Jim Korkis looks at the common histories of comicstrips and animation.
"The early cartoons were very crude and rough," remarked Disney animator Ward Kimball in 1981, "Really, they were just glorified comicstrips."
Newspaper comicstrips not only helped inspire the creation of animated cartoons but also provided the source for some of the first animated cartoon stars. Ironically, animated cartoons in turn sparked the creation of some popular newspaper comicstrips and provided memorable new careers for animators.
Winsor McCay was the first artist to bring the techniques and characters of newspaper comicstrips to the screen in animation. By himself, he created close to 4,000 animation drawings on rice paper in a highly successful attempt to bring his popular Sunday comicstrip Little Nemo in Slumberland to animated life. Released in theaters by Vitagraph on April 8, 1911, and later used by McCay in his own vaudeville act, Little Nemo showed the artist sketching the characters of Little Nemo, Flip, Impie and the Princess and these characters magically moving and interacting as if they were real.
This short film was primarily a showcase for movement and metamorphosis with no apparent storyplot. McCay even had each of the individual 35mm film frames hand colored so that the projected film more closely resembled his Sunday comicstrip. Soon, others decided to capitalize on the obvious connection between comicstrips and the new medium of animation.
William Randolph Hearst founded International Film Service around 1916 for the express purpose of creating animated films based on the comicstrips syndicated by his Hearst chain of newspapers. The Katzenjammer Kids about two Germanic trouble-making brothers was the first project for the studio and these cartoons were quickly followed by others starring Hearst newspaper characters like Happy Hooligan, Jiggs and Maggie, and Krazy Kat.
The Krazy Kat cartoon series resulted in over 80 silent one-minute shorts that appeared at the end of Hearst's weekly newsreels shown in movie theaters. This now forgotten animated series was supervised by George Herriman, the creator of the much beloved comicstrip.
Over 300 weekly one-reel episodes of the adventures of Mutt and Jeff appeared during this same time period that vastly increased the great wealth of cartoonist Bud Fisher who had already turned over the daily task of drawing the comicstrip to assistants. It was rumored that a Mutt and Jeff animation project would have appeared on the screen even earlier but that animator Paul Terry was unable to get Fisher away from the racetrack long enough to work on the project.
Those early animated efforts featured the same conceits popular in comicstrips of the time. The characters talked in speech balloons that floated above their heads. Beads of sweat literally popped off the heads of characters when they were nervous or scared. Thin black lines indicated speed or impact with an object. The cartoons were literal translations of their printed source material.
The Comicstrips Learn to Talk
As film moved into the sound era, animation producers continued to look at newspaper strips as a source for characters. Producer Max Fleischer had reportedly been a long-time fan of Elzie Segar's Thimble Theater comicstrip featuring a one-eyed sailor named Popeye and approached King Features about adapting the comicstrip to animation.
Betty Boop Meets Popeye the Sailor (1933) introduced Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto to movie audiences whose enthusiasm for these exaggerated icons resulted in many decades of animated exploits. Unlike previous efforts, Fleischer capitalized on sound, especially mumbled vocal asides by the characters, to provide greater humor.
Unfortunately, Max Fleischer couldn't duplicate that success when he later had Betty Boop try in the mid-1930s to jump start the animated careers of three other newspaper comicstrip characters: Carl Anderson's Henry, Ottos Soglow's The Little King and Jimmy Swinnerton's Little Jimmy.
One of the longest running comicstrips, Peanuts, was first animated in 1957, for a series of Ford automobile commercials by Bill Melendez. However, most scholars would suggest that the strip's actual career in animation began in 1965, when producers Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez made A Charlie Brown Christmas. That half-hour special spawned four decades of animated television specials, animated movies and a Saturday morning animated television series.
Just as in the silent era, the overwhelming success of an animated special based on a comicstrip prompted producers to attempt to duplicate that success with other similar properties and the television airwaves were soon filled with specials featuring newspaper cartoon stars including Blondie and Dagwood, B.C., Cathy, Family Circus, Doonesbury, Bloom County and even The Far Side.
One of the attempts that was almost as successful as Charles Schulz's Peanuts franchise was Jim Davis's Garfield who made his animated debut in the 1982 television special, Here Comes Garfield, and had a long career not only in more animated specials but several seasons on Saturday morning.
"I've always seen Garfield as an animated character in my mind," creator Jim Davis told animation historian and producer John Cawley in an exclusive interview for Cartoon Quarterly, "Being forced to stop his action in three frames every day is much more difficult than letting him run wild for 24 minutes in an animated special."
Even more serious newspaper strips like Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and The Phantom found themselves with animated television series.
Animated Characters Become Comicstrip Stars
However, even in the earliest days, animation studios soon discovered that the most popular newspaper strip characters were often unavailable because they were the property of other studios, that the royalties were too expensive or that the rights to the characters were an issue of controversy. So, animation studios began developing their own original characters and many of them became the inspiration for comicstrips.
Felix the Cat was created in 1919 by Otto Messmer and quickly became the very first original animation superstar. It was not surprising when King Features Syndicate started producing a Sunday comic page in 1923 featuring the character. The Sunday page was so popular that a daily version was added in 1927. Both Sunday and daily versions were written and drawn by Messmer who was not allowed to sign his name to the strip. At the same time, Messmer was also continuing to animate on the series and often produced the posters and publicity advertising for the animated cartoons as well as occasionally picking up the laundry for producer Pat Sullivan.
Betty Boop was another original animated star who found herself on the comic page in 1934 in both a Sunday and daily newspaper strip drawn by Bud Counihan, an artist from the Max Fleischer Studio. The strip never captured the darker tones from the animated series but concentrated on Betty's adventures in Hollywood as she battled directors, agents and similar perils.
Mickey Mouse made the transition to the comic page on January 13, 1930, and his first few adventures were written by Walt Disney and illustrated by Ub Iwerks who had co-created the popular character barely two years earlier. Eventually the strip was taken over by artist Floyd Gottfredson on May 5, 1930 who oversaw the strip for several decades and whose early adventure story continuities with bandits, pirates, and mad scientists greatly added to Mickey's ever increasing popularity.
Donald Duck, whose popularity had begun to eclipse Mickey's, got his own daily strip in 1938 written by Bob Karp and drawn by Al Taliaferro. This strip was a gag-a-day format but still managed to introduce characters that later appeared in animation like Donald's nephews: Huey, Dewey and Louie.
The Disney Studios produced close to a dozen different newspaper strips over the years including a Sunday Song of the South page which ran from 1945 to 1972, a Silly Symphonies Sunday page which began on 1932 featuring serialized adaptations of Disney short cartoons as well as features like Snow White and Bambi, a daily strip devoted to Scamp the young pup from Lady and the Tramp, and a daily strip that ran for a decade chronicling the adventures of Disney's version of Winnie the Pooh, among many other Disney themed comicstrips.
Over the decades, many animated stars continued to invade the realm of newspaper comicstrips. Bugs Bunny appeared as a Sunday comicstrip in 1942 with a daily version starting in 1948.
Al Stoffel who wrote the strip for many years stated that, "Although I've seen several hundred animated Bugs Bunny cartoons over the years, that work is quite different from ours. The animated cartoons depend mostly on action, sound and voice characterizations for their impact. In the strip, we have to try to translate these characteristics into cartoons which don't move and the printed word which has no sound. It ain't easy!"
Television Cartoon Stars Invade the Funnies
With the advent of animation on television, several of those original characters also made the transition to the newspaper comic page.
From 1962-1964, Al Kilgore wrote and illustrated a Rocky and Bullwinkle comicstrip that captured the wackiness of its animated counterpart with satirical storylines including Boris and Natasha trying to sabotage the O-Bomb project.
Hanna-Barbera's Yogi Bear Sunday strip began in 1961 and featured artwork by Harvey Eisenberg and later Gene Hazelton showcasing humorous situations set in Jellystone Park. Eisenberg and Hazelton, as well as Roger Armstrong, also contributed to The Flintstones daily and Sunday comicstrip that was a gag-a-day strip about the modern stone-age family.
Yet even the most diligent animation buff may have missed some of the more obscure animation related comicstrips like Pete Alvarado's artwork on the mid-sixties Mr. Magoo daily comicstrip or even the Woody Woodpecker daily newspaper strip, which ran from 1954-1961.
Some even more obscure strips not featuring animated characters, but done by outstanding animators, include Van Boring (Frank Tashlin), Crawford (Chuck Jones), Terr'ble Thompson (Gene Deitch), Barker Bill (Paul Terry), Buck O'Rue (Dick Huemer/Paul Murry) and Happy the Humbug (Myron Waldman).
However, newspaper comicstrips did serve as a memorable home for some talented animators looking for new horizons. Disney animators who went on to even greater comicstrip fame using the storytelling techniques and design styles they learned in animation include such stars as Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), George Baker (Sad Sack), Virgil Partch (Big George), and Walt Kelly (Pogo).
The history of both animation and comicstrips have been enriched by their cross polinization. Newspaper comicstrips are still an exciting source for animation as evidenced by the popular rumor that the reclusive Bill Watterson is working privately on producing an animated project to feature Calvin and Hobbes. Knowing Watterson's commitment to quality, if such a project eventually develops, then it may turn out to be just as incredible as Winsor McCay's first foray into animation and yet another milestone for the history of comicstrips and animation.
Jim Korkis is an award winning teacher, a professional actor and magician and a published author with several books and hundreds of magazine articles relating to animation, cartooning and film history to his credit. He is an internationally recognized Disney historian and has taught animation at the Disney Institute. Jim would like to thank John Cawley, who contributed to this material through the research for their book, The Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars.