The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Comic Strip Evolution

By James Donahue

Does a comic strip evolve naturally or does it evolve from the desire for commercial success? Is there a point at which the evolution should stop or is it an ongoing process? Can a cartoonist continue to change and advance his style yet still please the reader?

Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible didn’t change much over the years. Certainly, they changed from the very earliest strips, but once they reached a certain point—a certain level of success—the changes stopped. This isn’t because the artist couldn’t do any better, but rather because the audience expected to see something familiar each and every day.

Two of the most successful strips over the last few decades took very different approaches on handling evolution and change in the world of the daily comic strip. The two strips I want to compare are Garfield by Jim Davis and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

When the Garfield strip first began, Garfield himself was much more cat-like: He had a bigger body and smaller head, walked on all fours, and looked more like a real-life but caricatured cat with a smarmy attitude. But he underwent an amazing evolution after 1984: His head and body became more proportional, he stood on his hind legs, used his “arms” more, and in all honesty was a much more marketable-looking character.

Left panel from 1980, right panel from 1990.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Copyright PAWS, Inc.

Once it became successful, the strip didn’t really change much from that point on, and remains simple and inoffensive today. Merchandise earnings of $750 million to $1 billion annually would be a good argument not to mess with a successful formula, and creator Jim Davis makes no secret of the fact that all along he had intentionally developed Garfield to be a marketable entity.

The strip centers on Garfield the cat’s enjoyment in torturing his owner (Jon), the dog (Odie), and other household pests. He likes to eat, hates the vet, and rarely leaves the countertop where most of the storylines take place. He evolved to a certain point—a point at which he was successful and marketable. Then the changes essentially stopped, though the strip still continues to appear in more than 2,500 daily newspapers worldwide and is largely drawn by Davis’s assistants.

Calvin and Hobbes also underwent evolution during its ten-year run. A vastly different story than Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes started out in a simple, almost Peanuts-like style, but underwent almost constant evolution. The characters themselves did not change much but the topics, environments, and exploration of different artistic styles were nearly limitless.

The only thing that seemed to limit Bill Watterson was the space he was given to work with. He became increasingly frustrated with the size constraints offered to the daily comic strip artist and fought for the limits to be expanded. As such, his later Sunday strips became unbreakable half-pages that allowed him a great deal of artistic and panel flexibility. He could design his Sunday strip in close to any manner he chose.

The first Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip, from November 1985.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

Watterson also rejected almost any form of merchandising, though he was strongly pushed to do so throughout the life of the strip. Barely any legitimate merchandise exists aside from the daily strips collected in book format. After ten years, Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, citing the need to do different work without daily deadlines and the restriction of small panels.

I chose these two examples because people often ask me when my own comic strip will change. I think it will, and it already has in small ways both artistic and content-wise. When I’ll Kick Your Ass first began, it was about pointless violence, but has since become much more purpose-driven.

Ass Kickin’ Jim picks on people who deserve an ass-kickin’ and doesn’t kick ass just for no reason. Artistically, it’s a battle between wanting commercial success without compromising my original ideas and meeting somewhere in the middle. In some ways, I would like to be able to keep the strip simple without having to change its look much. I’d like to continue adding color on occasion and perhaps tell longer stories. Instead of only three or six panels, it could be nine.

Ideally, I’d like to be published in smaller newspapers or added to more websites—maybe even print a book of its own some day if it continues to change. Animation has been suggested to me, with AKJ interacting with his victims through dialog.

I’ve come to realize that all these different viewpoints and opinions are a good thing because it means people are paying attention. In some ways I have the Jim Davis attitude of wanting to create a marketable character. I wouldn’t mind seeing AKJ on tee shirts, mugs, or beer glasses as long as I could continue to keep the integrity of the strip intact. I wouldn’t want to turn AKJ into a cute and cuddly kid-friendly character with no connection to the original concept…but an action figure would be pretty cool.

The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ Thanos Done Right, Part II

Thanos Done Right, Part 2
“Why, for Death… of course.”

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Read Part I introducing Thanos.

thanos5 (502 x 749)As I mentioned last time, Jim Starlin’s original Thanos saga ran over the course of eight issues of Captain Marvel published bi-monthly, so it took sixteen months of real time to play itself out. I should also mention that several other titles loosely tied in with the saga, including the aforementioned Iron Man, Avengers, Marvel Feature, and, of all things, Daredevil.

Full disclosure here: These comics were originally published a bit before my time. (Hey, I may be old, but I’m not ancient!) So I didn’t have to endure the excruciating sixteen-month wait for it to finally conclude. Still, I had to find back issues at a time before the dawn of the comics specialty shop, and I figure my “comics quest” might be of historical interest to some of you (and a trip down memory lane for others).

I first came across an old copy of Captain Marvel #27 in my barber shop when I was six or seven and the barber let me have it. It was already a couple years old and badly beaten up, the cover barely attached (and falling off completely within a week or two of taking it home).

A couple years later, a New Jersey comics dealer called Quality Comics opened a booth at a local flea market. They had a full complement of Captain Marvel back issues, but the Starlin ones were three bucks a pop. Believe it or not, this was a lot to pay for a comic book at the time. (For perspective, the cover price of a new comic back then was forty cents.) So I could only afford to buy one issue a week. And that’s how I experienced issues 28 through 33, one week at a time, over the course of six weeks—not unlike the old 1940s movie serials Grandpa told me about that used to run one chapter per week over the course of a couple months. I must say it made for a rather rich and dramatic reading experience.


The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Fast Times

By James Donahue

One of the more challenging aspects of creating something editorial is keeping up with the fast-paced environment of the news cycle. If it’s an article, a cartoon, or even a letter to the editor, by the time the ink is dry or the send button has been pushed, is your point still relevant to the news of the day?

The big news story of the morning might be an afterthought by lunchtime. Did a major event happen on the other side of the country while you slept? It may be a topic on which you have an interesting opinion, but by the time you publish it may hardly seem valid. No matter what form you use to express your opinion, it’s best to move fast.

Write fast, draw fast, and send it to wherever it’s going just as fast. This hardly seems like a problem with the technology we have at our disposal. Most people have access to a computer, a tablet, or at the very least a smartphone, all which can be used for writing and publishing. Handheld technology can also be used to draw. A quick search yields a minimum of 15 drawing apps for the iPad alone, ranging in price from $0.99 to $14.99. The means to express yourself are certainly available; the real question is, do you have enough time to do it before your topic becomes passé?


The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ Thanos Done Right, Part I

Thanos Done Right, Part I:
How the classic character should be handled… and how he shouldn’t be.

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

Ambiguity can be the most powerful tool in an artist’s toolbox. Remember the series finale of The Sopranos? That abrupt cut to black? Seven years later people still argue about it. One blogger wrote a 30,000-word treatise on it ( What the hell did it mean, anyway? Did Tony Soprano die? Or could there be some larger symbolism behind it?

thanos1 (600 x 897)One thing is certain: writer/director/producer David Chase is not about to spell out his intentions for us. Which is probably smart because, really, there’d be nothing left to debate if he did. The uncertainty is what keeps everyone talking—lending the ending more depth in the process; making it feel much scarier and far more compelling. This is the power of ambiguity. A little mystery can go a long, long way.

Which brings me to the topic of this week’s column. Marvel recently released the first issue of a five-issue miniseries called Thanos Rising. Its purpose is to fill in the backstory of one of the greatest antagonists in the history of the Marvel Universe, Thanos.