Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day, which I didn’t know about until I heard it on the late news last night — not that I would’ve gone out of my way to take advantage of the occasion. It’s a distributor-coordinated promotional event started in 2002 to cash in on the hoopla surrounding the Spider Man and X-Men movies. Participating comic book retailers give away free copies on the first Saturday in May annually, hoping to make regular customers out of new or occasional ones.
I haven’t been a comic book fan since I was a teenager (my boyhood collection would be worth a lot more than a few laughs today if I’d saved it), but I still regularly follow about a half dozen comic strips in the daily newspaper. Recently I came into possession of a very long and interesting magazine article from 1933 titled The Funny Papers. For those who may be curious about the early years of comic strips, I thought I’d pass along some of that 80+ year old history.
First of all, a few statistics. In 1933, there were almost 230 comic strips appearing in U. S. newspapers. Of 2,300 daily papers, only two of any importance (the New York Times and Boston Transcript) didn’t include comic strips. Of the approximately 200 funnies’ artists, less than 100 were widely read; the top 20 or so, including Bud Fisher (Mutt & Jeff) and Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), grossed from $1,000 to $3,000 a week (big money in those depression days). It was estimated that 70 to 75 per cent of newspaper readers followed the comic sections regularly.
The business end of the funny business was handled by features syndicates (features included columns such as those of Walter Winchell and Will Rogers, as well as the funnies), which sold their features to as many papers as they could amass. There were two kinds of syndicates: one with a key paper or string of papers behind it, such as the Hearst-owned King Features; and second, the independent syndicate which survived on the strength of its major stars such as cartoonist/inventor/author Rube Goldberg (of whom more later).
Most of the cartoon characters popular in 1933 (a cross-section of which appears above the text of this post) have faded from memory, like slow-acting invisible ink. Of the characters depicted, few are remembered today. Note another anachronism — the “blank” character representing balloon-speaking manikins through which advertisers could market their wares via their proximity to Barney Google, Maggie & Jiggs and other syndicated headliners.
It is inevitable that the humor in most of those almost-century old cartoons had a limited lifespan and, looked at today, is laughably dated. But some have stood the test of time and remain popular, if perhaps quaint. We will take a closer look at some of these creations and their creators in another post.
TO BE CONTINUED