Buried deep in the folds of the daily newspaper, comic strips still serve as popular culture barometers for millions of Americans. Since the late 19th century, comic strips such as “The Katzenjammer Kids” and “Gasoline Alley” unapologetically tackled the often serious issues on the collective minds of readers in those days. Before television, cinema and the Internet, cartoonists used hand-drawn characters, thought balloons and onomatopoeia to dissect current events in a humorous, satirical and even controversial way. Today, syndication allows illustrators to reach millions of readers on any given day.
5 “Funky Winkerbean”
As a popular culture barometer in the 1970s, “Funky Winkerbean” was on point. The setting was Westview High School at a time when America’s youth seemed to have nothing in common—and nothing to say—to their parents. Cartoonist Tom Batiuk cleverly and carefully created provocative dialogue between the school’s faculty and its impetuous students, tackling difficult social and academic issues. Batiuk was not afraid to handle teen suicide, breast cancer, bullying, abuse and even teen pregnancy between the strip’s frames.
It may be one of the earliest rags-to-riches-to-rags stories ever printed. Dagwood Bumstead was the nitwit son of a 1930s railroad tycoon when he met Blondie, an alluring flapper. The two decided to marry, so infuriating the Bumstead patriarch that he disinherited the newlyweds. Blondie traded her form-fitting dress for an ordinary apron and settled in to domestic bliss, while Dagwood learned to suffer without privilege and make it on his own. Creator Chic Young’s endearing story is still told today, in 2,300 daily papers, and is read by an estimated 280 million people worldwide.
In the cosmic, er, comic universe, for every memorable cartoon canine, there is a feline equivalent. It’s the natural order of things. Garfield has pawed his way to the top as the most popular cartoon cat of all time. Truth be told, Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, has had 35 years to develop the snarky, sarcastic carnivore. The pesky pussy has evolved from top cat in the funny papers to a celluloid sensation and—with oodles of merchandise in his likeness—is a marketing machine.
Michael Doonesbury’s appeal as the intelligent, inquisitive central character in the politically charged comic strip “Doonesbury” hasn’t wavered since the comic strip’s inception in 1970. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau paints him as an average Joe trying to make sense of an ever-changing liberal world. Doonesbury’s polarizing political themes often infuriated readers, causing a national dialogue that often ended up on the op/ed pages instead of the Sunday funnies.
For 50 years, the lovable “Peanuts” crew dominated the Sunday funnies, taking pole position at the top of the page with its familiar collection of neighbor kids drawn right out of middle America. Everyone has his favorite character, from the sheepish and defeated Charlie Brown to the intolerable Lucy. And who doesn’t love Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s persnickety beagle? Creator Charles Schultz passed away the day before the final comic strip ran in 2000, but the comic is alive and well to this day in syndication.