Despite comic strips' enormous readership, they are generally not accorded the status of an art form, as films and jazz now are. Little has changed since 1924, when Gilbert Seldes wrote, "Of all the Lively Arts, the Comic Strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular."
Many cartoonists and editors echo those sentiments today and believe that the lack of respect has contributed to newspaper comics falling on hard times.
"I enjoy what I do, but it depresses me to look at the comic page of a newspaper," says Berke Breathed, whose "Bloom County" appears in more than 800 papers. "It's run and printed so badly that I stay away from it. I get demoralized when I hold up the page: The strips are run so small and jumbled together--I may be jammed down below 'Snuffy Smith.' I wonder why I go to so much trouble when it looks so bad."
The biggest problem cartoonists encounter is the limited space contemporary newspapers afford them. Until World War II, comic strips were given much more room. Most artists had an entire page to themselves every Sunday. The large format enabled such artists as Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland"), Hal Foster ("Prince Valiant") and George Herriman ("Krazy Kat") to create the magnificent visuals that made them famous.
Some cartoonists even added secondary strips to their Sunday pages: Harold Grey put "Maw Green" at the bottom of "Little Orphan Annie" and George McManus revived his earlier strip, "Rosie's Beau," by appending it to "Bringing Up Father." "Krazy Kat" began as a tailpiece to "The Dingbat Family" (later retitled "The Family Upstairs").
Since World War II, comic strips have grown progressively smaller due to increased printing costs and an effort to fit more strips into a limited space. Artists can no longer employ the complicated drawing styles that were the glory of the comic pages: "Little Nemo" and "Krazy Kat" would be reduced to illegible smears if they were printed today.
"I'm sorry to see the comics shrink, as I think it's a self-destructive action by the newspapers," says Bill Yates, comics editor of King Features Syndicate. "Editors cry about the importance of space in a newspaper, but in a lot of newspapers, I can see their concern doesn't follow through. I see badly edited pieces that should be cut and fillers that don't belong there. Comics are one of the most popular features in a paper--for editors to treat them the way they do is suicidal."
"A lot of the problems with the draftsmanship in comic strips today are not the cartoonists' fault," adds Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts." "The shrinking space means that half your panel is taken up with lettering, and you really don't get to put in half of the things you'd like to. My whole style developed because I was forced to draw in such a small space."
Schulz devised a simple, almost arid drawing style that derived from a number of sources, including the work of New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg. But the simplicity is deliberate and calculated: Drawings that minimal are extremely difficult to execute well, because every line must be perfect. In an interview in 1970, Schulz articulated his ideas about drawing:
"Good cartooning is basically good design. A cartoon character who looks good to you is a cartoon character who has been designed properly. You have to place things within these four panels so that you break up the areas into nice shapes. . . . Keeping it all very simple is the key here."
Many cartoonists copied or adapted the simplified styles developed independently by Schulz and Johnny Hart ("B.C."): They were clean, easy to read and graphically pleasing. Problems arose when some cartoonists began to confuse simplicity with a lack of skill. Many contemporary strips are so badly drawn that they approach the graphic equivalent of illiteracy.
"Unfortunately, you don't see great art in cartoons anymore," says Bill Watterson, whose calligraphic style makes "Calvin and Hobbes" one of the best-looking strips on the comic pages today. "Many strips consist of three panels of the same drawing; some have just two. The drawing is what fostered my interest in the comics. You see how Walt Kelly took advantage of the medium to create a world in a visual context in 'Pogo,' and you realize more can be done."
"If you can't draw, you are really restricted in what you can do and your work is bound to suffer," Schulz observes. "New Yorker cartoonists like George Price and George Booth can take a mediocre idea and make it wonderful with their cartooning ability. An amateur will kill the same idea if he lacks the ability to draw funny. A comic strip has to be funny in the drawing, or you might as well give the line to a stand-up comic."
While he's never been noted for his draftsmanship, Garry Trudeau is the only cartoonist to take a stand against continuing shrinkage. When he returned from sabbatical in 1984, he imposed minimum dimensions for his popular and controversial "Doonesbury." Newspapers either run the strip that size, or they don't run it at all. (Many papers now put "Doonesbury" on a separate page, rather than fit noticeably smaller strips around it.) As the only daily newspaper comic-strip artist ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Trudeau has the clout to set such conditions; few other cartoonists do. (Jules Feiffer, who draws a weekly cartoon, received the Pulitzer this year.)
"How can someone who draws the White House four times in a row want more space?" asks Schulz. "He should draw it once and make it a panel. We'd all like to have a full page, like the old Sunday sections. It would make the comics a lot better, and we could do some wonderful things, but we're not going to get it."
Although he cites Schulz and Walt Kelly as important influences, cartoonist Matt Groening acknowledges that his acerbic "Life in Hell" is badly drawn:
"It's a constant surprise to me that I'm able to get away with the drawing that I do," he says with a grin. "I'm lazy: I like to get the ideas on paper while I'm still interested in them. If I had to draw the way most cartoonists draw, I'd be bored by the time I was halfway through. I get tired just looking at most cartoons and comic books.
"I have a feeling that the people who may be influenced by my stuff are going to be doing even crummier drawings 10 years from now," he concludes. "My prediction is that comic strips are going to look more and more like 'Drabble' and my stuff, but maybe have some wilder ideas in them."