"OOF!" The Comics are Shrinking by Mike Talley
Comic strips are treated poorly in the medium
where they thrive. Looking back at old newspapers, I see an
incredible shrinking trend in comic strip size. Reading through
old comic collections, I see where cartoonists have cried for
help and attention using the characters in their own strips!
Locally, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has recently reduced the
number of pages in its Sunday comics section. In effect, cartoonists
are forced to draw simple, static, easy-to-see characters in
tiny panels. Lettering must be large and brief for the comic
to be legible. Lavish comics like "Calvin and Hobbes"
have disappeared because there is no longer space to create
beautiful landscapes and adventures! So why are comics shrinking?
Newspaper editors, educators, intellectuals, and the majority
of readers, who have the power to speak out against reduction,
often overlook the comic strip as an important part of history,
art, and culture. Comics have made a remarkable contribution
to society, yet they are generally dismissed as unsophisticated,
entertaining daily punch lines whose characters are waiting
to be merchandised. This paper will explore the gradual size
reductions in newspaper comics; these reductions symbolize the
little appreciation given to the comic strip as a unique medium
with historical, artistic, and cultural significance.
Comic strips are historically significant because
they were extremely influential in attracting readers and selling
newspapers at the moment of their inception. Joseph Pulitzer
and William Randolph Hearst engaged in a bitter struggle to
lure each other's readers using Richard Outcault's "Hogan's
Alley" comic strip. The widespread popularity of the comic
strip could make or break a newspaper, depending on what comics
were featured. The attractive power of the comics continues
to exist; whenever a newspaper drops or replaces a comic strip,
countless letters immediately follow from attentive readers.
Comics have also attracted modem artists, intrigued by the divided
panels, speech balloons, and onomatopoeic "OOF's,"
"POW's," "OUCH's," and "POP's"
that make the comic strip a universal narrative tool. According
to M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell Professor of English and Humanities
at Randolph-Macon College, Pablo Picasso read and "drew
inspiration from" American comic strips (Comics as Culture
xvii). Kirk Varnedoe, a director of the Museum of Modem Art
in New York, and Adam Gopnik add, "The language of the
early comic strip assisted Picasso in making the two most important
images of suffering of pre-World War II Art" (I 79-180).
Picasso's Dream and Lie of Franco is a mythological narrative
told in nine panels, patterned like a Sunday comic strip.
Comic strips also inspired other artists, such
as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who spearheaded the 1960's
Pop Art movement. Warhol and Lichtenstein exploit the cliche's
of comic strips-the lonely teenage girl wondering if "Brad"
will call, the shadowed, squinty detective, and the cool fighter
pilot-for their subjects. According to John Rublowsky in his
book, Pop , "Lichtenstein became convinced that
the cartoon technique, which developed in direct response to
commercial considerations, expressed something meaningful and
important" (44). Lichtenstein, like Warhol and Picasso,
recognized the significance of the comic strip as art. Simplistic,
yet expressive, the comic strip uses unique styles and elements
to present a visual and textual medium that is appealing to
If the comics are so important, then why are they shrinking?
Superficially, the comic strip size issue is an open and closed
argument. Newsprint prices are more and more expensive, and
newspapers must combat these prices by cutting costs, such as
reducing the actual size of the newspaper and the number of
features it carries. From the appearance of Outcault's Yellow
Kid until World War II, a single comic strip filled an entire
page of the Sunday comics section. Sunday comics sections during
the first half of the twentieth century were generally eight
pages or larger. With increasing newsprint prices after the
war, two comic strips generally filled a page in the 1950's
and 1960's. In the past twenty years, four or more comic strips
have fit on each page of the Sunday comics. In November 2000,
the Richmond Times-Dispatch condensed its Sunday comics pages
from two sections to one. According to Howard Owen, Deputy Managing
Editor of the Times-Dispatch, each page of the newspaper was
narrowed by one inch in 2000, "which obviously affected
comics" (par. 3).
Budget restrictions sometimes force a newspaper to reduce the
size of its comics; otherwise papers would have to drop some
comic strips to keep others larger. In fact, newspaper editors
argue that reduction is actually beneficial because it allows
more cartoonists to get their work published. Garry Trudeau,
for example, received criticism from editors after he mandated
a certain size for which "Doonesbury" should run in
newspapers. The editors complained that they would have to rearrange
their comics pages, dropping one or two strips, to accommodate
Trudeau's feature (incidentally, many newspapers, like the Times-Dispatch,
run "Doonesbury" in a different section of the paper
because of this issue). However, many newspaper syndicates,
readers, and cartoonists themselves have offered alternatives
that would preserve comic strip size without dropping other
comic strips or losing money.
For example, Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes "Doonesbury",
suggested that newspapers "offer two comics pages that
each have a row of strips next to other features rather than
one comics page with two rows of strips crammed in side by side"
("Syndicates" par. 35). Cartoonist Berke Breathed
advocates "running ads on [newspaper] comics pages-which
could bring in enough revenue to allow for an additional page
or pages" ("Cartoonists" 50). Breathed, creator
of "Bloom County" and "Outland," would eventually
quit cartooning altogether because of "frustration with
the size limitations of newspaper comics, which used to be published
much larger ("Comic Retirements" par. 25).
|If comic strips consistently draw readers to newspapers
and newspapers have formatting options available, why do newspapers
continue to reduce the size of comics? Despite the contributions
comic strips have made to society, they are still misrepresented
as children's cartoons and stupid jokes. Thierry Groensteen, a
European professor who studies international comic strips, states,
"If [the comic strip's] validity as an art form appears self-evident,
it is curious that the legitimizing authorities (universities,
museums, the media) still regularly charge it with being infantile,
vulgar, or insignificant' (29). Bill Blackbeard, who has devoted
several books to the history of comics, and Martin Williams insist
this attitude has existed since the beginning of the comics: "the
professors, teachers, prelates, and literati of the time [of the
first comic strips] usually did not see these newspapers as colorful
and amusing but saw them instead of vicious, crude, and frightening
in the instant and openly demagogic appeal to a mass readership"
(11-12). Thus, papers such as the New York Times carry no comics
section because these papers were "most respected and read
by educators and tastemakers" (Blackbeard and Williams 12).
|Groensteen outlines several reasons why intellectual
society refuses to recognize the comics. He explains that the
comic strip is a blend of two distinct art forms - literature
and painting. Like other hybrid art forms that appeal to the general
public, such as film and television, comic strips are snubbed
by high society. Comic strips are also "an industrial form
of literature," and because they are marketable, they are
often disqualified as important art (39). Groensteen also emphasizes
that comics are generally related to humor, "regarded as
the opposite of harmony and of the sublime" (40)'. While
most cartoonists utilize humor as an outlet for serious philosophical,
political, and emotional expression, the "funnies" are
never taken seriously. Lastly, comics are disregarded because
they are related to childhood "because it is in childhood
that each of us discovered them and learnt to love them (Groensteen
40). Because comics are related to both humor and children, they
are generally not a subject of serious study.
|The comics page has drastically changed as a result.
Strips of the past like "Pogo," "Judge Parker,"
and "Dick Tracy" have nearly vanished, replaced by modern"Dilbert's"
& FoxTrot's. "Pogo," drawn by Walt Kelly,
follows the adventures surrounding a multitude of animals in a
southern swamp depicted in meticulous detail. Kelly's strip was
fast-paced and animated, each panel filled to capacity. Recent
comic strips offer nothing for comparison. Two- thirds of the
average daily "Dilbert" comic strip is white space.
Robert C. Harvey, author of several books on the aesthetic history
of comics and a regular contributor to The Comics Journal adds,
"the simple drawing style could be used to justify the diminutive
dimension of strips drawn in that fashion: editors looking at
the minimalist artwork could find it easy to deny such strips
any more than the barest minimum of display space" ("The
Simple Truth" II 2). According to editors, comic strips didn't
deserve more space, yet the reduction of space had caused the
comics to become artistically banal. "Calvin and Hobbes"
creator Bill Watterson claims that he worked with a third less
space for his strip than what was given to Walt Kelly twenty years
before (97). Another cartoonist who retired because of space limitations,
Watterson adds, "at current sizes, there is no room for real
dialogue, no room to show action, no room to show exotic worlds
or foreign lands, no room to tell a decent story ... Comics are
simpler and dumber than ever" (97).
|While Bill Watterson may overly dramatize the state of cartooning,
the origin of the comics- what brings readers back week after
week, day after day- is mistreating the medium. Newspapers will
not begin to respect the comics until the public starts acknowledging
them for their true significance. One look at Winsor McCay's "Little
Nemo in Slumberland" will demonstrate the visual potentiality
of the comic strip: a small boy's dreams magically come to life,
filling a whole newspaper page with McCay's remarkable rendering
skill. One look at Walt Kelly's "Pogo" will prove what
has been lost and can be recaptured only if comics are given more
space. Imaging the brilliance of Lynn Johnston's "For Better
for For Worse" if newspapers allotted more space for her
work. How small will the comics get? Why must a weather map take
a whole page in the newspaper while the comics, the most unique
graphic elements of a newspaper, suffer? Must the comics lose
all the visual and artistic components that they are capable of?
Once comic strips are recognized for their contributions to society
and are appreciated as a historically artistic medium, the comics
will receive the attention they deserve.
Astor, David. "Cartoonists discuss shrinking comics." Editor
and Publisher 13 Oct. 1984: 50- 52.
"Comic retirements: a fluke or a trend?" Editor and Publisher
(Dec. 9, 1995).
OneFile. InfoTrac. A26163857. Cabell Lib., Richmond, VA. 19 Sep. 2002
"Syndicates are on a web-width watch." Editor and Publisher
(Feb. 10, 1996).
OneFile. WoTrac. A23963427. Cabell Lib., Richmond, VA. 19 Sep. 2002
Blackbeard, Bill & Martin Williams. Introduction. The Smithsonian
Collection of Newpaper Comics. Eds. Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams.
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977. 11-18.
Groensteen, Tbierry. "Why are Comics Still in Search of Cultural
Shirley Smolderen. Comics and Culture: Anal3iical and Theoretical
Comics. Eds. Anne Magnussen and Hans-Christian Christiansen. Copenhagen:
Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000.
Harvey, Robert C. "The Simple Truth: They Hate the Comics."
The Comics Joumal Nov. 1999: 11-113.
Inge, M. Thomas. Comics as Culture. By M. Thomas Inge. Jackson:'University
Press of Mississippi, 1990. xi-xxi.
Owen, Howard. "Re.: Shrinking Comics." E-mail to the author.
2 Oct. 2002
Rublowsky, John. Pop . New York: Basit, Books, 1965,
Watterson, Bill. "The Cheapening of the Comics." The Comics
Joumal Sep. 1990: 93-98.