The Best Comic Strips in Newspaper History

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When I see a comics page from the newspapers, I’ll read every comic strip presented. If I stumble across a cartoon on-line, I’ll read it. And, of course, I draw a comic strip which appears in 6 newspapers. So, I feel somewhat qualified to present a list of the comic strips that I believe are—or were—the best.

Now, with commentary, I’ll present the best the comics page has ever had to offer.

11. Ziggy – Tom Wilson (the First). Yes, I know this probably completely discounts my list in some people’s minds. But if you go back and look at the first ten years of Ziggy, there was an edginess there we’ve forgotten and social commentary to rival anything on this list. Go find the “Great Big Giant Book of Ziggy” and you’ll see a comic panel you probably forgot existed.

10. Herman – Jim Unger. This panel doesn’t get it’s due because the artwork is weird (not bad, weird) and, being a single panel with an off-beat sense of humor it’s too often compared to “The Far Side”. It’s really nothing like TFS, though. The people in “Herman” are the people around us. This is the way we’re convinced they really think. Or, sometimes, what we wish we had the nerve to say.

9. Steve Canyon – Milt Caniff. On the whole, I don’t like serialized comic strips. When they were still being run in most papers, I didn’t want to have to wait from day to day to find out what was going on. Now that I can read entire books of Steve Canyon, I realize what a great storyteller Caniff was—besides being an incredible artist. This strip wasn’t quite as good as “Terry” but it’s awfully close and far and away better than any other adventure strip. Plus, he occasionally wrapped up storylines. (This strip is why there are eleven entries in my top ten list. In some ways—but not all—this strip was a continuation of “Terry”.)

8. Dennis the Menace – Hank Ketchum. For the first year, Dennis is pretty much just a brat. But, for the next 20 years, Dennis was a “lovable scamp” who was always irritating his parents but still thought his dad could whip anyone and his Mom was the prettiest woman in the world (which she may have been … anyone besides me think that?). The artwork was beautiful, but you read every day asking yourself, “What will Dennis get into this time?” then, after seen Ketchum’s set-up, asking, “How could a six year old boy have done that?!?!” It wasn’t a logic question. It was just that Ketchum managed to tell a three chapter novella in one panel. You don’t need to read the rest. He told it so well you read it all right there in that one picture. (For a trip through time, see a strip from 1952 where Dennis’s dad is flat on his stomach at the doctor’s office and smoking a cigarette while being examined.)

7. Little Nemo in Slumberland – Winsor McCay. OK, so we have this little boy named Nemo who, every Sunday, falls asleep and has adventures in this surrealistic place called “Slumberland”. Imagine Lewis Carroll in newspaper form. And, probably 8 weeks out of 10, the final panel of the strip involved Nemo waking up on the floor of his bedroom, or tangled in his sheets and discovering it was all a dream. How could that be mined for more than a month, right? (‘Cause even on those weeks where he didn’t wake up, it was just because the story was continued and he’d wake up NEXT WEEK.) For starters, the artwork is so phenomenal I get lost in it just like Nemo. And the stories—fantastic and dreamlike as they were—were compelling (and make you wonder what McCay must have been like because some of them are kinda scary).

6. Shoe – Jeff MacNelly. Wonderfully drawn, sardonic, timely and timeless. MacNelly knew what he was doing and his strip was both funny and fun to look at. I’ve heard that he was a very funny man to be around and I think “Shoe” shows this. Of strips that have been taken over by someone else, I think the guys who do “Shoe” now are the best “2nd team” to take over a strip, even if they don’t equal the original. It didn’t seem fair when we lost MacNelly and Schulz in the same year.

5. Zippy the Pinhead – Bill Griffith. To start with, “Zippy” is the best-drawn strip on the market today, bar none. But it’s also VERY funny. It is weird, and most people never get past that. That’s OK. Maybe it’s a “unique taste”, but it’s the best strip being drawn today (and the artist is a gracious respondent to his fan mail).

4. Pogo – Walt Kelly. So many strips have tried (and mostly failed) to do what Walt Kelly did with seeming ease. Kelly commented on the political situation of his day (the 1950’s & 60’s) but he did it so deftly—burying it under layers of slap-stick, burlesque, poetry and beautiful artwork—that it’s still funny now. Look at all the other strips that are so “timely” they have no reprint value a year later and you’ll appreciate Kelly’s ability even more. And want a challenge? Try to read “Pogo” outloud to your children. I’m from the south myself and still get tangled up in his masterful wording.

3. Terry & the Pirates – Milt Caniff. Adventure strips are long gone, and most people don’t miss them (because they required an attention span), but if you want to find the only adventure strip worth returning to, go find a volume of “Terry”. The women are beautiful (almost frighteningly so), the men and unshaven and tough—except Pat, who’s just tough but always seems to have found a razor—and all the locations are like being taken on a travelogue. I read this strip and wish there were something like this around now, but maybe there couldn’t be. It was just another time. More than any other source, “Burt & the I.L.S.” is inspired by “Terry & the Pirates.”

2. The Far Side – Gary Larson. A course in the basics of how the world works in single-panel form, “The Far Side” still stands alone. Other strips may be compared to it, but it compares to nothing else. There was a time when most college dorm rooms were papered with “Far Side” panels. No one does that now and that’s probably one of the things that’s wrong with America these days. I wish Larson were still drawing.

1. Peanuts - Charles Schulz. The best strip ever drawn. I almost didn’t put a #2 on this list because no other strip deserves to be that close to this, the masterwork of all comic strips. Schulz so transformed the comics medium, and so exploited (and I mean that word in the best possible way) every possible way to promote his strip, that “Peanuts” (a name he hated to his dying day) became so ubiquitous that many people forgot that the genesis of all those resin figurines and T-shirts and Christmas specials and everything else was a comic strip drawn with a commitment to excellence and humor never to be equaled. In some ways, it’s more than one strip, though. In the first few years, they were really children and Snoopy was just a dog (who didn’t belong to Charlie Brown!!). But then, Snoopy began to walk upright and think and became the Walter Mitty for a whole generation. A big debate I’ve read recently (and still haven’t decided which side I’m on) is whether “Peanuts” is best one strip at a time or when seen as an enormous volume (or volumes)?

Other strips that deserve recognition but don’t qualify for THE LIST:

• BC – (the Johnny Hart years). This one bounces between the bottom of THE LIST and the top of this list. I like B.C., but the artwork has always just been serviceable and the humor—while consistently very good—was rarely great. I miss Hart, though. There was a sense of mischief in the strip that’s gone now.

• Winthrop – This strip was so banal it’s surreal. Reading a book of Winthrop (if there were such a thing) in one sitting would be like having a graduate degree in existentialism. You’d better chase it with a lot of caffeine or sugar, though, because you might well be comatose.

• Tumbleweeds – Another one whose early years are the best. It was probably helped by the fact that so many westerns were on TV and in the movies in those days. If it had gone away entirely before he started lettering with a computer, it might have made it higher on the list. As it is, I read it and think, “Ah, ‘ Tumbleweeds’ … I remember when that was a GREAT cartoon.”

• Bloom County – The early years might qualify for the list, but it got too self-absorbed as it went on and, reading it now, it’s so 80’s-centric it needs to be left in the 80’s.

• Beetle Bailey – Beetle is an occasionally funny—sometimes even riotous—institution. What’s amazing is that it has even survived into our anti-militaristic times (though it’s sometimes hard to tell Beetle’s in the military now).

• Blondie – Sooo close to making the list. And it’s done remarkably well with a succession of people working on it. Still, it doesn’t break into the “I’ve gotta read this!’ category

• Dilbert – Dilbert is a poorly drawn niche cartoon that has captured the hearts of all of us who have ever worked in that niche. To most everyone else, it inspires the thought, “What is this and why would ANYONE think it’s funny?!?!”

• Sherman’s Lagoon – This one almost made it into THE LIST, too. When he’s on, he hits homers to the next park over; but too many ground-outs to the pitcher relegate it to this section

• Rubes – The modern successor to “Herman” and “The Far Side”. I could see this one moving up into the top list if he continues his excellence.

• Gasoline Alley – I read this strip for so many years that the characters became almost like family, so I kept reading long after it stopped being interesting. But why didn’t Rufus’s kitten ever grow up?

• Rose is Rose – I prefer the early years myself, when Pasquale talked phonetically. The artwork is phenomenal now, but too often the art work is all there is. I look at it and think, “Wow! What an incredible angle!” Then, I think, “What’s the point? The strip’s not funny and doesn’t say anything.”

• Rick O’Shay – I mention this strip primarily because I loved it as a child. The old west. Gunfighters. Horses. I went back and read some of them recently, though, and they don’t hold up. Like Bloom County, they belonged to a specific place and time that I can’t get back to (even if I wanted to).

• Get Fuzzy – Another one that came very close to THE LIST (but can’t bump any of them up there). It’s a one-note comic strip but that single note is very funny. It’s like the didgeridoo of the comics page (without the drone).

• Ballard Street/The Neighborhood. Like a more conventionally-drawn version of “Herman”, this strip is just the weirdoes and kooks all around us.

• Flash Gordon – The original Sunday strips were these enormous (in scope) space operas. Yeah, there were guys in capes and tights, but it was this epic story that was “out of this world”. Flash is why I don’t like comic books now. It’s like he set a standard that I keep expecting super heroes to live up to and they don’t. So why isn’t he on THE LIST? For all the grandeur, the story often forgot to go anywhere.

• Dick Tracy – If asked why this strip isn’t on THE LIST, I’d have to ask, “Which strip?” Tracy has had several different artists and writers over the years and they haven’t all succeeded. Some of the stories have been very good, but the artwork has almost always been a turn-off for me. In fact, this strip almost didn’t make it onto this part of the list.

• The Norm – This was a good strip about (at the time) a guy my age who liked the things I liked. I felt like the writer was looking over my shoulder. Maybe it disappeared because only my wife has ever found me interesting. Like a lot of sitcoms, though, what may have killed Norm was when he got married (though I thought it was still just as funny).

“Calvin & Hobbes” would probably be on this list if I had never read any of the Bill Waterson’s forewords or (even worse) some of the interviews he gave. Maybe he was/is the nicest person in the world in person, but he always came across as sanctimonious and supercilious. So much so that I still can’t look at what was a wonderful strip without being turned off.

Notice that I have specified the creators with the best strips. In my opinion, these strips were best when done by the people listed. (“Shoe” and “B.C.” have had their moments since, but aren’t at the level they were under their original creators. Same with “Dennis” and “Terry” and “Ziggy”.)

A strip that may be conspicuous by its absence is “Krazy Kat”. Regarded by many cartoonists—including many on the above list—as the greatest strip of all time, I have tried and tried to read it and whatever its charm is, it completely escapes me. I don’t find it funny and the artwork is unattractive. This, along with my appreciation of early Ziggy, may mark me as a comic strip idiot, but oh well, I’m not going to pretend to like something I don’t.

And none of us cartoonists would be doing what we do now if not for the pioneering work of R.F. Outcault. His work on "The Yellow Kid" opened the door for all cartoonists that followed. I have to thank him, but while his artwork is still impressive, I must admit I don't "get" any of the jokes. It must be a 90's thing ... 1890's.