Of Infinite Jest The Dawn of the Modern Comic Strip
In the world of cartooning in the fall of 1950, two watershed events began a trickle-down of consequences that would one day divide all that went before from what was yet to come. The first of these events that history and hindsight have invested with portent occurred on September 4: on that date, a comic strip by Mort Walker called Beetle Bailey began its run. It appeared in only twelve papers, a painfully inauspicious beginning. And its circulation didn't improve much over the next six months: by the end of February 1951 it claimed only twenty-five subscribing papers. But in the fullness of time, Beetle Bailey would become the third most widely distributed comic strip in history. The perennial Blondie would rank second, and first place would go to the other strip the debut of which marked the fall of 1950 as a turning point in the history of the medium--Peanuts. 1
Charles Schulz's colossally successfully strip about introspective "li'l folks" (his original title for the strip) had an even more unspectacular start than Beetle Bailey: only seven papers ran the earliest strips, beginning October 2, and its circulation was still well under a hundred papers a year later. But within the decade, it would become one of the nation's most popular comics. Schulz's strip would also revolutionize comic strip art: his deceptively simple graphic style set a new fashion for newspaper cartoonists. And Walker's equally simple but geometrically distinctive style gave cartoonists another model on the funny pages of the coming decades. But the milestone marked by the launching of these two strips had more to do with content than with style.
Both strips told jokes, not stories, ending each installment with a punch line. Although a week's run of strips might have a common theme, there was no story line. With the success of Walker and Schulz and their imitators (and of others like Hank Ketcham , whose gag panel cartoon Dennis the Menace began March 12, 1951, and was immediately a smash hit), the humorous function of cartooning would emerge during the fifties into pacesetting popularity once again, after a quarter of a century hiatus throughout which story strips had held nearly absolute sway. In the autumn of 1950, though, continuity strips still reigned supreme. Four of the top five strips (according to Time) were story strips--Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, and Li'l Abner. 2 Only Blondie relentlessly told a joke every day. And six of the ten strips that ranked highest with the readers of the Saturday Review of Literature were continuities--Li'l Abner, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Pogo, and Terry and the Pirates. 3 Li'l Abner and Pogo were humorous conti-