From the Katzenjammer Kids of 1897, to the latest Ninja Turtles, cartoon and comics have become a distinctive American art form. Comic strips, comic books, panel cartoons, and the characters that people them, are reflections of our country's culture from the end of the 19th century to the present.
The definitions of comics and cartoons are at times blurred. A cartoon is defined by Webster's as 'a preparatory drawing, a satirical drawing, a comic strip, or an animated cartoon'; and a comic strip as 'a group of cartoons in narrative sequence'.
In the late 1800s, many conditions seemed ripe for the arrival of a new form of communication that was neither merely literature nor merely graphic art. New and more advanced printing presses were allowing newspapers to print more copies, better and faster, making it possible to easily reach an ever-increasing public. Also at that time, the enormous influx of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, with little or no knowledge of the English language, gave the medium of visual communication a steady audience. Circulation wars among newspapers worked to the advantage of the artist who had a style that was recognizable at first glance.
It was Joseph Pulitzer who first used a Sunday supplement as a showcase for his newspaper, the New York World. To attract a new readership, Pulitzer made increasing use of illustrations and color. Competition with his rival, William Randolph Hearst, for dominance of the New York newspaper market, was a catalyst for them both to place greater and greater reliance on their Sunday supplements. A new cultural form was born, characterized by narrative told in a sequence of pictures, with continuing casts of characters, and dialogue or text within the picture frame. At this point, a new distinction was created that separates most comic strips from the pictorial narratives of previous centuries. Comic strips were designed to compel the eye to travel forward from panel to panel, whereas earlier cartoons were static and mainly served as illustrations for text. This new, kinetic, dimension of American comic art was a major departure from the cartoons created at that time in other parts of the world. Many experts designate the 'birthdate' of American comics as 1896, when Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid first appeared. It was also a year when the Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry was at a peak.
Among AskART's list of cartoon comic artists whose works have drawn the highest dollar amounts at auction are: Billy De Beck, Victor Clyde Forsythe, Frank Godwin, Harold Gray, John Held Jr. , George Herriman, Winsor McCay, George McManus, Richard Outcault, Alexander Raymond, Charles Schulz, and James Swinnerton. Some have fetched over $40,000 (Winsor McCay). Others may be very well known and broadly represented in publications, but have not had their work go through auction (such as Hank Ketcham of 'Dennis the Menace'). It is also important to remember that some noted cartoon characters or strips may have been first created by one artist, and then continued on by another. One such example would be Gasoline Alley, first created by Frank King in 1918, and later continued by Dick Moores (1909-1986) and then Jim Scancarelli (1941-). Another would be Donald Duck, drawn in comic book form by Carl Barks (1901-2000), and as a comic strip by Al Taliaferro (1905-1969). Interestingly, neither Barks nor Taliaferro ever got a credit during their active years with Walt Disney Donald Duck.
Billy De Beck (1890-1942) was the creator of Barney Google, which began in 1919 and was one of the most popular strips ever devoted to the sporting life. Vic Forsythe (1885-1962) is known for his long-running feature Joe Jinks, which dealt with automobiles, aviation, and boxing. Frank Godwin (1889-1959) drew the graphically sophisticated strips Connie and Rusty Riley. The creator of Little Orphan Annie, Harold Gray (1894-1968), is regarded as the first strip cartoonist to use the medium as a vehicle for political philosophy. John Held's (1889-1958) illustrations, cartoons, and comic strips visually defined the Jazz Age. Krazy Kat was the creation of George Herriman (1880-1944). Regarded by many as the first great master of both the comic strip and the animated cartoon, Winsor McCay (1869/or 1871-1934) is best known for his strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. George McManus (1884-1954) drew a variety of short-lived comics before he hit his stride with The Newlyweds, and later became one of the highest paid cartoonists in the country.
One of the earliest newspaper comic artists was Richard Outcault (1863-1928), who created two of the field's important characters, the Yellow Kid (1895) and Buster Brown (1902), and pioneered the development of the Sunday funnies and the merchandising of comics' characters. Alex Raymond (1909-1956) was one of the leading cartoon artists of his day, and was responsible for four influential strips: Secret Agent X-9, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and the cerebral Rip Kirby. Using his childhood insecurities and failures as material, Charles Schulz (1922-2000) was the writer and artist of the incomparable Peanuts, which became the most widely read comic strip in the world, inspiring animated cartoons, a Broadway show, toys, and reprint books. Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974) contributed to the development of comics for over 60 years, his most successful strip being Little Jimmy, about a very small boy.
Hank Ketcham's (1920 -) Dennis the Menace has been one of the most consistently popular cartoon views of childhood from the time of its first appearance in 1951, depicting the cozy nuclear family of the 1950s ever since. Chic Young (1901-1973) was the creator of Blondie, whose domestic comedy life with Dagwood Bumstead the artist parlayed into an empire that since his death in 1973 has been sustained by his son Dean. An icon in world literature and comic's foremost detective thriller, Chester Gould's (1900-1985) Dick Tracy began its historic run in 1931, and although he did not invent violence in the comics medium, he cornered the market early on with his strip full of battering, shootings, and knifings.
Garry Trudeau's (1948-) Doonesbury made him the most prominent cartoonist-commentator on the political scene during the 1970s, bringing him the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, the first ever awarded for a comic strip. One of the most distinctive cartoonists to appear in the 1980s was Gary Larson (1950-), whose zany and at times macabre The Far Side, features human and animal roles being exchanged. The morbid thread running through his panels links him to the tradition of Charles Addams' cartoons for New Yorker magazine. Calvin and Hobbes is written and drawn by former political cartoonist Bill Watterson (1958 -), who is known for having his characters, a manic six-year-old and a level-headed tiger, make abrupt mid-strip shifts from fantasy to reality, and from one character's viewpoint to another. In the waning years of the 20th century the street-wise, sewer-bred, and humanoid reptiles, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles began in 1984, created by writer Kevin Eastman and artist Peter A. Laird, proving popular at first with teenage and college-age readers, and eventually with children.
In the approximately 100 year-long-life of cartoon comics, they have encompassed every aspect of American life, from the down-to-earth, as in Gasoline Alley begun by Frank King (-1969) to the esoteric, as in Krazy Kat, by George Herriman. Today, due to cutbacks on space for continuity strips in newspapers, artists no longer have as much size available to include extensive detail in their work. Comics have become less popular, and as they become less popular with newspaper readers, the more they are unfortunately neglected by authors, newspapers, and syndicates. Some exceptions to this downhill spiral would be Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Doonesbury. The impact that the arrival of the computer age will have on comic and cartoon artistry remains to be seen. Clearly, animation of cartoon characters is making a comeback in movies and on digital entertainment websites. Cyberspace may well afford cartoon artists greatly expanded creative outlets. Fans of 'the funnies' will be waiting to see.
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