, he will also be the longest-running candidate, comic or otherwise; Harold Stassen says he will not run. We all have seen that it’s never too early to start running for the country’s top job. If we move slowly and quietly, we can probably get to our boy before he again starts running from the job.—Steve Thompson
RAVEN SHERMAN DIES IN ‘TERRY’
When he murdered Raven Sherman on October 16, 1941, Milton Caniff achieved exactly what he aimed for. Public outcry. Publicity. Introduced the previous year, Raven Sherman was a plain, hatchet-faced young woman who runs a refuge for Chinese orphans. She falls in love with Dude Hennick, a dashing vagabond aviator whom Caniff modeled on a college chum named Frank Higgs, who was, at that very moment, training pilots in China with Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (the famed Flying Tigers). “In a way,” Caniff once told me, “I created Dude for Raven. I began to build the character for her so he would be important enough that when this killing took place, it would have some impact. If they hadn’t been in love, it wouldn’t have had the impact that it had.” He hadn’t planned to kill Raven at first, but when he resolved to try to create a sensation with a publicity stunt, he decided to do it by killing off a character. “That’s when I began to look around,” he explained, “to see who I could knock off, who I could sacrifice.” Raven dies of injuries she receives when she’s thrown off the back of the speeding truck in which the pirate Judas is fleeing Terry and Dude. Judas knows they’ll swerve to avoid her, and he figures to escape as a result. The battered and bruised Raven needs medical attention, but they’re miles from any source of help, and they don’t dare move her. She lingers for 11 daily installments, dying at last in Dude’s arms, a poignant and heart-tugging sequence. The next day, the storm broke. It began with a phone call to Caniff from an office boy at the Daily News who wanted to know what to do with the flowers—a casket blanket sent by the staff at a candy factory. When Caniff came in to the Daily News offices, the elevator operator called him a murderer. And letters flowed in. One correspondent asked: Why should Raven, a brave, self-sacrificing woman, die when the Dragon Lady and Burma, selfish and ruthless pirates, go on living? A group signing themselves “the Belmont Boys” dared Caniff to come around their block; another writer said, “What happened to Raven should happen to you, you jerk.” The knowledge that Dude Hennick was based upon a real person suggested to many readers that Raven was also, and that her model had actually died. So clamorous was the outcry that Caniff was hauled into a radio broadcast and forced to explain his actions. He had done it, he said, to establish the reality of the strip: People die out there. Meanwhile in Chicago, hundreds of students at Loyola University gathered at the shore of Lake Michigan for a memorial service. And for the rest of his life, Caniff received reminders of his heinous crime: Every October, cards edged in black expressing grief-stricken sentiments arrived in his mailbox. Ironically, had Raven died a scant seven weeks later, few would have noticed her passing in the furor over the bombing of Pearl Harbor; then, there would have been no deluge of protest letters, little mourning and no publicity at all.—R.C. Harvey
The century-plus of the comic strip’s existence holds countless memorable moments, and to no one’s surprise everyone’s Biggest Moment nominations differ. You’ve just read our roundup of some of the comics’ most effective attention-getters, but they are by no means the only times that creators succeeded in wrapping the reading public around their little fingers. To be as inclusive as we reasonably could, we present the events that we found worthy of Honorable Mention status. While not earth-shattering in terms of explosiveness, they were nevertheless blockbusters. (Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.)
Watterson Ends ‘Calvin and Hobbes’
A strip featuring an imaginatively obstreperous six-year-old kid, his nebbishy dad, long-suffering mother and a tiger appeared on November 18, 1985, in about 35 newspapers. It was the debut of Calvin and Hobbes, a strip that would ultimately dominate both circulation lists (2,400 papers worldwide) and popularity polls. At the height of its success, creator Bill Watterson—who had maintained firm control over the strip’s size, layout and placement, eschewing licensing opportunities for philosophical reasons—brought the shenanigans to a halt. The final beautifully crafted strip, appearing Sunday, December 31, 1995, provided a bittersweet farewell with an emotional wallop. Suddenly, we all had to grow up and face the world without our orange, furry pal.—P.W.
Flattop, the most memorable of Dick Tracy’s grotesque pantheon of villains, bounced from one memorable escape to another after failing to kill the detective. His final hair-raising chase lasted for six months beginning at the end of 1943, with Flattop caught in a chimney, disguised in a movie theater, escaping jail and finally meeting his doom in a failed underwater escape on May 14, 1944. Readers at the time were flabbergasted, expecting Flattop to pull off yet another death-defying escape, and cartoonist Chester Gould received such an outpouring of reader mail that he introduced Flattop Jr. soon afterward to continue the family business.—R.E.
The Saturday Evening Post, for one, was cold-cocked. Shortly before Christmas 1949, the Post profiled Chester Gould and made a large point of answering the perennial question—When is Dick Tracy ever going to marry that nice Tess Trueheart girl?—with assurances that Tracy had no such plans at the moment. Barely days later, goofily beaming Tracy and radiant Tess announced to the world that they had officially tied the knot, after 18 years of notably chaste courtship. Furiously assailed by the foolish-looking Post, Gould publicly pleaded that the entirely unexpected nuptials had surprised him as much as they had anyone else; he’d had absolutely no idea, he insisted, that Tracy and Tess were talking wedding. Considering his day-by-day plotting habits, this was probably true. “Tracy never tells me anything,” Gould sighed.—J.M.
Andy Lippincott was quite a minor Doonesbury character, unseen for more than six years before he was turned into the visible face of the AIDS epidemic. By the time his year of facing his condition with humor and grace came to an end on May 24, 1990, he had transformed abstract health concerns into something human for many readers. (They had not, however, lost a friend, as Andy would quickly reappear as a dream figure.) The San Francisco Chronicle ran news of Andy’s death on its obituary page, and Andy also received a square in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.—N.G.
Lawrence Poirier Comes Out
As For Better or For Worse creator Lynn Johnston discovered, many Americans were unprepared for homosexuality to intrude into their comic strips. During March and April 1994, Lawrence Poirier—long a friend of the strip’s Patterson family—told his friends and family that he is gay. Although Johnston’s handling of the story was restrained, the backlash was anything but. She received stacks of mail—some of it supportive but much of it venomous—and a handful of client papers either dropped the strip altogether or opted to run alternate material. The media descended upon Johnston, and newspapers all over wrote stories about her decision to have a character in her strip come out. Johnston withstood the firestorm and in fact has brought Lawrence back several times in the ensuing years, along with Ben, his boyfriend—to almost no negative reader reaction. The controversy certainly didn’t stunt the strip’s growth, and it continues to top readership polls across the country.—T.H.
Reflecting on the Post-World War I baby boom, Frank King’s editor, Joseph Medill Patterson, suggested a child be added to Gasoline Alley. On St. Valentine’s Day 1921, a foundling was left on Walt Wallet’s doorstep, and the child was named Skeezix. Bachelor Wallet’s attempts to raise Skeezix stirred a good deal of interest in the strip but more remarkably began a dynasty of characters who grew older and had families of their own. The timing of Skeezix’s arrival put him firmly in place with the generation that grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II, endearing the strip to millions of readers.—R.E.
Al Capp’s Shmoo craze was the country’s first postwar fad. Making their debut in Li’l Abner on August 31, 1948, the Shmoo were as ubiquitous in real life as they were in the strip: The critters adorned nearly every sort of consumer item—for both children and adults—that manufacturers could crank out. Toy Shmoos filled with chocolate candy were dropped into Berlin during the 1948 airlift. Capp received criticism from those who thought the Shmoo was his commentary on the expendability of big business and, conversely, from those who thought it was his commentary on the expendability of labor. If it sounds like a no-win situation, it was in fact the opposite; the Shmoo made Capp a very wealthy man.—T.H.
It only seems that Little Orphan Annie always had Sandy standing faithfully by her side, but the strip was five months old in January 1925 when Annie rescued a puppy that was being tormented by a group of boys. Thereafter, they were as inseparable as Annie’s adventures would allow. Sandy suffered numerous close calls, but the most memorable was in January 1933, when he was run over by a car. Perhaps ironically, creator Harold Gray received a worried telegram from the nation’s leading automotive magnate, Henry Ford: “PLEASE DO ALL YOU CAN TO HELP ANNIE FIND SANDY STOP WE ARE ALL INTERESTED” Of course, Sandy mended just fine and went on to assist Annie for many years.—S.L.