With the release of DC Comics' stunning tribute to the classic newspaper Sunday Comics - aptly titled Wednesday Comics - in hardcover format last week (read our review of the Wednesday Comics hardcover), I thought it'd be relevant to take a look through the long list of newspaper-syndicated comic strips over the past 100 years and point out the best of the best.
Thanks to modern technology and the increasing popularity of comics in general, most of these great strips are available in one form or another, often reprinted directly from originals or cleaned up real nice for another generation to enjoy. Hell, some of these are still running in newspapers across the country, 30+ years after they debuted.
Years Active: 1970-Present
The massively popular comic strip from cartoonist Garry Trudeau is one of the most unique comics running in papers today. Decidedly liberal in nature, Doonesbury started as a strip about the "main character" Michael Doonesbury, but has since evolved into a politically charged strip that frequently is about a huge variety of different characters.
Combining satire with the unique trait of evolving and aging characters, Doonesbury has been a staple in newspapers for a few months shy of 4 decades, and even holds the distinction of having to be moved from the comics section of some papers to the Op/Ed, in response to reader complaints. Liberal or not, Trudeau has done his job and gotten people to pay attention. You don’t survive 40 years in any business without doing so.
9. Bloom County
Years Active: 1980-1989
Despite its penchant for commentary on society, culture, and politics, Bloom County has a universal charm to it that is undeniable. Cartoonist Berkley Breathed used Bloom County as a platform to convey his thoughts on Americana, and set the series within a boarding house that featured a wide range of characters, from intellectual 10 year olds to talking cats and penguins.
Bloom County brought forth a few spin-off series – none that were quite as successful as the original – but it remains one of the most fondly remembered newspaper strips of the past few decades.
Years Active: 2006-Present
Lio is one of the only comic strips on this list that is less than five years old. Hell, come to think of it, it’s the only one from within the past ten years. The appeal of Lio comes from its pantomime style, with the rare inclusion of dialog, focused mainly on sight gags or at the most, sound effects. It gives Lio a sense of universal appeal and lets then reader focus on cartoonist Mark Tatulli’s wonderfully creative style.
For a strip syndicated in a newspaper, it’s got a relatively twisted slant that often results in jokes about death, destruction, the supernatural and the obscure, yet it’s presented in a way that is safe for any kid perusing the comics section of their local paper. Lio also parodies other classic strips from time to time, making it not only unique but somewhat of a celebration of the medium.
7. Li'l Abner
Years Active: 1934-1977
Li’l Abner makes this list for more than simply being a great, long running comic strip. Al Capp created one of the most unique strips of its time, combining satire with pop culture and fantasy, all based around a bunch of hillbillies in a fake Kentucky town.
Outside of the comic itself, Li’l Abner and Al Capp helped revolutionize the business aspect of comic strips when he sued the United Feature Syndicate in 1947 and won full ownership of the strip, at a time when newspapers and publications typically owned the intellectual properties, not the creators.
It also helps that "shmoo" is in the American lexicon.
6. Fritz the Cat
Years Active: 1965-1972
Okay, so technically, Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat never ran in a mainstream newspaper. It is, however, one of the most popular underground comic strips of all time, and was featured in Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! magazine. Featuring a rather risque cat with human qualities, Fritz was essentially the world’s introduction to the legendary R. Crumb and is important enough for that reason alone.
Fritz is many things; a parody of traditional family friendly comic strips, satire, and low-brow humor. One of the most appealing things about the strip, oddly enough, is the lack of attachment to the character by his creator. After difficulties spinning out of the agreement to bring Fritz to animation (the only X-rated animated film, and one of the highest grossing independently produced animated films ever), Crumb had Fritz murdered and promptly ended the strip.
5. Get Fuzzy
Years Active: 1999-Present
The second most recent comic strip on this list, Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy is the most consistently funny newspaper strip running today. Featuring three main players, Satchel Pooch, Bucky B. Katt, and their owner Rob, Get Fuzzy not only parallels my past bachelor lifestyle but also presents pets as they truly are: scheming, dependent, and mischievous but devoted children. It doesn’t hurt that Conley throws in references to Star Wars, Pink Floyd, Back to the Future, donut theft, and pet religion.
If you’ve never checked out Get Fuzzy and you enjoy any of the things listed above, do yourself a favor.
4. The Adventures of Tintin
Years Active: 1929-1976
Herge’s Tintin is one of the most well respected comic strips of all time, and for good reason. Aside from Herge’s remarkable-to-behold cartooning style that is crisp, clean cut, and quite simply beautiful, Tintin provides memorable characters with an epic collection of adventures that often include political commentary and satire.
Though originating in Belgium, Tintin has been translated into dozens of languages and spread like wildfire, and now is awaiting an epic film translation by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. And when Spielberg adapts your shit, you know that it’s important.
Years Active: 1978-Present
Aside from maybe Snoopy, Garfield is probably the most recognizable comic strip animal of all time. Since his inception in the late 70′s, Garfield has become a pop culture phenomenon, spawning movies, cartoons, television specials, and of course, a crap ton of suction cup merchandise. Unlike a lot of the other comic strips on this list, Garfield is generally universal; there’s little-to-no political or social commentary, the humor is "safe" and inoffensive. Perhaps that’s what allowed it to achieve the Guinness World Record for the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip.
Who doesn’t love Garfield?
2. Krazy Kat
Years Active: 1913-1944
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is the ground floor of slapstick comedy in comic strips, and its influence can be felt from Get Fuzzy to the classic Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote skits in Looney Tunes. Herriman’s bizarre little anthropomorphic world consisting of Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Officer Pupp changed the mold of traditional comic strip storytelling and even broke the fourth wall at times by acknowledging the cartoonist himself.
There is an inherent charm in the way Herriman combines his art, layouts and narrative that makes it appealing to everybody, even when most of us reading it were still 30-40 years away from even being conceived when the strip ended.
It also says something that it was championed and published by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who judging by his doppelganger Charles Foster Kane, I always assumed hated fun.
Years Active: 1950-2000
Peanuts and its cast of characters is beloved by bajillions everywhere. In fact, if you "don’t like" Peanuts, you are either dead or a member of some evil cult that murders babies in addition to hating Charlie Brown.
It’s amazing to see the evolution of Peanuts over its 50 year run (which is possible thanks to the amazing collections courtesy of Fantagraphics). Both in writing style and illustration, Charles Shulz’s classic strip literally evolves as the cartoonist does, with characters changing and progressing. Of course, eventually Snoopy became a pop culture icon, Charlie Brown an inspiration for meek wallflowers everywhere and Lucy an insufferable bitch.
Between the comic itself and the vast amount of movies and television specials, Peanuts is a part of everyone’s childhood – including your parents – and will remain as such, even as this generation starts pumping out kids. It’s important to note that even though Shulz died in 2000 – the day before the final Peanuts strip ran – most newspapers are re-running old strips under the new title Classic Peanuts. Not only that, but in the papers I’ve seen, it’s still the top comic on the front page of the Sunday Comics.