The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
A Flourish of Trumpets Roy Crane and the Adventure Strip

Once the principle of continuity had been established on the funny pages, the stage was set for the curtain to go up on the adventure strip. Strips that told a continuing story from day to day were inherently suspenseful: the serial format could not help but create a daily cliff-hanger. And it did not take cartoonists long to realize that a cliff-hanger gained in emotional power if the characters left dangling were in danger of losing life or limb. Life- threatening danger in turn meant life--threatening action: in short, adventure--action-packed and danger-laden. And the adventure strip was made- to-order for service in the circulation battles of daily newspapers. What better inducement could an editor contrive for getting the public to buy his paper every day than to promise readers, each day, the resolution of yesterday's comic strip cliff- hanger?

Al Capp, who produced the burlesque adventure strip Li'l Abner for forty-three years beginning in the summer of 1934, understood the mechanism perfectly. Once, his tongue in only one cheek, he described it as follows:

Newspaper publishers had discovered that people bought more papers, more regularly, if they were worried by a comic strip than if they were merely amused by one. A citizen who laughed delightedly at one of Rube Goldberg's great "inventions" could put his paper down with a chuckle, eat his dinner with a calm and unworried mind, and sleep the sleep of the peaceful.

The same citizen, however, who read Chester Gould's magnificent Dick Tracy didn't laugh when he reached the last panel of that strip. He moaned, or gasped--as who wouldn't?--at the sight of a bullet whizzing out through his favorite detective's forehead ( Tracy had been shot from behind, of course) accompanied by a fine spray of Tracy's brains and bits of his skull. You may be sure that that reader didn't eat his dinner in peace; he didn't spend any restful night. That poor soul couldn't wait until dawn came, and with it the next edition, to relieve his agony. And then, while the next strip revealed that it was an unimportant section of Tracy's skull that had been shattered--and that he could get along just as well without those particular brains--the reader's relief was short-lived, for in the last panel of that strip, the walls of the room into which Tracy had been lured began slowly and relentlessly to close in on him, with no escape possible, and with the maniacal laughter of the criminal fiends operating the death-dealing levers outside ringing in Tracy's helpless ears.

And so there was no peace again for the reader until he could rush out and buy the next day's paper--and the next and the next. Now, when you multiply this by several million readers, and when you realize that newspaper publishers love to have millions of people rushing

-70-

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