For a kid growing up in Chicago during the 90s, the Sunday edition of the Tribune was an event. It was the one day of the week when the comics had their own section, blown up big and in glorious full color. Even now, in the twilight of print journalism, the comics section is a standby in most papers. Especially on Sundays.
The comics section almost seems like an afterthought, a source of levity to reward the reader after slogging through articles about politics, disasters, and world news.
But the history of the comic strip, and of the ubiquitous Sunday comics section, is closely intertwined with the history of journalism itself. At Comic-Con 2014, a panel of authors and historians gave a crowded room a short master class on the subversive origins of the Sunday funnies.
The first topic of discussion: What is the definition of a comic, and what was the first comic?
It was not, as some have suggested, Egyptian hieroglyphics. A comic is not just any series of pictures that tell a story. Panelist R. C. Harvey, an author and comics historian, explained: "All comics are pictorial narratives, but not all pictorial narratives are comics."
"An Illustrated Lesson in Kelly's Kindergarten" by Richard Outcault. CREDIT: The Comics Journal
Peter Maresca, another panelist and the author of nine books on comics, including the recently published "Society is Nix: Gleeful Anarchy of the Dawn of the American Comic Strip 1895-1915," further elaborated on what exactly makes a comic a comic.
"It has to be text and words that don't make sense without each other," he said. An essential characteristic of a comic is the accompanying verbal content—either under the drawings or in "speech bubbles."
"Substance and Shadow," drawn by John Leech and published in England's Punch magazine in July 1843, was the first true comic:
"Substance and Shadow" by John Leech. CREDIT: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
The comic was an allusion to the plight of London's poor: The Houses of Parliament building had burned down a decade earlier, and government officials had secured significant funding to begin rebuilding it. In the comic, the poor—craving substance in the form of food and housing—are standing in the shadows of the freshly decorated Palace of Westminster. (Evidently, this was funny to people in the 1840s.)
Punch readers clamored for more hilarious drawings, and started to refer to them as "cartoons." (The word "cartoon" comes from the Italian word "cartoni," which means "cardboard." In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, painters mocked up their work on cardboard before transferring it to castle walls and cathedral ceilings.) By the 1890s, Merl Goddard of the New York World was calling his illustrated humor insert "Comics Weekly," which cemented the name.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the dawn of the 20th, humor magazines and inserts were big business, both in Europe and the United States. Punch was far from the only publication that got in on the comics game. By the year 1900, every major paper had a color comics section. Joseph Pulitzer started a "Sunday Funny Section" in his newspapers, and William Randolph Hearst had one too. At one point, Hearst's comics section was a full 32 pages, all in color. An art genre still in its infancy was experiencing an explosion in popularity.
A two-page comics spread from a July 1897 edition of the New York World. CREDIT: The Comics Journal
"This was all being created on the fly for an audience who couldn't get enough of it," Maresca said.
Artists were big on experimentation. Their work wasn't constrained to three panels. Some comics wound up and down multiple pages. Characters broke out of the frames and explored the whole page. The creator of "Little Denny Mud" made clay figures and photographed them for his comic strips. T.E. Powers' "Life in Wrangle Flats" had an early sense of animation. Cartoonists all worked together in the newspaper offices and sometimes shared themes between strips or collaborated on them.
"Life in Wrangle Flats" by T.E. Powers. CREDIT: New York Review of Books
"Lucy and Sophie Say Good Bye," artist unknown. CREDIT: The Comics Journal
"Little Denny Mud" by C.A. Beaty. CREDIT: Stripper's Guide, which we swear is a blog about comic strips.
Pulitzer's New York World was the first to feature "Hogan's Alley," starting in 1895. The strip was commonly known as "the Yellow Kid" because of the main character's iconic yellow shirt. That yellow shirt started popping up everywhere: On gum wrappers, tobacco pins, watches.
"Back in the 1890s, this was a relatively new phenomenon," panelist Denis Kitchen said of the Yellow Kid merchandising boom. Kitchen is a cartoonist, author, agent, and the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
"Hogan's Alley" by Richard Outcault. CREDIT: New York Review of Books
Pulitzer and Hearst were locked in a war for readership. The Yellow Kid's popularity was a point of contention. He resembled and resonated with many of their potential readers: Poor Irish immigrants living in New York City's slums. (That's why the Yellow Kid was bald: Most parents shaved their kids' heads to stave off lice.) The Kid's comics section compatriots also represented Manhattan's new populations. The Ting Lings were ambiguously Asian, and the Katzenjammer Kids were German.
Comics were being used as a form of subversive social commentary. In 1898, a comic called "The American Skyscraper is a Modern Tower of Babel" was wildly popular; it depicted a skyscraper being built with people of every conceivable nationality attempting (and failing) to work together on it.
"The American Skyscraper is a Modern Tower of Babel" by Dan McCarthy. CREDIT: The Casual Optimist
Depictions of modern city life appealed to urban readers, but also to the people who still lived in rural areas. As the panelists explained, lots of them never had a chance to visit the big city and see a skyscraper or an automated trolley up close. The comics section was a window into another world.
The Spanish-American War was close to breaking out right around the time America came down with comics fever. Pulitzer's New York World and Hearst's New York Journal tried to outdo one another in circulation with more and more aggrandized headlines. Hearst was also fiercely jealous that Pulitzer owned the Yellow Kid, and in 1896, he outbid Pulitzer to get the cartoonist to work for his paper. But since copyright laws weren't exactly what they are today, Pulitzer simply hired another artist to keep drawing it for him.
"The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids" by Leon Barritt. CREDIT: Journalist's Resource
Thus the phrase for newspapers sensationalizing stories to lure readers was coined: "yellow journalism."
"Hugo Hercules" by William H.D. Koerner. CREDIT: Lambiek Comiclopedia
In 1902, comics hit another first. A strip called "Hugo Hercules" featured a man with superhuman strength lifting up houses, cars, bank safes and elephants. Within a few decades, The Phantom and Popeye appeared in comic strips; a few years after that, Batman and Superman made their first appearances. Fast forward to 2014, where a convention for comic books floods San Diego with nearly a quarter of a million fans and artists and, of course, historians. In their own way, many comics still serve as a powerful form of social commentary—one rooted in experimentation, subversive art, and laughing at poor British people.