Comics: Newspaper Comics in the United States

First Things First...

This lesson plan covers American newspaper comics from their inception in 1895 to the present. Comics have not traditionally been considered worthy of incorporation into art historical narratives, a prime example of the privileging of high culture over mass or popular culture. These hierarchies have been extensively interrogated and debunked in the past three decades, but these distinctions nevertheless remain, albeit in attenuated form, among both scholars and within larger culture. The continuing exclusion of comics from art history is just one example of how these distinctions remain in effect. Yet despite this ongoing bias, comics are an important part of modern visual culture, are consumed by far more people than visit museums or galleries, and can be used to illuminate aspects of society and culture not generally accessible to high art. Comics also have aesthetic values of their own that differ from those of high art, which the instructor should explain as an example of the contextual rather than universal nature of aesthetic conventions. Incorporating comics into your class will help redress this situation, creating a more balanced version of art history and visual culture.

Newspaper comics are one of the three main formats of modern comics, the other two being comic books and graphic novels (see the Glossary below for definitions of these terms). Newspaper comics are much shorter than comic books and graphic novels, occupying at most one full page, which places a limit on how complex their narratives can be. This was compensated for from their first appearance in 1895 until World War II, when a comic would frequently occupy a full tabloid-sized newspaper page, especially on Sundays. The great newspaper comics took full advantage of this opportunity to create miniature panoramas that were accessible to workers and the poor in a way that high art was not. Sadly, after World War II the full-page newspaper comic disappeared, replaced by much smaller strips, which shrank even further in the twenty-first century as the newspaper industry as a whole went into decline.

It’s important to realize that newspaper comics were just one part of a larger field of mass print and visual culture that included dime novels, pulp magazines, films, posters, and more. Since little to none of this material is incorporated into art history textbooks or curricula, newspaper comics are decontextualized from their original visual context when presented in an art historical context. Teaching newspaper comics in an art history course therefore requires being aware of and addressing this missing context as much as possible in the time available.

This lesson plan focuses on the more challenging and innovative newspaper comics, which offer more material for discussion and are more easily compared to high art. Some examples of historically important but less artistically interesting comics such as The Katzenjammer Kids and Flash Gordon are also included to give some indication of what the majority of the comics found in a newspaper would have been like.

The relationship between newspaper comics and modernism is complicated. On the one hand, the low-culture status of comics made them attractive to modernists and avant-gardists seeking “primitive” or “authentic” expressions. On the other hand, comics and high art remained segregated in different spaces, administered and presented by different institutions, and accessible to different audiences. The instructor should analyze comics both on their own terms and as they both diverge from and converge with modernism and other forms of high art. The following quote from Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s High and Low catalogue may be helpful in putting the relationship between comics and high art in a larger perspective. Although it’s quite sweeping and rather idiosyncratic, it gives a much-needed longview of the relation between comics and high art. The final sentences in particular offer a useful conceptualization of the overall relationship between comics and high art:

“The story of the comic strip and modern painting…is a story of convergent development rooted in a common ambition: to make art a serious game. If you stood back far enough from the history of modern visual expression, it might almost seem as if, sometime in the Romantic era, two similar dreams of a new, universal language for art came into existence, and each began to work out its own possibilities. The low, popular form of the comics tried to arrive at a unifying common language by telling stories; the high form of what would become modern art tried to get there by completely eliminating storytelling. These two tracks, however—narrative and antinarrative—turned out to be less like two streets that lead off from a fork in the road, in opposed directions, than like two paths that lead into a maze from opposite sides. For long periods the two parties of wayfarers on the paths are completely unaware of each other; then at times they become obsessed with the noises they can just make out coming from the other side of a hedge; and at times they stumble right over each other.”

Instructors should modify this lesson plan and slideshow to suit their needs. You can choose to use just a few slides, or to combine slides on newspaper comics with others on mainstream or underground and alternative comics. There is no standard way of teaching comics in an art history curriculum (or really any curriculum at this point), so go ahead and experiment.

Background Readings

Flash Gordon magazine cover, December 1936.


Pierre Couperie and Maurice C. Horn’s A History of the Comic Strip (French edition 1967, English translation 1968) is the best one-volume introduction to newspaper comics. It concentrates on American comics but also has shorter sections on French and Italian comics. It’s rather dated now, but sadly nothing as good has been published since then, and since the pre-World War II era is the most important one in newspaper comics, this isn’t as much of a problem as it might otherwise be. For an examination of the relation between newspaper comics and high art/modernism, see Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik’s catalogue for the MoMA exhibition, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990), which also provides a solid overview of the history of newspaper comics. While the installation of the High and Low exhibition privileged high art over low art forms, the extensive catalogue essays avoid this pitfall and provide brief but illuminating histories of comics, advertising, graffiti, newspapers, and caricature, and their interactions with modern art.

For those wishing to delve further into the subject, Ian Gordon’s Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (1998) is the best study of pre-WWII newspaper comics yet published. Thierry Smolderen’s The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay (2014) provides an excellent short introduction to the prehistory and early years of newspaper comics, while David Kunzle’s very thorough History of the Comic Strip, Vol. II: The Nineteenth Century (1990) provides an in-depth treatment of nineteenth-century comics. If you want to trace the development of comics back even further, Kunzle’s first volume, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (1973), is also excellent.

Web resources:

Unfortunately, there are very few quality internet resources on comics history. Fan sites with short capsule histories are plentiful, but few if any of them reach the standards of professional journalism, much less scholarly writing. A very short, fairly decent history of American newspaper comics can be found in two parts here: part one and part two. If you want to give students more in-depth readings, you can supplement this with sites on individual comics. The best website available on any newspaper comic is the University of Virginia’s The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage, a detailed, multi-faceted examination of the first American newspaper comic. This site has dozens of short articles, so you probably want to pick out just a few of them to assign to your students. Online articles on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat are also plentiful. There are, however, a good short overview, and a longer, more detailed overview, as well as a racial analysis of Krazy Kat. I have not been able to find a comprehensive online source on gender in Krazy Kat, but this article, while not as thorough as the previous one, covers both race and gender. There is also a strong short article available on cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

Content Suggestions

Key themes and aesthetic concerns in the early history of newspaper comics can be explored in an hour and fifteen minutes through a variety of examples, including:

  • Thomas Nast, “Something that Did Blow Over,” Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1871
  • George Luks, “The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley,” Hogan’s Alley, October 18, 1896
  • George Luks, Allen Street, c. 1905
  • Robert Delaunay, The Cardiff Team, 1912-13
  • Rudolph Dirks, The Katzenjammer Kids, June 2, 1912
  • Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, November 19, 1905
  • George Herriman, Krazy Kat, September 12, 1937
  • George Herriman, Krazy Kat, May 24, 1936
  • Joan Miró, Dialogue of Insects, 1924-25
  • Öyvind Fahlström, Performing K.K. No. 11 (Sunday Edition), 1962
  • Flash Gordon magazine cover, December 1936
  • Advertisement for Flash Gordon movie serial, 1936
  • Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon, February 11, 1934
  • Walt Kelly, Earth Day Poster, 1971
  • Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, n.d.
  • Alison Bechdel, “The Rule,” Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985


Comic book: A comic book is a self-contained pamphlet containing comics and is distinguished from the much shorter comic strip, which is usually limited to at most one full page, and the much longer graphic novel, which is typically at least 100 pages. American comic books are staple-bound and pamphlet-sized, with 24–32 pages being standard, but they may be as short as a few pages or as long as 64 pages.

Comic strip: A comic strip is a short comic that fits on a single page. The most common place in which comic strips are found are newspapers, but they may also be incorporated into advertisements, posters, books, or websites. Comic books and graphic novels are not considered comic strips because of their greater length.

Comics: The exact definition of what makes something a comic has been a matter of some dispute among comics scholars. A rough definition is that comics use a combination of words and images in sequential panels to tell a story. Comics are differentiated from illustrations, in which the narrative is conveyed primarily through the text and the text and images are visually separated; comics interweave text and images and rely equally on both. Comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels are all examples of comics.

Graphic novel: A graphic novel is a lengthy, book-sized comic. Most graphic novels are originally published as comic books and then collected into anthologies (sometimes known as trade paperbacks).

Gutter: The gutter is the space between panels. In Understanding Comics, a classic analysis of the comics medium, Scott McCloud argues that the gutter is the most distinctive aspect of the comics medium and is essential to its semiotic and aesthetic operation.

Panel: The panel is the basic unit of organization of the comics page. Panels are typically rectangular, framed by an outline, and arranged in a grid, but other types of panel and panel organization can be used to alter the pace, mood, or aesthetics of the page. Panels can have irregular or unusual shapes, can lack borders on some or all sizes, can have colored or textured outlines, and more free-form structures can be substituted for the grid.

Syndication: Newspaper comics quickly adopted syndication as a distribution model, in which syndicates offered the work of cartoonists to any newspaper that wanted to print them. Getting a comic strip accepted for syndication was thus key to achieving widespread distribution of a comic.

George Luks, “The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley,” Hogan’s Alley, October 18, 1896.

The first newspaper comics emerged as an offshoot of nineteenth-century print culture. The Swiss educator and artist Rodolphe Töpffer is often considered the first modern cartoonist thanks to his series of “graphic novels” satirizing the society and culture of his time, beginning with the Histoire de M. Jabot, published in 1833. James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, Honoré Daumier, Charles Philipon, Paul Gavarni, J.J. Grandville, and Thomas Nast can all be considered precursors of newspaper comics. Nast, an American caricaturist best known for his editorial cartoons criticizing New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine and its leader, William “Boss” Tweed, was especially important as a direct predecessor of newspaper comics. While many of Nast’s images were allegorical, he also produced works depicting the urban squalor of New York, such as “Something that Did Blow Over.” It was only a short jump from “Something that Did Blow Over” to the first newspaper comic, Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley, which first appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper in 1895.

Hogan’s Alley centers on the Yellow Kid, a juvenile tenement dweller of uncertain ethnicity who functions as a kind of narrator or emcee for the comic. In each day’s story the Yellow Kid introduces, explains, or comments on the mischief perpetrated by the street urchins and neighborhood youths of an urban ghetto called Hogan’s Alley. The alley and its inhabitants are a microcosm of the racial politics of New York City from the Gilded Age to the Depression. The name of the alley is Irish, reflecting their position at the top of the urban social hierarchy, including domination of municipal politics and the police force. Below them were a medley of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who make up most of the characters in the Yellow Kid comics and are depicted affectionately as rough-edged, dirty, and uncontrollable trouble-makers. Relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy were African-Americans, who are depicted in the Yellow Kid as simpletons and regarded with a paternalistic and condescending sympathy.

The dialogue is written in the dialect of New York’s Lower East Side, where new immigrants lived in dirty, crowded tenements. Instead of speech balloons, the dialogue is written on characters’ clothes or around their body and there is no firm boundary between spoken dialogue and captions. The character’s speech is written in a heavy patois that can be quite hard to follow, a truly remarkable example of Bakhtinian polysemy. The use of slang can be seen in the transcript of the dialogue that is provided in George Luks’s “The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley” (1896), from when he drew the comic. Analysis of that slang provides a good opportunity for a discussion about how language is used in the comics and the racial politics of the characters represented in the comic.

Outcault’s creation was designed to appeal to new immigrants, even illiterate and non-English-speaking ones for whom most of the newspaper was meaningless but who could look at and enjoy the comics, and it proved wildly successful at this. Whereas Nast’s caricatures had addressed the educated upper class who read Harper’s, the Yellow Kid was written, at least in part, for the impoverished immigrants entering the US in mass numbers. (It probably also functioned as a way of making new immigrants more palatable for the American middle class.) The Yellow Kid was practically unique at the time for being both a sympathetic and unsanitized representation of the new European immigrants.

Outcault’s work proved so popular that he became the object of a bidding war between Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. When Outcault left the World for the Journal he had to change the title to McFadden’s Row of Flats, since the title Hogan’s Alley was owned by the World. Not to be defeated, Pulitzer hired Luks to continue drawing the Yellow Kid for his paper under its original title, setting a precedent for the ownership disputes, lawsuits, name changes, copycat series, and competition between newspapers that played out repeatedly in the early years of newspaper comics.

“The Open-Air School in Hogan’s Alley” follows directly in Nast’s footsteps by indicting Tammany corruption, specifically its siphoning off of funds from public schools. It should be noted that Tammany and other post-Civil War political machines were not simple cases of corruption. While Tammany was most certainly corrupt, its patronage system also provided jobs and at least a modicum of protection for the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Political criticism such as this led to the origin of the term yellow journalism, which was a reference to the Yellow Kid.

Luks was already a successful illustrator when he was hired to draw Hogan’s Alley for the World, which he did up to December 1897, when Hearst terminated the strip. Luks thereafter turned his focus to his painting, going on to become a noted member of the Ashcan School and The Eight. The continuities between his time on the Yellow Kid and his later “high” artwork are many, as can be seen in his painting Allen Street (c. 1905). The painting’s subject matter, its wide, almost panoramic scope, and the use of a gently receding two-point perspective are all similar to the comic. On the other hand, Allen Street possesses a painterly aesthetic and somber mood that the scratchily drawn and manically energetic cartoon doesn’t, giving it a high-art patina that the comic lacks. Yet it is precisely the features of the comic that diverge from nineteenth-century standards of high art that make it a remarkable precursor to twentieth-century modernism. The exuberant use of interpenetrating text and images and the depiction of the modern city as energized and cacophonous anticipate the work of the Cubists, Futurists, and other modernists, represented here by Robert Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team (1912–13).

In the wake of the Yellow Kid, comics became a staple of American newspapers. The most popular strips were family comedies that drew heavily from vaudeville routines, especially slapstick comedy. The Katzenjammer Kids, which served as a paradigm for humor strips, was created by Rudolph Dirks in 1897, just two years after the first Yellow Kid comic. Like the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammers were poor immigrant children, but unlike the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammers were entirely apolitical. Also unlike the Yellow Kid comics, The Katzenjammer Kids used the framed rectangular panels that we are accustomed to seeing in comics. In 1912 Dirks wanted to take some time off from the strip, but Hearst refused and hired Harold Knerr to continue it in Dirks’s absence. Dirks sued unsuccessfully, and in response, started a copycat series called Hans and Fritz, later retitled The Captain and the Kids, thus putting two versions of the strip in competition with each other, another reprise of the Yellow Kid.

Arguably the highest visual achievement of newspaper comics of any period, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland was a tour de force of full-page composition, bravura drawing technique, luminous color, and fantastical imagery. In every episode, the titular character, a boy named Nemo, falls asleep and goes on adventures in Slumberland, then is abruptly awoken in the final panel. Little Nemo ran in the New York Herald from 1905 to 1911, then moved to the New York American from 1911 to 1914—where it ran under the title In the Land of Wonderful Dreams because the Herald held the copyright on the title—before finally returning to the Herald from 1924 to 1926. McCay was informally taught, but his drawing skills were nevertheless impressive. He began his career doing live drawings at dime museums in the 1890s, then turned to newspaper illustration in 1898. Like the Yellow Kid, Little Nemo also anticipates modernist concerns, in this case the Surrealist fascination with dreams. McCay was a master at stretching and distorting forms, a technique that can be compared with Salvador Dalí’s similar use of stretched biomorphic forms. This does not mean that Dalí was influenced by McCay, but rather that the two of them invented related techniques for related ends. McCay’s distortions are less radical than Dalí’s, and his goal was to create entertainment and wonder rather than reveal neuroses and paranoia, but the parallels are significant nevertheless. McCay’s bed, with its long, sinuous legs striding through the city, has an authentically Surrealist quality despite its naïve innocence.

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, another high point of early newspaper comics, ran from 1913 to 1944. The comic’s premise is a bizarre love triangle involving the eponymous cat, Ignatz Mouse, and the canine Offissa Pupp. Krazy loves Ignatz, but Ignatz rejects Krazy and throws bricks at him/her (Krazy’s gender is ambiguous), which Krazy interprets as signs of affection. While Ignatz professes to despise Krazy, his feelings appear to contain at least an undercurrent of affection. Offissa Pupp loves Krazy and attempts to protect him/her by throwing Ignatz in jail whenever he heaves his brick at Krazy. That is the basic storyline, on which Herriman wove endless variations. The sparse comic shown here from September 12, 1937 displays the relationship in its simplest form. The comic is set in a real county in Arizona called Coconino County with a landscape lifted from the nearby Monument Valley. Famously, the backgrounds in the comic shift constantly, morphing from one panel to another, and the language is also fluid and unstable, containing elements of Louisiana creole, Yiddish, Navajo, Spanish, African-American slang, and Brooklyn slang. The resulting stew of language is truly Herriman’s own and is one of the wonders of the strip, reaching its maximum intensity in the 1930s.

Racial and gender identities in the comic are as unstable as the landscape and language. Born in New Orleans, Herriman’s birth certificate listed him as “colored,” while his parents were listed on the 1880 census as “mulatto.” As an adult living in New York City, however, Herriman passed as white and wore a hat constantly to hide his kinky hair. This lived experience of the fluidity and arbitrariness of race seems to have influenced his whole outlook on life and art and was expressed in every aspect of Krazy Kat. Race is manifested in the comic in the two main characters, Ignatz, who is white and has a Jewish name, and Krazy, who is black and is revealed at one point to have an uncle Tom who lives in a cotton patch and sings the blues. Like much in the comic, these racial identities are rarely commented on explicitly, but a number of stories feature Krazy and Ignatz disguising their race or being mistaken for other races.

Herriman’s attitude towards gender also displayed a remarkable acceptance of fluidity and indeterminacy. He once said of Krazy’s gender, “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl—even drew up some strips with her being pregnant. It wasn’t the Kat any longer, too much concerned with her own problems—like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ The Kat’s a sprite—a pixie—free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” On the one hand, Herriman shows a willingness to suspend the normal heterosexual gender binary, not to mention the resulting possibility of Krazy’s love for Ignatz thus being queer or homosexual. On the other hand, his views of women were clearly sexist, seeing them as self-absorbed, “like a soap opera,” although it is unclear whether or how these views were expressed in the comic itself.

The fluidity of landscape, language, race, and gender in Krazy Kat extends to representation as well. In the comic shown here from May 24, 1936, Offissa Pupp paints a picture of Ignatz in jail, which Krazy sees and interacts with as though it were a living person. Krazy then hangs the painting over the second-story window of the actual jail, making it appear as if Ignatz is locked up there. Offissa Pupp sees the painting and believes the illusion, which leaves Ignatz free to hurl his brick at Krazy without interference from Offissa Pupp. The illusion of art thus turns around to bedevil its own creator, creating a double of his nemesis, who thus escapes the painter’s control. The lines on the painting become the bars of the jail thanks to their co-equal status as drawn images, which equalizes their representational status. Taking the play of representation a step further, the bars mimic the lines on the door below the window. Finally, the strip both begins and ends with a play on the Renaissance concept of the picture window. In the title panel, Krazy is shown in a spotlit frame that can be interpreted as either a Baroque portrait (thanks to the lace collar s/he is wearing) or a window with rain pouring down in front of it.

Krazy Kat has always exercised a fascination on modernists, including e.e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. However, it never found a mass audience and only remained in print because it was a favorite of Hearst’s, who insisted that at least one of his papers carry it at all times. The shifting background makes the already surreal landscape even more dreamlike. Varnedoe and Gopnik compare Krazy Kat to Miró at length, citing Miró’s statement in the late 1920s that he was “making a sort of comic strip,” which is confirmed by Miró’s sketches from this period that gave rise to his mature style. The stylistic similarities between Krazy Kat and Miró’s work can be clearly seen by comparing the strip from September 12, 1937 to Miró’s Dialogue of Insects. Since the Surrealists were known to appreciate Krazy Kat, and Miró’s sketches bear a distinct resemblance to Herriman’s drawing style, it’s possible that there was a direct influence at work here. Varnedoe and Gopnik conclude that:

“Both Miró and Herriman were in revolt against the idea of the sublime landscape as an icon of solemnity; both sought to make instead a landscape that was musical and free…The elements that Miró assembled from the peripheral traditions at hand to fulfill this ambition were in many ways the same as those that had been cobbled together to make Krazy Kat…Herriman isn’t a wistful imitator of Miró, or an accidental look-alike. Nor is Miró a mere appropriator of Herriman’s low art. Their relation isn’t like that of the dog to the moon, aspiring to a distant place, but like that among the insects in the dialogue, reveling amiably in a common condition.”

After World War II, Krazy Kat continued to attract the avant-garde, as in Öyvind Fahlström’s Performing K.K. No. 11 (Sunday Edition), which celebrates and exaggerates the comic’s surreal, absurdist, abstract qualities.

In the 1930s, a new type of newspaper comic appeared, the adventure serial. Adventure heroes migrated easily between comics, pulp magazines, radio, and film, with lots of merchandising opportunities along the way. It was an era of extensive crossover between different mediums, much like the present one. Flash Gordon and The Phantom began in the comics and spread to other media, while characters such as Buck Rogers, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Zorro began in other media and were imported into comics. The cover of a Flash Gordon pulp magazine and an advertisement for the Flash Gordon movie serial, both from 1936, are shown here.

The tradition of pulp adventure hero is closely connected to imperialist narratives and archetypes. For instance, Flash Gordon’s arch-enemy was Ming the Merciless, who had usurped the rule of the planet Mongo from its rightful ruler, the white-skinned Prince Barin. The planet’s name is an abbreviation of Mongolian or Mongoloid, the latter of which was a term commonly used at the time in eugenics discourse as a description of the supposedly inferior Asian “race.” In the comic shown here, Ming displays his aggressiveness, along with his simultaneous superiority and subhumanity, in a comment to Flash’s love interest, Dale Arden, telling her that “we on this planet have progressed far beyond you earthlings…The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy or pity—we are coldly scientific and ruthless.” This strip also displays the constant sexism of Flash Gordon, with the women performing the role of scantily clad damsels whose distress serves as an opportunity for heroism on the part of Flash and voyeurism on the part of the viewer.

The golden era of newspaper comics ended during WWII as a result of paper rationing, which reduced the space available to comics, a blow from which they never recovered. From this point on, newspaper comics might be clever and well-drawn, but they would never again have the physical space necessary to make a really impacting visual statement.

One of the most influential and respected newspaper comics of the post-war period was Walt Kelly’s Pogo, a gentle, witty satire of post-war America that ran from 1948 to 1975. Ironically, the line that Pogo is most famous for, “we have met the enemy and he is us,” appeared not in a comic strip but in a poster that Kelly designed for the second-ever Earth Day in 1971, just two years before his death.

One of the few comics that came close to revisiting the glory days of the pre-WWII period was Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, which ran from 1985 to 1995. Watterson undoubtedly had drawing talent, his depiction of the young Calvin’s nonconformist outlook on life was funny and charming, and his layouts often broke out of the standard panel grid, but he too found himself constrained by the limits of post-WWII newspaper comics. Newspapers typically had the option of cutting the first two panels from a Sunday strip, meaning that cartoonists had to put throwaway gags in those panels in case they were cut. Watterson disliked this practice on the grounds that it wasted precious space, so once his strip had attracted an audience, he denied newspapers the option to cut the first panels. Newspaper editors objected to this demand, so Watterson and his syndicate offered a compromise whereby papers could reduce the entire strip to a smaller size but still could not cut the opening panels. This was an exceptional case, however, and most cartoonists did not have the popularity that gave Watterson the leverage to force this concession, so this was a one-off exception to the general reduction and simplification of newspaper comics.

The most critically acclaimed cartoonist to come out of newspaper comics in the last two decades is Alison Bechdel, who established her reputation with Dykes To Watch Out For, which ran in lesbian and gay newspapers from 1983 to 2008. Her most famous strip was “The Rule,” which proposed a criteria for evaluating films based on their portrayal or lack thereof of female characters that has become a commonly cited reference point among feminists. The rule states that: “One, it has to have at least two women in it…who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” Note the three movie posters in the background making thinly veiled references to Rambo, Conan the Barbarian, and Dirty Harry, all with weapons positioned in transparently phallic positions. Bechdel went on to write the award-winning graphic novel memoirs Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006).

At the End of Class...

The end of class is a good time to ask students to lead a discussion reflecting on the relation between comics and high art and on their own experiences with comics based around the following questions:

  • Do they relate to comics more easily than to high art, either in general or in relation to the specific newspaper comics studied in class?
  • Why haven’t comics been considered a legitimate art form?
  • Do they deserve to be?

Doug Singsen (author) is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, specializing in modern and contemporary art, intercultural influences and interactions from the ancient world to the present, art and social justice, and the interaction of mass culture and the avant-garde.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.