Toon Musings: Undead Strips
Max und Moritz – Eine Bubengeschichte in sieben Streichen (A Story of Seven Boyish Pranks) was published in 1865. It was a darkly comic tale of two mischievous lads and the pranks they play on various adults resulting in (spoilers!) varying degrees of property damage, animal cruelty, theft, and eventually the unlamented murder of the pranksters, who are devoured by ducks. William Randolph Hearst licensed the work. Thirty-two years later, Rudolph Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids appeared in the Sunday supplement to Hearst’s New York Journal. It is thought by experts to be the first use of pictures and word balloons in a sequence to tell a tale: the first true comic strip.
By and by, Dirks decided he wanted to take a vacation. Since Hearst owned the strip, Dirks was essentially a hired hand, and was fired in 1912. The Katzenjammer Kids was given to a fellow named Harold Knerr. A court decision allowed Dirks to launch a new strip with the same characters for the competing Pulitzer papers; in essence, there were two different strips featuring the similar antics of two similar pairs of mischievous boys playing pranks on the hapless adults in their lives. This situation persisted, under the stewardship of various writers and artists, for sixty-five years, give or take. In 1979, Dirks’ The Captain and the Kids folded. The original strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, is still in syndication to this day, the first, and longest-lived, comic strip in existence. But don’t be fooled; no one draws it anymore, and hasn’t since 2006. And yet, it lives on.
When an original creator dies, or retires, or wants to try painting or children’s books or pornographic fantasy novels or alpaca farming, there are several paths their comic strip can take, depending on how singular the work was, and who stands to benefit how much. In the old days, the syndicates owned the strip and the characters and split the revenue with the cartoonist. Barring some sort of agreement with the estate of a deceased cartoonist, it was in their interest to make sure the known and already popular product continued to generate revenue. A growing number of cartoonists chafed under this arrangement, and today it is commonplace for the ownership to be in the hands of the creator (or in the case of dead creators, their estates). The syndicates serve as distributors, but the incentive to continue a strip after the original creator still exists. After all, if a strip dies, everyone loses — except new cartoonists, but more on that later.
Now in comic strip jargon, a strip that still publishes new installments but is no longer produced by the original creator is called a ‘legacy’ strip or, more derisively (and, I think, unfairly), a ‘zombie’ strip. Some of those strips are continued by the creators’ assistants, some by the creators’ children, and some by cartoonists or writer/artist teams hired by the owner of the strip; but they are continued nevertheless, with new gags, new stories and sometimes new characters. In many cases, the new cartoonists continue on, treading water, in the same vein as the original creators; after all, fans of newspaper funnies generally prefer the familiar, the tried and true — or so the editors believe, judging by the craven or apathetic editor’s favorite tool, the reader poll; and by the hate mail they are deluged with when they make a change in the comics page. In a few instances, the strips undergo a change in tone or style, as the new creators try to put their own spin — make their own mark — on the creative endeavor they’ve inherited. Given the aforementioned (alleged) skittishness of readers, it’s a risky move, but at least it’s the work of a living cartoonist.
A second possibility: if the strip was a singular creation of a unique talent (and not too popular), the strip could just… go away. Fold. Be discontinued. An honorable fate, if a bit sad. We lost Krazy Kat and Polly and her Pals that way. The jury’s still out on Piranha Club, which only just ended.
The third possibility, and one that is being increasingly used, is to start rerunning old strips. Like Peanuts. Or Calvin and Hobbes. or Ink Pen. Or The Katzenjammer Kids. Some are weird hybrids. Doonesbury is original on Sundays, but reruns during the week. So is Foxtrot. Don’t even get me started on whatever For Better Or For Worse is. I recently became a paid subscriber to one of the online comics portals — to support the profession, as one does, and I was amazed at the sheer number of strips represented. I was also alarmed at the high proportion of those strips that were repeats of strips that had run years, and in some cases decades ago. You can follow Li’l Abner if you like, but you’ll be reading strips from1934! The “About” section of the strip is woefully brief, and says nothing about whether a strip is active, or a rerun (although King Features’ blurbs in their ‘Vintage” section are quite informative). The effect is to inject a sort of timelessness into what used to be a timely endeavor: reading the daily funnies. Everything is evergreen.
If a strip continued by someone other than the original creator is a “zombie”, what are these called? “Ghost strips”? “Spirit strips”? “Dead Parrot strips”? (They’ve joined the Choir Invisible!) And what’s the point of this skullduggery?
Sean Kleefeld sums it up pithily:
Get Fuzzy is now largely reruns. Doonesbury is Sunday-only with reruns during the week. You can find “Classics” versions of Garfield, Dilbert, Luann, Nancy, The Norm, Wizard of Id, Stone Soup… We’ve also lost in recent years Tom Wilson Sr., Stan Lynde, Bill Keane, Jack Elrod, and, most recently, Richard Thompson. And yet you can still find Ziggy, Mark Trail, Family Circus, and the rest still in newspapers. This is just off the top of my head, and there’s enough here to fill an entire newspaper page with comics!
At some level, I get it. Obviously, the syndicates have an enormous backlog of material that can be mined for little-to-no extra outlay but still generate a decent income. If readers are willing to keep re-reading the scant few years of Boondocks and Get Fuzzy, they’ll surely be willing to re-read old Garfield and Dilbert strips they might not have seen in a couple decades. That’s almost a no-brainer, right? Re-packaging old material that’s already been paid for to sell once again — why would a business not want to pursue that notion?
Sure! Why hang that edgy new artist when you’ve got a bunch of old masters moldering in storage? Why pay some persnickety cartoonist to publish a relatively untried new strip when you have a hundred years of old strips by acknowledged legends that are unseen by most of your readership, and that you already own free and clear? It’s the height of irony, really. Cartoonists yearn for their work to be treated as Art, rather than throwaway ephemera. And now that it’s beginning to happen, the new talent is being frozen out of the last paying gigs in existence by the shades of their dead predecessors.
Maybe we should call the reruns “Time-Travelling Ninja Vampire Assassin strips.” Just spitballin’ here. Someone will come up with something, I’m sure.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.