Episode 148: A Look into the Serialization of Comic Strips

With all my posting on comic books, I figure showing some love for comic strips was in order.

Comic strips are the oldest and most familiar form of comics for many readers. These consist of only a few panels (three or four, though single panel comics are not uncommon). Individual comic strips are rarely found on their own[1], due in part to aspects of print publishing that would not make it viable for a single author to make hundreds of minute documents that would be difficult to distribute/sell. Thus, comic strips became a small part of a larger staple of traditional print publishing, namely newspapers. Illustrations and political cartoons have been present as additional material to help show part of a plot point or a current event in various forms of print but they are most commonly found in newspapers and other periodicals. Comic strips (mostly of the single panel variety) which serve as an adjunct to the narrative (or to the editorial viewpoint) or just a standalone short stories, were part of various print documents since the 19th century; including the Victorian serial magazines explained in the previous chapter. For example, the magazine Punch used illustrations throughout its articles as part of its jokes, including a comic strip called “The Inspired Musician and the Christmas Ham” by E.H. Shepard appeared in its last installment. (View Figure below)

The inspired musician and the christmas ham

(Figure From Project Gutenberg’s entry on Punch Vol 159.

Originally published on December 29, 1920)

However, the first comic strip to appear as its own individual story and serialized as such was Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, which began just before the turn of the 20th century. Outcault was the first author to create a unique set of continuous characters for this comic strip. The storylines were a reflection of the society of the time but Outcault framed it through his characters, rather than the other way around as was the style for previous forms of comics. His work would not be alone for long as other authors became cartoonists and proceeded to do their own form of character centered comic strips.

Rather than have these miniscule graphic narratives be spread out throughout the document, newspaper editors decided to conglomerate all of them in one section and called it “The Comics” or “The Funnies”. Different authors were now stacked together via medium. As authors decided to branch out to different styles and genres throughout the years, the comics page became a potpourri of cartoonists’ works placed together as talking animals, superheroes, pranksters, and detectives (just to name a few) were packed alongside each other. The comics had their own space in the Sunday edition, which usually meant that they would be in color and have twice or even triple the space they would have to the simpler weekday editions. These daily editions were only a few panels and completely in black and white, thus making an interesting serialization model for authors of comic strips to follow. Six installments would have less content and art quality while the seventh one would have additional space and options to work with. Since most comic strips had a “gag a day” format that was concentrated on telling a joke per installment rather than on producing an ongoing story, the process of serialization was not too problematic. However, once the focus from humor had been relaxed to include action, adventure, and even some dramatic comic strips, storytelling had to be very controlled so that each of the daily installments would mesh together and fit with the Sunday shift in style. Comic strip authors that were hired to only do Sunday issues, or all days but Sunday, had a more uniform style for drawing/writing all installments but they had to take into consideration the temporal gap of their text not being available to the readers. In this way, awareness of the medium of publication took into consideration the rate of publication as part of the serial reading experience.

Readers of serialized comic strips have certain advantages and disadvantages that come with partaking in this form of storytelling. Economically, as long as one was already planning on purchasing a particular periodical or newspaper then one’s reading of comics would not incur an additional expense. The initial document is easily obtainable but as time goes by the accessibility of a particular periodical decreases rapidly. Finding a previous day’s newspaper, or from even earlier, was not an easy task since most periodicals are considered to be disposable after an initial reading and past events had lost their importance as need to know information. Scholar of British Romanticism Karen Fang writes that, “Explicitly identified with time in their very name, periodicals were the subject of Romantic distaste due to their serial and rapidly obsolescent nature” (Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs 180). If old news was essentially disposable then the comic strips inside them were even more so. Missing an installment meant that one would miss all the comics for that day, albeit it would only a small amount of content, but that brings up a more interesting point when it comes to backtracking through earlier documents. If one was not reading a particular comic since the first time it appeared then there would be a point where it would suddenly become too complicated to start from any point onward and it would just be overlooked. This reading phenomenon is known as continuity lock-out and it is defined as when, “The writers have let the mythos or stories they have generated get so thick and convoluted that a new reader/viewer has very little chance of understanding the significance of anything. They are ‘locked out’ of understanding the story by all the reliance on continuity” (TV Tropes editors). With no real archive of previous installments of comic strips, this level of confusion could happen fairly easily. Consider the case of Prince Valiant, a Sunday only comic strip by Hal Forster about a medieval knight that would go on fantastic adventures that started in 1937. The strip continues to this day after Forster passed on the authorial torch until its current holders, writer Mark Schultz and artist Thomas Yeates. With almost 80 years of material behind it, the narrative complexity and rich history are almost impenetrable to new readers. There have always been brief recaps of the events of the previous installment, but even since its early years the story became quite confusing with all of the different characters going around, especially once the titular knight (who started the comic strip as a child) would have children who eventually took on their own adventures. Compilations, compendiums, and collections of these comic strips consisting of a few years’ worth of material have been made over the years though the most current ones only cover material until 1956. Creating and maintaining an archive of a particular comic strip was not an authorial performance (unless of course there was a future publication possibility with them) so this task was left up to individual readers who were passionate enough to collect and care for all those newspaper clippings. The professional compilations that are published are done with higher quality paper, art, and minor edits to help streamline the story. Much like in the case of the volume editions that came after the serialized run of Victorian novels, this new document which contains the entirety of the text is the author’s authoritative text but it is not the intended text which had a designed serial reading experience for the readers throughout its original publication.

It is also worth noting that since comic strips are just a small part of the overall newspaper or periodical, the control of publication is not on the shoulders of the author but on the editors. It is these editors who choose how many comic strips are part of the comics section, which authors get picked, and whether particular installments are fit to be printed. There is not necessarily an exclusivity clause in the publication contracts between authors and editors since a particular comic strip can be picked up for syndication[2] to a variety of newspapers simultaneously. Still, editors have a lot of control and can heavily alter a particular comic strip as they see fit. The most common practice involves the Sunday edition in which many comic strips have a 3×3 panel layout of which the first panel usually provides the title and author’s name. As the cost of printing rose, editors decided to put more per page and asked cartoonists to modify their format. The second and third panels should now have a throwaway joke that connected to the overall comic strip but was not integral to it. This way the editors could remove the top third of the comic strip, place the title and author’s name as a small banner in the margin, and thus have more comics per page. The practice angered many authors and Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, who greatly believed in the integrity of the art in comics took a stand. In 1992, he reorganized his Sunday strip editions and negotiated with Universal Press Syndicate (the syndicate in charge of distributing Calvin and Hobbes) so that it could only be sold as an unbreakable half page. This particular authorial performance helped to legitimize comic strips and that cartoonists didn’t have to conform to industry standards while simultaneously angering editors and other artists who believed that Watterson didn’t have the right to ignore the rules. With the continual decline of print newspapers and periodicals over the years, fewer and fewer comic strips are present each day to the point that they might just disappear entirely. The dream of making a comic strip that would get picked up by a large paper and then nationally syndicated is at its scarcest but many current and would be authors of this form of serial fiction have emigrated from print and now venture into the digital realm for their publication aspirations. For an in depth discussion of digital publishing, please refer to chapter four of this dissertation.

[1] “Bazooka Joe” comics found in the bubble gum wrapper being a noteworthy exception and even they are seen as ancillary material of the candy purchase.

[2] Syndication relies on a person who is not the author serving as an agent of sorts which allows the text to appear across multiple documents, like newspapers. Authors retain original rights and ownership.

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